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Danielle Michaelis Castillo

What do modeling with clay, running fingers over different textures, constructing cardboard models, and clapping hands to a rhythm have in common? All are examples of kinesthetic or hands–on learning, exploring the world through our senses, practical exercises, examples, and trial & error.

Kinesthetic learning is “muscle memory” because it taps into the five senses to foster learning and retention. Teachers can also use kinesthetic activities to foster collaboration and assess student understanding of curricula.

What might hands-on learning in the classroom look like? Here are some examples using materials readily available in classrooms.

Floor mapping: Students can map ideas and concepts using construction paper as “paint” and the classroom floor as the canvas. In a third grade classroom, students might map the concept of the water cycle; in first grade, students could map out their community using differently colored construction paper to demarcate different types of spaces (i.e. residential, commercial, recreational and public service). Teachers can assess understanding during a class tour of students’ finished mapping and through discussion as students explain their layout and choices that they made working together.

Sticks and strings: If the school site has a grassy area, students can illustrate their understanding of concepts using just two items — sticks and string. Examples include having students work in groups of two to illustrate different vocabulary or concepts such as shy and outgoing, passive and active, push and pull, gravity and weightlessness. Through participating in a discussion of their finished work, students not only build vocabulary and public speaking skills, they articulate their reasoning skills — thinking from concrete to abstract and creating a connection between vocabulary and its concepts. Teachers can assess comprehension through students’ models and responses.

Incorporating hands-on learning in the classroom builds functional understanding of concepts, activates multiple areas of the brain, and encourages collaboration and social skills. Hands-on learning is not about creating a finished artwork, rather it’s about making student thinking and learning visible.