By Nora Heston Tarte
As a child manipulates a block of clay, they are using touch to engage their surroundings; as they help to cook dinner through age-appropriate tasks, they learn about food through smell; as a child dances freely to music, they are exploring rhythm through sound; as they sample new foods, they implore their sense of taste to establish their own preferences; and as a child views and creates art, they develop an understanding of color and contrast through sight. These are all tasks that your child likely completes on at least a semi-regular basis, but did you know they are also instances of hands-on learning? At its core, hands-on learning refers to “learning through doing,” and the concept is becoming more and more prevalent in early education. As opposed to being told how something looks, feels, smells, sounds or tastes, children are actively participating in an activity to draw their own conclusions about the world around them. It is the most natural, effortless and, perhaps, effective way for children to absorb knowledge during early childhood (ages birth-6).
The importance of hands-on learning:
Not only does participation in hands-on activities help imbed impressions in a child’s mind, but also the very act of hands-on learning resonates as “play,” making it appealing to young children. “The most important thing in educating young children is maintaining their enthusiasm to learn,” says Veronica Hunnicutt, owner of Primrose School of Ahwatukee in Phoenix. “If they enjoy what they are doing, they will naturally want to do more.” Using this mentality, parents, teachers and other caregivers can educate children in a fun, nurturing fashion. Rather than using flashcards to teach animal sounds, take a child to a zoo or farm where they can learn in an interactive environment.
This philosophy relates to daily tasks, as well. “Allowing children the freedom to move and manipulate objects and engage in purposeful activities, taps into their natural way of learning and aids in their development of personality, stimulates curiosity and develops a life long love of learning,” shares Maura Kelly, principal at Mission Montessori Schools. To move these lessons to the everyday world, parents can embrace the message “help me to do it myself.” According to Kelly, completing tasks for a young child can send the message of “you can’t do it.” So instead of fretting over your brood’s ability to prepare food, find age appropriate responsibilities that will help them become helpful participants in the home. This can be as simple as teaching a toddler to zip and button his own clothes, or encouraging a slightly older child to hand sew. “These experiences help develop independence, coordination, incentive and concentration, which are all vital for future success in school and beyond,” she says.
Encouraging hands-on learning:
Hunnicutt says that parents who play an active part in their child’s day-to-day lives already promote hands-on learning, whether they realize it or not. Being aware, however, of the ways you can aide your child in growth and development through hands-on learning may help you create more opportunities to do so in your child’s daily life. Even better, finding learning opportunities in everyday tasks will create rewarding experiences for both you and your offspring without carving out a chunk of time for lessons. For example, while grocery shopping, a younger child can count items as they go into the cart while older children can sort items by food group. At home, ask your child to separate silverware by size when putting away dishes, and if that’s too advanced, encourage very young children to participate in cleanup by letting them help wipe-off the table.
Next, take these strategies to the playroom. There are countless resources available from blogs and books to help you and your child design fun, interactive games that encourage learning. Some of the most basic of options include building with blocks, teaching addition and subtraction using favorite small toys or treats and a variety of art mediums.
Step it up a notch by fostering a child’s decision-making and critical thinking skills through puzzle play, developing important motor and traveling skills through a game of catch and encouraging lessons in science and nutrition in the garden.
Don’t stand in your child’s way:
As parents, our own concerns for our child’s safety or opinions on skill-level may lead us to unintentionally stifle their independence. Try taking a step back and giving your child the chance to shock you. “I think parents might be surprised to learn how much young children can do for themselves when provided with a simple demonstration, appropriate child-sized materials and the opportunity to practice without interference or correction,” Kelly says.
Young children at Mission Montessori Schools use real needles to sew, knives to cut and glass pitchers and bowls to prepare food. After providing instructions about care and use, instructors trust children to handle items appropriately, fostering both independence and self-confidence.
“These experiences build the foundation for learning and life by providing an environment that encourages exploration and investigation while balancing cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills,” Hunnicutt explains. And while these practices are oft implemented in early education programs like preschools and grade schools, there’s plenty of reason to explore these lessons at home, too. Don’t get hung up on the details. While various resources can provide detailed instructions for carrying out hands-on activities at home, the practice itself boils down to one simple step—treat every experience as a learning opportunity.
Hands-On Activity: Making Goop
by Cambria Bowman, Outreach Specialist, Child Care Resource & Referral – ARIZONA
Young children have a playful curiosity, that as parents, we love to satisfy. Hands-on activities at home can be easy and simulating, and will facilitate children’s minds to grow and learn. Activating the portion of the mind that allows for fine and gross motor skills to be developed while learning allows children to retain more information in a more effective manner. Not only that, but hands-on activities engage different types of learners, learners that are more tactile and kinesthetic, to really prosper when given the opportunity! The toddler years are a time when fine and gross motors skills are developing rapidly, and making goop, the activity below will allow your youngsters to practice both skills, while providing an exciting and new learning opportunity. This seemingly silly Goop will allow creativity and imagination, sensory development, and the development of fine motor skills.
• 2 cups baking soda
• 1.5 cups water
• 1 cup corn flour
• Food coloring (optional)
1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Supervise children to mix all ingredients with a whisk to remove lumps
3. Heat on stove, stirring, bringing the mixture to a boil
4. Continue to stir until a think mixture has formed
5. Turn out onto the counter and knead together to form a smooth ball of Goop.
6. Cool in an air tight container
Ideas for your Goop
• Allow free play, using like play dough, create smaller pieces
• Add small, washable items to the goop, i.e.: small trucks, toys, gems, and rocks
• Add other colors to the goop and allow for descriptive language.