Hands-On Is Minds-On

Want to Engage Every Student? Break out the Old-Fashioned Scissors and Glue


Second-grade teacher Becky Hicks has learned that there is no substitute for activities that require kids to use their hands as well as their minds. During literacy hour in Hicks's class at Blanchard Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, students pair up and head to one of 16 "corners," or centers, to tackle hands-on vocabulary, reading, and math activities. In the ABC corner, students thumb through clues to find mystery words. In the math corner, students stack buttons, plastic fruit, and toy bugs to create graphs. And in the spelling corner, they manipulate alphabet puzzle shapes to piece together vocabulary words.
   In corners, Hicks's students practice what they know by playing teacher. "Look closely at the clock's hands," one student says to her partner in her best teacher voice. "Which one shows the hour, and which one shows the minutes?" Some explain their work to other students by showing them how to move, group, or assemble objects. Concepts are explained through tactile procedures, and skills are bolstered as children practice new ideas and test out theories.
   Over the years, Hicks has noticed that her students are more engaged and focused when they're working on hands-on projects—even those who fidget during large-group lessons. In her classroom, Hicks has figured out what research has revealed: The best way to engage kids' brains is by having them move their hands.

Busy Hands, Busy Brains
As students put projects together, create crafts, or use familiar materials in new ways, they're constructing meaning. "Kids learn through all their senses," says Ben Mardell, PhD, a researcher with Project Zero at Harvard University, "and they like to touch and manipulate things."  But more than simply moving materials around, hands-on activities activate kids' brains. 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.
   When you combine activities that require movement, talking, and listening, it activates multiple areas of the brain. "The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information," says Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom (Scholastic, 2009). "If you're only listening, you're only activating one part of the brain," she says, "but if you're drawing and explaining to a peer, then you're making connections in the brain."
   Multitasking in the classroom is not a negative when it comes to hands-on activities such as coloring, scribbling, or cutting with scissors. Indeed, even adults benefit from the "busy hands, busy brain" phenomenon: Recent research has shown that people who doodle during business meetings have better memory recall. A report in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology demonstrated that volunteers who doodled during a dull verbal message were 29 percent better at recalling details from the message. Researchers suggest that engaging in a simple hands-on task, such as cutting out a shape with scissors, can help prevent daydreaming and restlessness during a learning experience. If adults in business settings can benefit from mnemonic tricks such as doodling, then students should certainly be encouraged to try these strategies.

The Hands-On Classroom
Terri LaChance, a kindergarten teacher at Darcey School in Cheshire, Connecticut, uses hands-on activities all day, every day, to let all her students shine. Currently, LaChance is teaching a student who is a gifted artist but has poor language skills. He fidgets during large-group activities but can spend hours drawing or building. LaChance nurtures his interest and talent by allowing him to make projects; she recalls one day when he carefully constructed bird beaks out of recycled materials, then gave them to other kids to wear in class. Through art projects and play, LaChance has seen the student's language skills improve as he answers questions about his creations and illustrations.
   We know our students learn in many different ways: visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, and social. Still, says Dodge, most of us teach the way we're most comfortable, and that's not necessarily the way our students learn. "It's a missed opportunity if we don't use the way that a child learns best to hook them and get them excited about learning," says Dodge.
   Hands-on projects obviously engage kids who are tactile or kinesthetic learners, who need movement to learn best. They also engage students who are auditory learners, who talk about what they're doing, and visual learners, who have the opportunity to see what everyone else is creating. For social learners, the time spent in small group conversation will strengthen their knowledge. Just as Hicks has found in her classroom, hands-on activities let students become teachers. "When students explain and demonstrate skills to each other," says Sheldon Horowitz, EdD, director of professional services for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, "they are validating their understanding of the material being learned and, often in ways that adults are less successful, helping their peers to build and master new skills.”
   Hands-on activities also lend themselves to authentic assessment and observation, says Lanise Jacoby, a 2nd grade teacher at Pierce School in Arlington, Massachusetts, who observes how well her students follow directions and use fine motor skills during center time. Next time your students are working on a craft project or in centers, ask each student to quickly explain what they're doing and why, as well as what they're learning along the way.

Endless Benefits
Using tools such as markers, scissors, and glue in hands-on projects also builds the fine motor skills that children will need to use for functional activities throughout their lives. Simple tasks such as buttoning, tying shoes, and using a key to open a lock all require manual precision. The best way to build that precision is, of course, through practice.
   Yet practice need not be dull and repetitive. Activities such as constructing a miniature city out of recycled materials, or crafting a butterfly's life cycle using fabric scraps, not only help kids strengthen their hands and minds -- they are also fun and engaging. The more arts and crafts that teachers can bring into the classroom, the more opportunity they have to reach every child in the room, from kids with sensory difficulties to those who need an extra challenge in order to stay focused. Hands-on, creative, and artistic activities help students to focus and retain knowledge, and at the same time emphasize the importance of beauty and design in our world.   

Here are more ways to increase the amount of time your students spend with their hands and minds in motion:

  • Provide self-check materials: Hands-on activities naturally lend themselves to differentiation, but Cindy Middendorf suggests adding in tools, such as number charts, for kids to use at each center to help them work independently.
  • Include assessment: In addition to observing and asking students to talk about what they've learned, teacher Becky Hicks has students record their center work and what they learned on individual accountability sheets. Judy Dodge suggests creating flip books with a page for each center so children can record what they learn at each station.
  • Keep kids moving: Dodge suggests using rotation stations that change every few minutes. Some examples: an observation station where students peer at objects under a microscope; an exploration station where students explore materials that you've just introduced; a visualization station where students draw what they've learned; a collaboration station where students talk about what they've learned; and a "ketchup and mustard" (catch-up and must-do) station where students can make up work they didn't get to.
  • Move the materials: If you can't handle all the movement of center rotations, Dodge suggests putting each activity and the necessary supplies in a basket. Then pass the baskets from table to table instead of moving the students.
  • Group students by interest: Grouping students according to what they're interested in can increase their engagement. "When you're in a small group, you have more air time," says Ben Mardell, PhD, with Project Zero at Harvard University. "Kids can talk more and if you put a group together based on interest, then you have kids who share a passion and they're more involved in being there." Small groups also build accountability, as each child has to attend to the activity for the product to come together.
  • Incorporate language: As students move into third grade and beyond, the amount of language used in class will increase. Prepare them by incorporating speaking skills into your assessment of tactile activities: Ask students to explain what they're doing and end some units with oral presentations.  
  • Adjust expectations: Kindergarten teacher Terri LaChance admits that during hands-on activities, her classroom is louder. To manage the volume level, LaChance limits the number of students in each activity to two.

Hands-On, Minds-On Activities
As you plan your next unit, consider incorporating these hands-on activities to engage every student in your classroom.

Get inspired for more hands-on learning with these sites from teachers and professionals:

You'll find activities and tips from retired kindergarten teacher Linda Critchell here:

Former kindergarten teacher Mrs. Perdue has a variety of literacy centers and photos of how to set them up.

First-grade teacher Ms. Ross's class Web site has ideas for literacy centers.

Second-grade teacher Becky Hicks's class Web site has more ideas for hands-on activities.

Lanise Jacoby, a second-grade teacher, has examples of her class projects on her Web site. Jacoby also recommends MathWire for standards-based math games and activities.

You'll find more information about tactile learning here.

Take an online inventory to figure out your personal learning style. Then, find out more about learning styles so you can incorporate activities that will grab all your students. You can also find an inventory on Judy Dodge's Web site.

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