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What's Funny to a Preschooler?

By the preschool years, kids are humor veterans. After all, they've been smiling and laughing for years. A reliable host of tricks and jokes will crack them up, and even as preschoolers get older, they continue to be amused by many of the things they found funny as toddlers.

The Importance of Humor

Peekaboo will still get a laugh, only now kids like to extend it into giggly games of hide-and-seek. Expect your preschooler to continue to enjoy using objects in silly ways — putting mittens on feet, walking around the house in your shoes, or pretending a toy car is a phone.

But because a sense of humor is essentially an intellectual and emotional skill, it grows as your preschooler does. Kids are always finding new things funny while developing a better and more sophisticated understanding of the world. And they're eager to show off new ways to be playful.

Humor is something you can enjoy together, but it's more than just fun. The benefits of a good sense of humor are well documented and include better health, increased optimism, higher self-esteem, and greater emotional intelligence.

And the best thing is that these benefits are possible for anyone: Research shows that a sense of humor is learned, not inherited.

Hey There, Tommy – I Mean, Mommy!

A big activity for preschoolers is labeling things (that's why you hear the question "what's that?" all day long). Kids this age are becoming aware that everything has a name and they love using their new vocabulary.

Your child is probably using improved language skills to play with words, like calling objects or people by the wrong names. Ask "where's your nose?" and your child is likely to point at his or her eyes or chin. Kids this age often like to mispronounce or make up words. Join in ("Billy, can you pass me the falt, I mean the palt, oh, that's right, the salt") and you're likely to get a laugh.

Before long, kids will start replacing words in familiar songs — like singing "Twinkle, twinkle, little cat" — and experimenting with the same song for days or weeks by using new words ("Twinkle, twinkle, little chair" or "Twinkle, twinkle, little mommy").

They might find humor in opposites — asked "where's your room?" and answering "downstairs in the basement" instead of "upstairs"; or repeating in a sing-song way "now it's time for dinner!" when you say "now it's time for breakfast."

Kids this age will also start to tell little tales in a humorous way. You may find your child claiming to have eaten his or her spoon or to have hidden the dog. These stories may or may not be accompanied by a smile — some preschoolers are very deadpan.

A Fish on a Bicycle — Now That's Funny!

Language play is not the only thing preschoolers find funny. They have a sophisticated grasp of what objects "should" look like or how things "should" work. Change a characteristic appearance or behavior and you've got something that's funny to your child. These include:

  • strange juxtapositions: drawing a fish head on a dog's body or wings on a cat or making a cow say baa
  • removing things: taking away the wheels from a car or the nose from the middle of a person's face
  • changing shapes: making the wheels on a car square or a house round
  • exaggeration: a man with legs like stilts or a woman with glasses bigger than her head

You preschooler will also enjoy books that have people or animals engaging in unexpected behaviors — a llama eating with a fork or cows who type. Kids like images like this because they are silly and because they get the joke — it's fun to be an insider, to understand how the world works. Your child will especially enjoy it if you laugh along too.

Everyday Humor

Having a humorous attitude and playing with your child every day are two ways you can help develop your preschooler's sense of humor. Be open and playful, and willing to laugh yourself. Make sure you respond to his or her "jokes" (even if these are repetitive — it may be the millionth time your child has worn underwear as a hat, but to him or her it's still hilarious).

Your preschooler will also love it if you engage in his or her kind of humor, whether it's putting your gloves on your ears or pretending to ice skate on the dining room floor.

Other Fun Things to Try

  • Singing nonsense songs together. Try "Apples and Bananas": Start by singing or chanting "I like to eat, eat, eat, apples and bananas" and then replace the vowel sounds with each verse — "ayples and banaynays," "ooples and banoonoos," and "iples and baninis."
  • Encouraging wordplay by using nonsense rhymes yourself. Ask if your child would like some "oodley, scoodley, boodley noodles." See how your child responds and then play off that riff.
  • Making a silly picture together. Draw a face where you each take turns adding funny features like a blue nose or a mouth where the eyes should go. You might also make a collage together using pictures you've cut out of magazines. Put a dog in bed or give a person a cat's head.
  • Imitating your family pet (or any other animal). Pretend to be the family dog, panting, barking, and walking on all fours. Encourage your child to do the same. You might even serve some cereal in a bowl on the floor and eat it without hands. You wouldn't want to do this every day, but part of what will be funny is that it's usually not behavior you'd encourage.
  • Reading funny books — funnily. Preschoolers find loads of books amusing, and you can extend that pleasure by using funny voices when you read or doing unexpected things like having the cow say "baa" and the sheep say "moo."

And finally, remember that preschoolers are more likely to be playful when they are being active and when they have an audience. Providing varied opportunities for play — both with other kids and with you — is important to helping your child practice both verbal games and clowning.

Look at Me!

Kids provide plenty of opportunities to laugh (undoubtedly without meaning to at times) and it's important to respond to their attempts at humor. Laughing with parents is a way for children to feel like big kids who are in control and in on the joke.

Be patient and to respond to your child's attempts at humor, even when you're in a hurry. Kids this age are developing important skills that will help later in life. And right now, you're your child's best — and most important — audience. So sit back and enjoy the show!

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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