Why Learning Must Be Hands-On


hands-on learning, hands-on education, hand and brain connection, direct learning,

images: morguefile

Children are drawn to explore the world through their senses. (We all are, at any age.) When they are fully involved, what they learn is entwined with the experience itself. A child’s whole being strains against the limitations of curricula meant only for eyes and ears, or that assigns closed-ended tasks.

A typical school or school-at-home lesson intended to teach a child about worms may have diagrams of a worm’s body to label and a few paragraphs about the importance of worms, followed by comprehension questions. If the child musters up enthusiasm to learn more about worms despite this lackluster approach, there’s no time to do so because directly after the science lesson the child must go on to the next subject. When education is approached in this disconnected manner, the brain doesn’t process the information in long-term storage very effectively. It has no context in the child’s experience and no connection to the child’s senses.

On the other hand, a child encountering a worm while helping in the garden gains body memories to associate with the experience. The heft of a shovel, sun on her face, fragrant soil on her knees, and the feel of a worm in her hands provide her with sensory detail. She also encodes the experience with emotion. Her father likes to read books about soil health and sometimes she looks at the pictures. When she asks about worms he answers the few questions she has. And when she is satisfied he doesn’t go on to give her more information than she can handle. Next time they go to the library or get online they may decide to find out more about worms. She may be inspired on her own to draw worms, save worms from the sidewalk after the next rain, or otherwise expand on that moment in the garden. She is much more likely to retain and build on what she has learned.

The difference between these two approaches is worlds apart. Separating children from meaningful participation, as in the first example, doesn’t simply impair comprehension. It changes the way learning takes place. The child is made a passive recipient of education designed by others. Then the excitement of learning is transformed into a duty.

Education that treats the brain apart from the body will ultimately fail. Our senses cannot be denied. They inform the mind and encode memory. We must see, hear, smell, touch and, yes, taste to form the kinds of complex associations that make up true understanding. We humans are direct hands-on learners.

Brain development and hand use are inextricably intertwined. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers to understand this connection, he found that people credit their success to attributes learned through hands-on activities.  In The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture Wilson writes:

I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and expertise in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modeled on conventional norms of success.

Hands-on experience makes learning come alive. For example, principles of geometry and physics become apparent while children work together figuring out how to stack firewood. They develop multiple layers of competence as they solve tangible problems. Their bodies are flooded with sensation, locking learning into memory. Such experiences develop a stronger foundation for working with abstract postulates, theorems, and formulas later on. (Household responsibilities are actually a vital way to incorporate more hands-on experience, with amazing long-term benefits.)

When we’re engaged hands-on something greater can come into being. We gain a sense of effortlessness, of becoming one with the movement. Then it seems we’re longer working with things, but with material partners in a process of co-creation. Work and play are one, we are whole within it.

direct learning, hands-on learning, hand and brain connection,

image: morguefile

Portions of this article excerpted from Free Range Learning.


Homeschool Worries: Erased With Research & Experience

school versus homeschool, homeschooling research,

I never planned to homeschool. I am the daughter, niece, and granddaughter of excellent public school teachers. I cheerfully volunteered in my children’s classrooms and worked on parent committees. I believed in doing my best to change a flawed system from within.

Yet I kept seeing school wasn’t a good fit for my children. Our four-year-old already knew how to read, but had to practice sight words in preschool anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade-level curriculum along with the rest of her class. Our freshman was an honors student but detested school, not only the hours of homework but the trial of dealing with a few teens who were harassing him.

We became homeschoolers overnight when those teens pulled a gun on my oldest in the school hallway, telling him he wouldn’t live to see the end of the day. School officials, who had done nothing to ease the harassment, didn’t even call the police. The next morning every reason I had to avoid homeschooling stared me in the face. So did my kids. They were eager to learn on their own terms.

Here are a few of the misconceptions homeschooling erased for me.

growth mindset, homeschool, children's self-regulation,

1. Education that counts happens in school. My kids were growing up in an enriching home. We read aloud every day and enjoyed wide-ranging conversations. We went to parks, museums, and plays. But I was raised to believe that formal education is something separate and measurable.

Still, I saw that my kids learned most eagerly when filled with the aliveness we call curiosity. That’s true of all of us: learning sticks when we’re interested. When we’re not, much of what we learn tends to become inaccessible after the grade is earned. Hard as it is to believe, studies show that that shallow thinking is actually related to higher test scores. (Maybe we acknowledge this reality when we prepare kids for tests by saying, “Don’t overthink it.”)

