Hands-on Learning

6 Ways to Promote Hands-On Learning

The more I work with children, the more I believe that hands-on learning is one of the greatest ways to help children with (and without) disorders explore the world. As much as I enjoy a good math fact competition or reading stories aloud to my students in a classroom, there’s so much of the world that can’t be touched through a textbook. This is even more true for children with neurological disorders, who often don’t have the ability to absorb material through books or lectures the way average children do.

Children with ADHD might be too hyperactive to read about the Hoovervilles that popped up during the Great Depression. Children with Tourette’s or a Tic Disorder might tic too much to be able to read about the logistics of plate tectonics. A child with anxiety might be focusing so hard on fighting off another anxiety attack that she misses the teacher’s explanation of how rate equals distance divided by time. And these disorders don’t take into account all the children out there who are simply kinesthetic learners.

There’s nothing quite like learning something by personally experiencing it.  Years ago, children learned the trades of their parents by working with them in their shops or out in the fields. Obviously, today’s educational system is quite different. Children, while having the benefit of a much wider range of information than generations before, the pendulum often swings too far in the other direction, and children are inundated with information they can’t make sense of. From the Pythagorean Theorum to “I before e, except after c, unless it rhymes with…” to three authors of the Constitution, the lessons are overwhelming, and it can burn them out. This is particularly true of children with disorders who don’t process information the way the people around them do. I see it so often in the eyes of the children I work with. They’ve tried traditional “book learning,” and it didn’t work for them, they think. They’re just done.

Hands-on learning is the best way to challenge that burnout. Unfortunately, it’s being taken from our students more and more. Everyone’s heard about the undesirable ranking of the US when it comes to worldwide testing. (And while I have some very strong opinions about those “statistics,” I’ll save that Soap Box Moment for another day.) And yet, despite our continual push for education to begin earlier and earlier, our children aren’t seeming to make any significant improvements. In my post, “Boys in the Classroom,” I cite statistics that have shown some of the best testers in the world don’t start school until they’re seven. Our children are being forced into book learning way before they’re ready, and precious years of hands-on learning is being missed. Unfortunately, I’ve seen kindergarteners who have already given up because they don’t think they can do it. The style of learning they’re being forced into isn’t what they need, and because of that, they’ve given up on school by the time they’re six.

National Geographic’s documentary, The Science of Babies, discusses how from birth, children’s brains are already growing and developing, making and breaking connections to create correct pathways so they can carry out basic motor functions like walking, talking, and manipulating objects with their hands. Children’s brains continue to grow at an amazing rate during their younger years. I like the quote from Samantha Cleaver’s Scholastic article, “Hands-On is Minds On,” when she says, “According to Cindy Middendorf, educational consultant and author of The Scholastic Differentiated Instruction Plan Book (Scholastic, 2009), between the ages of four and seven, the right side of the brain is developing and learning comes easily through visual and spatial activities. The left hemisphere of the brain—the side that’s involved in more analytical and language skills—develops later, around ages 10 and 11.” So basically, when we’re forcing our children to constantly sit and learn from lectures, we’re doing them a great disservice by giving them information for the part of the brain that’s still rather undeveloped. And that’s just for average kids. Kids who have neurological disorders suffer even more from the setbacks they’re already experiencing in other parts of their brains. So many kids, those with and without disorders, could learn better if they were able to physically experience their lessons, rather than just hear about them. Sadly, that’s just often not possible.

No Bus

And I’m not saying schools are to blame for this. As much as it would be great for my school to  take its students to the NASA headquarters in Florida or the Museum of Natural History in New York, we just don’t have the funds. Good grief, we wanted to take the kids bowling last year, and we didn’t even have the funds to bus the kids three quarters of a mile to the bowling alley. Most teachers in the classroom are really trying to make lessons interesting. But it takes more than the teacher to build a child’s understanding of the world around him. It’s going to take that child’s teachers, family, and community to help him learn to the best of his ability. But it can be done.

While it’s an unfortunate fact that schools today often lack the funds they need to send children on more field trips, there are more ways than one to give children these experiences, especially with new developments in educational technology. If parents make it a priority to expose their children to as many ways of seeing the world as possible, and schools utilize technology and available field trips as much as they possibly can, children stand a great chance of actually owning the information as their own and constructing it like pieces of a puzzle in their minds. In this case, the puzzle would be the world, and the pieces would be the parts of the world that the children retain and try to make sense of. Here are six ways parents and teachers can utilize hands-on learning.

Car Talk1. Discussion – This is probably the most important one. My parents were constantly pointing things out to my brothers and me and discussing them with us. They made sure that we made personal connections between what we learned in books at home and what we saw in the world. When we read about meandering rivers in a book at home, they made sure to point out how the river meandered when we went on a fishing trip. When we saw rainbows in the sprinklers, my parents reminded us of when we’d read about prisms splitting light. Yes, the DVD player in the car is easy for parents because it keeps the kids quiet. But it also means the kids are missing out on a load of opportunities to discuss what they see out the windows in the real world. You can’t ask questions if you’re zoned out on Spongebob.

Markers2. Time to Play – Believe it or not, children learn much of their foundational knowledge of the world through play. In the article, “Crisis in Kindergarten” by the Alliance for Childhood, it’s reported that in 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics showed concern for the decline in the amount of free play time children have. They recommended that, “all children are afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, nonscreen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress.” Children who struggle with neurological disorders already fight harder than the average child to make it through each day, whether that’s because of hyperactivity, physical constraints, like tics, or anxiety. News reports are constantly coming out with reports on how bad stress is for our health. If it’s bad for adult health, what do you think it means for the health of our children? Play is essential for the release of stress, as well as numerous other benefits our children need to properly develop.

