I recently met Carolyn Combs, a children’s book author who writes beautiful stories about how children can learn by connecting with animals in nature. She shared with me how animals use non-verbal communication and how she uses these examples to teach children important lessons. I asked Carolyn to explain how parents and teachers can use her picture book to help children learn about and practice non-verbal communication.
What’s This Tail Saying?
An Interactive Book About Animal Communication
By Carolyn Combs
Long before our ancestors evolved complex verbal language, they spoke with body language, or nonverbal communication. It’s still a critical component of our communication system, and one we share with all animals. This intuitive form of expression, comprising physical gestures, postures, and facial expressions, often reveals our emotions more accurately than our words. Becoming aware of one’s own body language and becoming skilled at reading other’s is part of building strong, effective communication skills. Reading and playing games based on my 2020 nonfiction picture book What’s This Tail Saying? is a fun way to introduce or remind children about the importance of body language.
What’s This Tail Saying? features eleven wild animals sending nonverbal messages with their tails. Their signals to family, friends, and foes include warnings, elicitations for comfort, and calls to play. Readers and listeners are encouraged to look closely at the illustrations and make guesses about what the tails are saying. The tail sounds are represented with onomatopoeia (words that sound like their meaning) and the messages are revealed in rhyme. Children see what happens when the messages are received and understood, as well as what happens occasionally when the message is ignored.
Here’s an example from the book of a message that was either misunderstood or ignored:
A fox kit inches too close.
What’s the skunks tail saying?
Go away or I’ll spray!
Oops! The kit learns a stinky lesson.
The example below shows how a tail message keeps a family safe:
A coyote creeps toward the edge of the pond.
What’s the beaver’s tail saying?
Hearing the alarm, the family dives into the pond. They will be safe in deep water.
After reading the book, you can invite children to practice their nonverbal communication skills. They can set up a game with one partner sending a signal and the other guessing the meaning of the signal. Craft animal tails and practice some of the messages in the book, make up messages, or practice well-known ones such as:
An extended arm with palm facing forward = STOP
An arm moving in a circle toward the body = COME
Pointer finger over lips = SHH! BE QUIET
Hands over ears = IT’S TOO LOUD
Hands cupped around ears = I CAN’T HEAR YOU
Stomping feet and clenched fists = I’M ANGRY
Head lowered and hands covering face = I FEEL SHY OR EMBARASSED
A frown = I’M UNHAPPY
What other signals can your children and students think of?
Through these games, children can begin to understand the tremendous power of nonverbal communication – the power to strengthen bonds, establish trust, and create ease. The games can also show, in a safe setting, what can go wrong when messages are ignored or misunderstood.
Additionally, here are some printable coloring pages from the book, compliments of the illustrator Cathy Morrison:
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