When we’re curious we not only retain what we learn, we’re also inspired to pursue the interconnected directions it leads us. I saw this the summer before we began homeschooling. My eight-year-old, the one who barely paid attention in school, was playing with balsa airplanes brought to a picnic by a family friend who piloted his own plane. Other kids gave up after the planes broke, but my son worked to fashion the pieces into newly workable aircraft. This gentleman showed him a few modifications and the unlikely looking planes flew. After that my son was on a quest. He loaded up on books at each library visit, telling us about Bernoulli’s principle, aviation history, and experimental aircraft. He begged for balsa to make models of his own design, each somewhat more sophisticated as he overcame earlier mistakes. The next time we met up with this friend my son was offered a ride on his Cessna. It was the highlight of his summer. His interest in planes eventually waned, but not the knowledge he gained. He’d taught himself history, science, math, and more importantly, shown himself just how capable he was.

His pursuit is what researcher Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, calls a growth mindset. It’s the understanding that achievement comes from purposeful engagement, that talent and smarts are not fixed traits but are developed through persistence. A growth mindset is linked to resilience and accomplishment throughout life. That’s education that counts!

late reading, early reading, homeschooling,

2. Kids have to follow grade-level standards. I once thought homeschoolers had to follow conventional school standards. You know what I mean, if it’s second grade it’s time to learn about ancient Rome, multiplication, and adverbs. For my family, an overly school-ish approach never made sense. I can give dozens of reasons, but here’s one that springs to mind.

Kids develop unevenly. They may be way ahead in reading and struggle in math, able to make up imaginative stories but not coordinated enough to easily to write or type them. If they don’t advance evenly in school, quite a bit of attention is focused on where they’re lacking (extra help, easier and more repetitive work, labels, poor grades). But outside of school it’s easy to emphasize their strengths while other areas are mastered gradually without ever being considered “deficiencies.” This has a basis in current research which shows that children are remarkably good at self-regulating. They’re cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex, but instead are drawn to learn from situations that offer the right amount of challenge.

For example, it’s well known in the homeschooling community that many kids aren’t ready to read at five or six. Some aren’t ready until they’re several years older. In school that’s a crisis, because every subject is taught using reading. The child who can’t read not only grows disheartened, he also feels stigmatized. But as a homeschooler he remains immersed in a learning-rich lifestyle whether he reads or not because homeschooling is infinitely adaptable. Stories abound of homeschooled children who move quickly from non-reading to zipping through Harry Potter books once they’re ready. A recent study showed that homeschooled children whose parents don’t push them to learn to read, but instead emphasize the joy of reading, end up with kids who are avid readers no matter if these kids started reading early or late. In our family, we found our kids eagerly accomplished far more in a whole range of subjects over time. “Grade-level” expectations were, to us, limitations.

easy homeschooling,

3. The parent has to be teacher/coach/principal. Being a mother to my children has always been richly rewarding (okay, maybe not in the colicky phase). I didn’t want to take on other roles. Turns out I didn’t have to. We found homeschooling to be an immediate stress reduction. My kids got enough sleep, woke rested, and don’t have to rush through the day. Instead they had ample time for conversation, reading, indulging in art projects and experiments, finding the answers to questions, and going on adventures. Our live were guided by fascination, not bells. Much less control on my part was required.

I found that our cultural emphasis on adult-led activities is somewhat counterproductive. We assume children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports, lots of lessons, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages although there’s limited evidence that all this effort has value. We do this because we believe that learning stems from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more children will benefit.

But studies show that a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems is actually impeded when adults provide direct instruction. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less innovative thinking.

Research also shows that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play and discovery-based learning. They make up games, daydream, pretend, and launch their own projects–freely seeking out adults for resources and guidance when necessary. They are naturally drawn to achieve mastery. My kids have shown me how motivated self-direction can go into high gear in the teen years. They’ve earned their own money by shoveling stalls, which they spent to buy and restore a vintage car, go on a month-long backpacking trip, and build a bedroom-sized recording studio. And they have stick-to-it-iveness, devoting years to pursuits like a bagpipe band, wildlife rehabilitation, farming, and their own intensive scholarship. Homeschooling has helped us foster a young person’s growing need for independence while providing useful guidance.

hands-on learning, homeschooling,

4. I can’t afford to provide a decent education. Like many new homeschoolers, I thought I’d have to replicate everything from music class to chemistry lab. I knew I’d never have the time, energy, or money. But we quickly discovered we can activate our own knowledge networks and that the community around us is filled with people eager to impart skills and knowledge to the next generation, almost always for free.  They’re found at ethnic centers, museums, libraries, colleges, churches, service organizations, plus clubs like those for rock hounds, ham radio enthusiasts, and astronomy buffs. My children’s lives have been illuminated by spending time with biologists, potters, engineers, geologists, entrepreneurs, archaeologists, organic farmers, model railroaders, meteorologists—the list could take up this page. People seem honored when asked to share a little of what they know. It’s sad that young people are customarily segregated from adults doing fascinating things right in their own communities, especially in the teen years when they so desperately want more role models.