First, there’s physical play and personal creativity. Building with blocks, LEGOs, Tinker Toys, and other physical toys is necessary for kids. Through it, they learn important lessons about the world like gravity, weight, balance, color, and patterns. They also build their motor skills. This is especially good for children with disorders. For example, a child with ADHD will probably lose his focus about the second minute (if not sooner) that the teacher is discussing gravity. If he’s allowed to build a tower to see how it will fall, however, the engagement will allow him to put more focus into the lesson. Similarly, drawing and coloring hone fine motor skills and allow students to be creative without the grade or someone standing over their shoulders.

Then there’s interactive mimicking play. For children with social problems, often something children on the Autistic spectrum struggle with, role play can allow them to practice interacting with others. Even if they’re not being worked with one-on-one, they can watch other children playing, something that can help them memorize appropriate interpersonal actions and reactions. It should be obvious that children develop social skills through social interaction that’s not constantly being directed by an adult.

3. Science Kits and General Experimentation – My little brother, the one that’s majoring in engineering right now in college, went through a phase where he would only read two types of books: (1) comic books, and (2) nonfiction. When it came down to reading about a science experiment, however, and actually doing it, my brother did everything he had to to get his hands on the materials for the experiment. Children who struggle with focusing on reading about experiments on a page are far less likely to miss the lesson if it’s being carried out right in front of them. There are terrific websites for experiment ideas that be carried out at home and in the classroom. If your child is struggling with science at school, an experiment at home might just help  grasp that concept when she’s helped carry the experiment out herself. Early Childhood News suggests growing a garden together so children can see plants grown in action. There are countless other ways to help your child learn and grow in a way he or she needs to learn. Here are some great resources for experiments you can do at home or at school with your children:

Kids Science Experiments





Nat Geographic Kids


National Geographic Kids





PBS Zoom!



Desert Dunes4. Family Field Trips – Interestingly enough, vacations to museums, National Monuments, historical sites, and national parks can be quite a bit cheaper than theme park visits. While I’m the biggest Disneyland fanatic you will ever meet, I’m very grateful my parents made a point of visiting as many places as we could when we were kids. We saw Zion National Park, the great Redwoods, countless aquariums, zoos, the Grand Canyon, the Royal Gorge, and were constantly exploring the mountains and state parks that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley (like Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, and the Great Basin).

My point is that if your child struggles with learning in a lecture setting, he’s going to get a lot more out of boating down the Colorado River (Yes, my parents rented a boat once for us to do that.) than he will by struggling to sit still through a lecture on it. He’ll also notice things like how the bees fly close to the water, how there are small caves at the surface of the water in the rocks that rise above the river on both sides, and how the river seems endless in its twists and turns. Then, next time his teacher brings up the Colorado River in a lecture, he’s going to have a mental picture and experience to draw from, something he would have struggled for otherwise if he simply had to read about it in a textbook.

Note: The picture is of me in fifth grade when my parents and grandparents had taken us out to the dunes near Death Valley, CA.

Netflix5. Documentaries – While I don’t condone endless amounts of TV for children, (It’s been proven over and over again that too much is most definitely harmful to children) I’d much rather my children spend their allotted amount of TV time watching documentaries than “Monster High.” A great resource for these documentaries is, of course, your local library, free to all and open often. Also, Netflix runs some pretty good documentaries in and out of its online database. My youngest brother was obsessed with the show, Henry’s Amazing Animals, which our library had a plentiful supply of. My other brother preferred space documentaries. I was up for about anything our mom let us watch. As we got older, my brothers and I developed appreciations for historical documentaries.

Movies are obviously taken in differently from books. If I’m a child who struggles with reading because I tic too much to follow lines on a page, video images will be much easier for me to follow. Children with hyperactivity can do things while they watch TV, like build with Lincoln Logs or LEGOs. Plus, when you know your children are watching good informational material, you don’t have to worry so much about inappropriate ads on TV or attitudes from cartoon characters you don’t approve of.

Virtual Tours6. Virtual Tours – This one is helpful when it comes to museums teachers want their students to see, but can’t afford to visit. Kids can tour the White House, an also visit the Rainforest, see the Statue of Liberty, or even the Grand Canyon. Generally, all you need for these tours and other like them are internet access, updated Adobe Flash software, and decently up-to-date computers. (I know, sometimes easier said than done.)


Your Efforts Won’t Be in Vain

I was homeschooled until I was nine, and my husband was homeschooled until eighth grade. Hoewever, whether we were in school or at home, both our parents and grandparents did what they could to supplement our learning with these types of opportunities. The cool thing is that both my husband and I still love to learn these ways today. We take day trips to see natural landmarks we’ve never seen before. We watch documentaries just for the heck of it. And we both have memories of the special places our parents and grandparents took us when we were young. We learned a lot from simply experiencing the world with them.

As much as I can enjoy reading, I know I’m really stressed on days when my blinking tic interrupts my ability to smoothly decode a page of words. Documentaries and hands-on learning methods are more accessible to me on days like that. I really feel for the kiddos who have disorders that are much more severe than mine, as my disorders only interupt my life in certain areas. Some children must deal with their disorders in all aspects of life. The best thing we can do to encourage learning in our children is encourage it in whatever ways interest them the most. Yes, there are some things that must be learned in a book, but why not take some extra time and see what you can do to supplement that book? Why not strive to make that lesson real to your children. Who knows? Allowing your child to be his or her creative self might just unlock the next change in his or her generation.


What about you? What are some of your favorite hands-on lessons you’ve learned? Do you wish you had more access to these types of lessons when you were younger? Please share your thoughts below!


Posted under: ADHD, Anxiety, Education, Neurological Disorders

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