Hands-On Experience as a Way of Learning

By Ellie Richardson

Having volunteered at the same organization for a few weeks now, I’ve begun to notice a pattern in the way the children’s activities are structured. Because this particular program is focused on literacy, the class always begins with reading a book to the children. This part of the class is also paired with a short “discussion” period, in which the topic of the book being read is introduced. For example, one day we were reading a book on engineers, and the teacher asked the class: “what is an engineer?” The children then would raise their hands, and respond to the question. When the teacher began to read the book, the children would often add interjections by raising their hand, to which the teacher, more often than not, listened all the way through. These interjections were often described their personal lives in a way that (at least to the child) connected to the topic at hand.

It was through these stories, and the answers to the question and response periods, that I could tell that the children were really grasping the subject; by talking it out and connecting it to examples they’d personally witnessed, it was evident to me that the children were learning the subject.

After the book reading part is done, the children would move onto an activity related to what they’d just read; sometimes a writing and drawing activity, and sometimes a hands-on activity. The writing and drawing activities are designed to get the children to think about the book analytically, while the hands-on activities are aimed at experiencing concepts (like engineering) firsthand.

However, being a literacy focused program, the writing assignments were given much more credit than the hands-on activities. The writing the children produce provides cold, hard evidence that the children are learning, but how do we know that they aren’t learning in the hands-on activities as well?

Well, just look back to the beginning of the class: the children used examples of things they’d actually experienced in their daily lives and connected them to what they’d read about in the classroom. The children had already learned the concept through plain and simple hands-on experience. It is through asking questions, and having them write down their thoughts that we as adults can tell that they are learning. But, although the writing is the only way we can tell that children are learning, in actuality, there is no time when children stop learning.

Every second of every day, children are taking in information from their surroundings and compiling it into what is their perception of the world. When asking a child to write down what they think of an activity, it seems redundant to them, as they have already learned the subject. This redundancy can prove to be very frustrating for some of the children.

From my observations, the children who carry out the assignment with no struggle whatsoever, do not do it because they are deep analytical thinkers, but do so because they are following the instructions. Furthermore, I strongly believe that the children who refuse to follow the directions, simply see they have no personal benefit from writing down their thoughts, because they already know what they are.

It is unfortunate that adults often see the rebels as the less-intellectual children, when, in fact, they could be the smartest, and most independent of the bunch.

There is a wide gap between what adults perceive as children learning, and how children actually learn. To help close that gap, maybe we should give a little more credit to what children experience inside (and outside) the classroom, rather than to their performance in activities created by adults who are just trying to see whether they are learning or not. The answer is always going to be: yes, the children are learning! And although it is important for children to learn to follow directions, that is only a small part of the vast knowledge they are collecting from the world around them. We must have faith that children will always learn.


Posted: July 14, 2015 in: Child Literacy

One Response to Hands-On Experience as a Way of Learning

  1. mary lance says:

    Another winning and thought provoking blog ellie! I recently wrote and article for “Our Kids” magazine – the boston area has that mag – the article was importance of recess and play. the american association of pediatricians published advice about play as a vital learning tool – plus without physical activity, class room learning suffers.

    lemme see if i can send you the article. the reason i thought of it was your blog which touches on ‘metacognition’ – how children learn – a topic which facinates me. lordy, maybe i would have made for a’s at the univ of texas had i know more about how i learn.

    wow you are going to be so well prepared for smith.


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