We’ve also gotten together with fellow homeschoolers for countless field trips, enrichment programs, game days, clubs, and learning co-op classes. My kids have re-enacted Shakespearean duels, toured factories, sheared sheep, raced sailboats, learned chemistry from a Ph.D chemist, debated Constitutional challenges, competed in robotics tournaments, built a hovercraft of their own design, learned fencing, calculated the position of the stars, played with world-class musicians, and spent an afternoon with an astronaut after winning a science contest. All free or practically free. When certain subjects got really challenging we easily bartered with an expert or found a community college class to cover it. And we’ve saved thousands by relying on the remarkable resources of our library system.

Sure, I envy those homeschooling families who learn while bike riding in Ecuador or rambling through European castles. But I realize my kids haven’t missed anything despite my penny pinching, especially since surveys indicate two-thirds of school kids say they’re bored in class.   Deep scholarship and hands-on learning are simply another homeschooling perk.

homeschool socialization, peer segregation,

5. Homeschooling will deprive my kids of friends.  I realized the school day isn’t really set up for socializing, although we’d come to rely on school as a source of same-age friendship. Sadly, according to Beyond the Classroom by Laurence Steinberg,
less than five percent of school kids belong to peer groups that value academic achievement, while pressure from prevailing peers steer young people toward underachievement. Even high-achieving students, when asked, say they’d prefer popularity over academic success.  That comes at a price, because members of those lower achievement groups are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors like conduct problems and drug use. Not the kind of influence parents expect.

And it turns out studies show homeschooled children have better social skills and fewer behavior problems than their demographically matched schooled peers. Homeschooling families also tend to be more active in the community. Initially it took me a while to get used to homeschool gatherings where kids hung out with a wide range of ages and abilities. Sure, they’re kids and not beacons of perfection, but I was pleased to see so much overall good cheer.

As for friends, my kids kept many of their school friends. They also made more as we widened our circle of acquaintances. Many of their new friends were around the same age but some were decades older, bringing perspectives shaped by widely varying experiences. They offered my children a route to maturity they couldn’t have found in school among kids similar to themselves. Their friends include a Scottish gentleman in his 70’s, a group of automotive restoration enthusiasts, a wildlife rehabilitator in her 60’s, fellow backpackers, people with differing physical challenges, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Wiccans, well, you get the idea. These friendships happened because they had the time to stretch in all sorts of interesting directions.

homeschool success, homeschool misconceptions,

6. Homeschooling is an experiment. Like any other parent, I’m driven to provide my children with the essential ingredients that lead to life-long happiness and success. Late at night, unable to sleep, I’ve entertained my share of doubts. What if homeschooling will limit their chances?  I finally realized I was looking at it from too narrow a perspective. Schooling is the experiment. For 99 percent of all our time on earth, the human race never conceived of this institution. Our species nurtured children close to extended family, within the rich educational milieu of the community, trusting that young people would grow into responsible adulthood. Worked like a charm for eons.

Taking my kids out of school liberated them from the test-heavy approach of today’s schools, one that actually has nothing to do with adult success. Instead of spending over 1,200 hours each year in school, they could devote time to what more directly builds happiness as well as future success. Things like innovation, hands-on learning, and meaningful responsibility. That doesn’t mean I lost all my doubts. Some days, all right, months, I worried. It’s hard to unlearn a mindset

Now all four of my kids are in college or launched into careers. I sat at a recent dinner with my family, appreciating our closeness. My kids take on challenges with grace, react with droll wit even under pressure, and haven’t lost their zest for learning. We laughed as their lively conversation covered Norse mythology, caddisfly pheromones, zeppelin history, and lines from new movies. I’m not sure how much I can credit to homeschooling, but I know it’s given my kids freedom to explore their own possibilities. That’s more than enough.

First published in Lilipoh magazine

Crossposted on Jamie Martin’s wonderful site, Simple Homeschool

A Child’s Place Is In The Kitchen

kids learn in the kitchen, kids learn by helping, kids help in the kitchen, what kids can cook,


It’s easier to cook when kids aren’t in the way. Bubbling pots and sharp knives, after all, are hardly child-friendly. But the kitchen shouldn’t be off-limits to kids.

Yes, dinner takes longer to make when Mason snips the cilantro to shreds and Sophie reads the recipe out loud. And you’ve got places to go — probably places to take your darling children, like T-ball practice or that great science program at the museum.

But how much, really, do our beloved kids benefit from a steady schedule of, well, scheduled activities? Those educational, adult-led activities may very well be counterproductive. We tend to forget that ordinary things like cooking together are flexible, hands-on, purposeful learning experiences.

