Hands-On, Minds-On: How Kids Learn – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 34

Hands-on learning is one of the most effective ways for children to l discover their world. Listen to this Teach. Play. Love. podcast episode, as Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss discuss simple ways to create immersive experiences at home.

Hands-on, minds-on — that’s how children learn best. When they can touch, wonder, explore, and discover, the opportunities are endless. In this episode, get expert advice from Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss on encouraging immersive and meaningful learning experiences. Plus, you’ll find out how to build a foundation for happy, healthy development. 

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Resources: Hands-On Learning

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October 27, 2021


Rachel: Hey, Claire. It's so good to be back on the mic with you.

Claire: Yeah. We took a little break at the end of the summer, but I'm really happy to be here today with you to talk about something that I know is one of your favorite topics, how kids learn.

Rachel: Yes. This is definitely one of my favorite topics. I think about it, I study it, I am fascinated by it, and I keep learning more about it, but I'm so excited about how that happens in early childhood. It's pretty fantastic. And it's really fun.

Claire: Yeah. And it's fascinating and it's fun to watch children learn to do anything. It's one of the main reasons I decided to get my degree in child development, was for exactly that reason. I remember back in college, I did an internship in a kindergarten classroom and I didn't know much of anything about kids at that point, other than I thought they were cute. And I remember volunteering in this kindergarten classroom and I thought, "Why when the math teacher is saying, it's time for math, is she getting out colorful beads and the kids are pushing them around the table. And why, when I can see in her lesson plan, it's time to talk about vocabulary, is she getting out costumes and opening the dramatic play area?" I was having a hard time figuring out where the learning was happening, right? If they were supposed to be working on vocabulary, shouldn't there be flashcards, shouldn't there be workbooks? And I remember thinking, "These kids just look like they're playing right now. What are these activities even teaching?"

Rachel: Yeah. This is something I talk about all the time to whoever will let me talk. So I warn my friends or I warn people when I'm at a dinner party. I actually just met a young couple and I said, "I will tell you all you want to know about early childhood development, but I will also give you permission to tell me when to stop telling you about early childhood development because I will keep going and going." But what you just said is my favorite part, is that there isn't a separation between play and learning. So much good stuff is happening during that play. It's very complex and it's very sophisticated. One of the things that...a little mantra parents can remember, I use quotes and mantras to myself all the time, is hands-on, minds-on. So if you're playing with it, if you're immersed in it, if you're touching it, if you're exploring it, you are thinking about it, and therefore you are learning.

So we know a few things about children and how they develop. We know that brain, developmental and learning sciences all support what I just said, that learning happens through exploration and discovery. We are born driven to discover, that's why we're asking "Why?" a thousand times a day when we're little, we wanna figure things out. When we are sitting in a high chair and dropping a spoon on the floor over, and over, and over, we are driven by discovery. We're little scientists from the beginning. And as adults, we can discourage that, which really hinders development, or we can support that and that makes early development, but all sorts of development better. You just think of like when kids get to elementary school or high school and they're doing that experiential learning, everybody likes their lab class better, everybody likes that hands-on class better. Nobody says, "Oh, you know what my favorite class is? The one where I get lectured at for an hour." Nobody likes the tests. They like the projects. And this is because this is how we learn best as well.

So there's a place sometimes for some of those other things, but what really unlocks learning is to be able to explore. One of the words we use a lot when we're talking just in our programs, and our centers, and with families is to think about wonder. What makes your children wonder? What is a world full of wonder? What is wonderful for them? What makes them be curious? Are there places to be curious? Are there places for them to have a question and inquire about something and have the freedom, and the space, and the resources to explore that? We want them to be able to do that and we want most of their childhood to be full of opportunities to explore, to be curious, and say, "I can figure that out. I believe in myself. I have agency, meaning I think I can do this and I can be creative about it and I don't have to get it right and I can take a little risk." That's the best kind of learning.

We also believe that children construct meaning through experience. So they take knowledge and they make it meaningful through experience. Guess what? The best experience when you're young is hands-on, playful experiences. So we know all this, we know all this about learners and we talk about it being about early childhood, but it is really true about all learners. You and I learn the best like that. One of the things that as a passionate early educator I'm so excited about is seeing schools elementary, secondary, even higher ed, they're starting to discover project-based learning and experiential learning is what kids need, what all age learners need and they're trying to figure out how to do that for older children. We're doing that already in early childhood and we're pretty proud that that's something that we already know about child development and we have that baked into the way that we support young children. And this is something parents should be really excited about being able to do for their children, is provide these kind of wonderful experiences.

Claire: Absolutely. And I think... I've heard you say before that play is like a research lab. It's like a child's laboratory. And that's so true. I think any parent out there listening can think of a time that their child made a gigantic, disastrous mess of something and they were delighted with themselves. And it's because they probably learned something, they were discovering, they were exploring. It really is the best vehicle for early learning and development. So I know that as an educator, you know, that internship, that kindergarten classroom led to now a long career in early education. I was so fascinated by watching these children play and learn and now I know that as a mom too. And I try to remind myself of that when I had my toddlers knocking the spoon off the high chair. They're learning, they're learning, they're learning.

That's how they make sense of the world. They make sense of the world by knocking things over, by touching them. You know, we see this with infants. They wanna put things in their mouths, they wanna touch, they wanna get their fingers on everything. They wanna lick things and that turns into a preschooler who wants to build the block tower and immediately knock it down because they just need to know what that sound is gonna be and what's gonna happen next. And you can encourage that as parents, or you can discourage it as you said. So we really wanna be places and have the kind of educators and parents that are gonna encourage that kind of exploration. So that said, let's talk about how families listening can create experiences like this at home. So if you've got some free time or you've got...not even if you've got free time, maybe you don't have much time and you're wondering, "How can I cram this into my busy, busy life?"

Let's say, you're outside on a weekend, this weekend in your yard or your local park and you're doing yard work or you're busy with something and your child comes over to you and says, "Oh, there's a bird's nest over there." I'm gonna put you on the spot, Rachel, if this happened to you with your 4-year-old or your 5-year-old, and they said, "There's a bird's nest on the ground. It's maybe fallen out of a tree." What if your child says to you, "Why do birds build nests, mom?" There's a couple of different ways you can handle this, but how could you encourage some learning to happen?

Rachel: So they're coming to you with a curiosity, they're inquiring. And I would always encourage to use that as a basis for what happens next. So there's a curiosity there. They're asking you what happens. So a couple of things as a parent or as the adult in this situation, you don't have to know the answer. You can be a co-researcher or a co-learner. Even if you do know the answer, maybe the best thing in that moment is not to answer it because then the learning is done. No playfulness, no immersion, they just heard some information and they move on. They might still be interested in and excited about it and explore it, but the chances are they'll move on to the next thing if you take that approach. So our recommendation, the best recommendation to get a lot of immersive play and learning out of the situation is to say, "I don't know. Let's find out." And then figure it out, ask them what they think.

Ask open-ended questions. What are you curious about? What do you think the birds are doing? How would they do that? Let's watch them for a while. Maybe you make some observations about the nest. You could get out a journal and take some field notes, some real science happening here, right? Some field notes. They could draw pictures every day or throughout the day. Are things changing? Is something happening? They'll take note of those small changes, those details. Some good, interesting development happening there. Reflect on those observations and then learn more. Do some research together. Maybe use the internet for research. Maybe you go to the library to do some research. Maybe you go somewhere where there are experts on things related to birds and nests and you ask them questions and you learn more. Test things out that happen. Maybe try to recreate it at...give them some loose parts and materials and see what they do with it. No right or wrong. No mistakes. Try, does that work? Okay. It didn't work. What would we do differently?

So much playful, immersive, hands-on learning that can happen there, and guess what? You get to teach vocabulary, you get to teach math, you get to teach science. You get to teach interactions and social skills, all of that happening in this fun, discovery-driven-based, immersive hands-on learning experience. One of the things I always say is whoever's doing the thinking is doing the learning. So if you're doing the thinking, your child isn't doing any learning in that situation. So just stop yourself always is... And you don't have to do it all the time, right? You know, we have schedules as families. We're busy. Sometimes we would say, "We'd come back to that." But if you can, stop yourself from answering it right away and let their inquiry be the guide for that experience.

Claire: Absolutely. I think it's so easy, if you're in that situation where you're busy, you've got a busy day, it's so easy when your child has a curiosity, as you said, when your child has a curiosity, it's so easy to say, "I don't know." Period. But if you could say, "I don't know. How would you find out? How could we find out?" or, "Let's find out." And maybe you don't have time in that moment to answer the question, but you can say, "How do you think we can find the answer to that?" They'll have an answer. They'll have some kind of idea. And you'll say, "Great. Let's do that tonight after dinner." And then follow up with that, right? Because it's how you keep encouraging that curiosity.

Rachel: And do not say, "I don't know. I don't think we're gonna figure it out that way." Just let them go because they will learn from that trial and error and that's really valuable for them to feel empowered to try something, learn from that mistake, problem-solve, try again. They might need some prompting. They might need some help with the ideas. You could give them a couple of choices if they're getting stuck. It depends on the child and it depends on the age, but making sure that they are in the front seat, they are the learner, they're the ones with the hands-on, and they are the thinkers in this situation.