As they snip, read, and converse with us, our kids are learning physical, mental, and social skills. Here’s how cooking can be educational for them.

Mirror neurons. Even a baby in an infant seat benefits from time in the kitchen. She pays attention to your actions. She’s delighted when you talk to her and show her what you’re doing. Due to mirror neurons in our brains, all of us mentally duplicate actions and emotions we see. This inborn way of learning means that we’re continually participating in what we observe. Your baby’s mirror neurons allow her to vicariously experience what you’re doing. As she sees you wash, peel, and cut carrots, she’ll form a mental template for that task, essentially allowing her to practice in advance.

If you change an element of that familiar activity — perhaps by using garden-fresh carrots with long waving fronds instead of milled carrots from a plastic bag — your little one will pay heightened attention. If your knife slips and you cut yourself, she’ll react to your surprise and pain, making her understanding of sharp implements more real than any warning might accomplish.

Meaning. Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with a toy cooking set; he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but your child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Responsibility. Research has shown that children who participated in household tasks starting at age three or four were more likely to succeed in adulthood. I’m talking really succeed: educational completion, career success, and good relationships with family and friends. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities. And waiting until children were older tends to backfire. We spend much time and money on enriching activities and products for our children, but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Higher-level learning. Kitchen-related tasks allow kids to learn more than how dry pinto beans can transform into enticingly tasty refried beans. Kids begin to see scientific principles at work. They develop personal qualities such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as children become proficient in the kitchen, they also see themselves as capable learners. That perception transfers across all endeavors. 

Sensory learning. Full sensory learning has staying power. Apart from nature, it’s hard to find a more sensory-rich environment than the kitchen. As your child’s little fingers crumble blue cheese into dressing, add raisins to a measuring cup, or tear mint leaves for chutney, the tactile and olfactory pleasure help encode specific memories. Perhaps the happiness your daughter feels making mint chutney with you today will be evoked each time she smells mint in the future. We humans must see, hear, smell, touch, and, yes, taste to form the complex associations that make up true comprehension.

Active learning. Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who spends plenty of time with manipulatives (arranging veggie on a platter, sifting flour, washing silverware) and using real-world math (measuring ingredients, counting celery stalks, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which in turn enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts. These movement-oriented activities also contribute to reading readiness. Another benefit of kitchen learning? Cooking and tasting the results a short time later provides wonderful lessons in cause and effect.

Simplicity. Children accustomed to blinking, beeping toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it, they’re bored. The slower pace of kitchen conversation and cooking tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, simplify so you can make your time together in the kitchen enjoyable. Slowing down is better for digestion, concentration, and overall happiness. Letting a small child spread his own peanut butter, cut his own sandwich, and pour milk from a tiny pitcher into his cup is a way of affirming the value of the present moment. It also makes for an effortless tea party.

Skill building. There’s no denying that children who help out in the kitchen pick up useful skills. They learn that a cake takes lots of mixing, but muffins very little. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four years old or 40 years old, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy peeling potatoes and crumbling bacon, try renaming the entrée “Max’s special potato soup” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose. When we prepare a family meal, bake a cake to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have noticeable value. As our children participate along with us, they feel that same satisfaction. So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but spark enthusiasm. Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we’ll see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

kids help in the kitchen, how kids can cook, preschoolers help in kitchen,


Getting Started

Even toddlers can help. Let small children cut mushrooms, pears, bananas, and other soft items with a blunt knife. Encourage them to stir (as long as you or they hold the bowl). They’ll be happy to add ingredients, tear lettuces, and grate cheese. When putting together forgiving dishes like soups or casseroles, have them help you choose herbs and spices by smell before you toss in a pinch or two.

Encourage your small fry to wash unbreakable items in a sink of warm soapy water. Let them clean up crumbs on the floor with a small whisk broom or handheld vacuum. Put them in charge of setting out napkins on the table and calling family members to dinner.

Give them the job of stacking unbreakable containers in a low cabinet. Solicit their opinions on aroma, taste, and appearance as you cook together. And remember to thank them for their assistance.

As they get older, children can read recipes, plan meals, and do nearly every task required to make the dishes they enjoy. The time will come when they won’t want you in the room explaining how to fix a lumpy cream sauce or talking about how Nana always mixed pastry dough with her fingers. They’re on their way to making the kitchen a proving ground for their own culinary adventures. Hopefully you’ll be invited to taste-test while you relax for a change.

Parking the kids in front of the TV while we dash to get dinner ready may be efficient, but it’s not the way young people have matured throughout human history. Children need to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They’re drawn to see how their elders handle a crisis, fix a car, create a soufflé, build a bookshelf, heal what’s broken, and fall in love.

So welcome your little ones into the kitchen. Let the cooking begin.


First published in Culinate.com