Claire: That's right. And then those wheels will be turning all day long about that. And I like that because just by asking a simple open-ended question, it doesn't have anything to do with fancy apps, it doesn't have to do anything with a specific toy. It's about just asking your child intentional questions and being naturally curious with them and nurturing that curiosity. That's how kids learn. So there are a lot of other ways to inspire curiosity too, not just, you know, making observations and asking curious questions about things in your own home. You can go outside to your local park, explore nature. You can go to a children's museum. Often science museums are great places to explore. Have you ever been to a museum like that, Rachel, with your kids?

Rachel: Yeah. I'm glad you're bringing up museums because I think about when I was a kid and we had a museum on my... My dad was a professor and on our campus, the campus he worked on, there was a museum called the Touch and Feel Museum. And that was my absolute favorite place to go because I was supposed to get my hands on things there. I was invited to do that there. We looked forward to going there. And that's a great thing about children's museums. That's why kids like those museums so much. Hands-on, I'm thinking, I'm learning. There's a lot of respect for me in this environment. I can be messy. I can explore. And discovery is driving everything they're doing in those buildings.

Claire: Yeah. Absolutely. And I've been...there's one outside Philadelphia called the Please Touch Museum right there in the title.

Rachel: Oh, that's a good name. Yeah.

Claire: Please touch everything in this museum, a small child. And you're learning and you're growing. I've taken my kids to the Smithsonian's too. Those are free museums that you can visit if you're near one. And a lot of my kids get into those exhibits. Just so much to learn. Other ways to encourage hands-on learning at home, I'm a big fan of loose parts. We call them discovery or treasure baskets in our centers. You can make one of these at home. It's really easy. Get a bunch of loose stuff from around your house and put it in a treasure box and you can rotate it every day, every week with a lid on. They can wake up in the morning, what's in the treasure box today? Oh, it's a wooden spoon and a plastic cup. What am I gonna do with this today? What's it gonna be?

A couple of weeks ago, we got an appliance delivered and it came with this giant box and I'm telling you, my 8-year-old spent a day and a half of his weekend playing with this giant cardboard box. And I almost swear, it was almost as exciting as the appliance was for me. He turned it into a car, then it was a spaceship, then he dragged it outside. He set up a snack shack, turned it upside down. He drew come get your snacks. It turned into three different things in the span of eight hours.

Rachel: And that's why cardboard boxes are so great and why children love them so much. They can be anything they want them to be.

Claire: Exactly. So that's just really... I could have just thrown it in the recycling and said, "That's garbage. We're not gonna play with that trash." But just take a step back and say, "Oh, look, you seem kind of curious about that box." I think I said something like, "What do you think it could be?" That's all I had to say. And I could see his eyes got big and his imagination started going and I was giving him permission to explore that, right? And in my head, I'm thinking, "That's a pile of garbage, but for him, it was so much more than that." And so he had a great time. I was interacting with him in some parts, in some parts it was totally independent. Learning on his part, he was asking for tools. It just led to so much good exploration.

Rachel: I know that a lot of times parents are wondering things like how do I get my child to sustain attention or they won't play independently. And those are skills that they're learning when they're young and they need some support and guidance with how to get there. But one of the ways to achieve those things is to give them those kind of materials you're talking about and have these messy hands-on experiences so they get into that flow that we're all as adults thinking that we need to get into when we're working and we lose track of time, that's what can happen when children have those experiences. When they have a more closed-ended toy, there's just one way to do this, there's a right or wrong, or they have real strict time limits or restrictions on how much they can play, they don't engage as much in it. And so they're more likely to get distracted or not be independent as long.

So just like you were talking about, the cardboard box, another one, just go out and play in the mud, go make sandbox, mud pies. Supernatural ingredient. We celebrate international mud day because it's a universal, joyful toy that all children have access to. Those are things...we have gotten away from things like that because we're worried about the mess, but we're missing out on such an opportunity for them and they will play and they will stay engaged with a couple of pie plates and some scoops and some wet sand or some mud. They'll be busy for a long time.

Claire: Absolutely. And kids wash up. They wash up real nice. So just get in there and embrace the mess and embrace that learning that's happening.

Rachel: Yeah. I hope that we have talked about why it's so valuable for immersive, playful, hands-on learning and I hope we've given you some good ideas. Claire gave me some credit earlier for talking about play as a lab, but I'm gonna pass on some of that credit to Einstein because he said play is the highest form of research. So great minds think alike, right? So thinking about play as a huge part of learning ensures that children are really getting what they need. This is what they need for that foundation for happy and healthy development for the rest of life.