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Hands On Learning in the Classroom

Hands On Learning

How many times have you felt like you had to do a song and dance to engage your class? I know I’ve felt that way plenty of times. Keeping my students engaged, while also making sure they are learning is no easy task!  But I’m here to tell you a secret. Lectures did not help me with this.  Worksheets did not help me with this. Hands on learning activities sure did though! Keep reading to hear about my experiences with hands on learning and my tips for successfully implementing it into your room.


Hands On Learning Definition

So what exactly is a hands on learning activity? It is when we get kids to do something, rather than just talk about it. For example, when teaching my students how to count out objects, we play the game French Fry Counting. They read the number on the ketchup card, and match it up with the correct number of french fries. The kids love this! They are always engaged when we play this game. So what happens when they are engaged? The activity is memorable, and a memorable learning experience is one that children will retain. Isn’t that the ultimate goal for us as educators?


hands-on-learning-researchHands on Learning Research

Since incorporating a hands on learning approach in my room, I have seen tremendous growth in ALL of my students. I first started implementing hands on learning activities as a way to make the day fun. Little did I know, that research showed just how important this technique was. Once learning about this research, I knew I had to continue doing it. By actively engaging students in a task, we are encouraging them to use multiple senses at the same time. When different senses are being used, different parts of their brain are being used. So when we can get children to talk, listen, move, and use their hands, we are activating so many different areas of their brain. Scientists have said that when we do this, we are helping them to create pathways in their brains that make it not only easier, but faster, to retain the information.


Benefits of Hands On Learning

So I’ve mentioned how children will retain the information easier and quicker, but let’s discuss some other benefits of hands on learning. 


You are less likely to see children daydreaming and off task during a hands on experience. Children associate hands on learning in the classroom as fun. It creates an environment where even your struggling students will feel excited. 

Following Multi-Step Directions:

Hands on learning games are never a one-step process. They involve a few different components. This is an excellent way to help students practice following more than one direction. 

Exposure to Different Materials: 

When implementing a hands on task, we have to incorporate materials other than the traditional pencil and paper. Hands on learning vs. worksheets exposes children to very different things. We can expose them to new materials that they’ve never seen before. We can also expose them to familiar materials, but encourage them to use them in different ways. Either way, it is beneficial to the child.

The Re-Creation of Real-World Experiences:

Memorizing something and applying it are two different skills. A child may be able to look at a picture of blocks and count how many are on the page, but if I give them a handful of blocks and ask them to count out 4, can they do it? It is surprising how many children struggle to physically apply skills to real life. By incorporating hands on based learning, we are helping children make the leap to that next skill.

Critical Thinking Skills:

Critical thinking skills are one of the most important things our students will need to develop in their lives. Hands on learning benefits students by allowing them to observe situations, make sense of what is in front of them, and problem solve.

Social Skills:

My heart feels full when I reflect back on some of my most engaging hands on learning experiences. I can very clearly picture the smiles on my kid’s faces. Something about hands on learning encourages the kids to work together, be kind and supportive, and just have a great time. These opportunities are so important for their social skills and growth in that area. A skill that we unfortunately overlook many times.


My Experience with Hands On Learning

If I’m being honest, I didn’t successfully incorporate hands on activities until my 5th year of teaching! My first four years as an educator were spent trying to survive. I would read the curriculum provided to me, and do exactly what it said without any variations. The problem with that was, the curriculums provided to me did not have any hands on components in them. It was a “sit down and lecture, then do a worksheet” type of program. As a new teacher, what did I know? 

Then I switched schools and we basically had no curriculum. Yup, you read that right…we had nothing! This was a blessing in disguise. I can honestly say that it was this year that my philosophy on teaching truly formed. I had to internalize the state standards and understand where I wanted my students to be at the end of the year. From there, I had to create a solid plan for how I was going to get my kids to that point.

This was hard work!

It was a lot of reading and research and reworking lessons. But because of this, I was 100% invested in every single thing I presented to my kids. I was no longer teaching “page 25 of the curriculum,” rather, I was teaching a unit that I spent hours making. If the lesson wasn’t engaging, that was on me. If the students didn’t learn anything, that was on me. So with this new outlook on each lesson, I decided to try different things to make learning fun.

This is where I found the beauty of hands on activities. I started slow, with one hands on center per week. Immediately, I started noticing the excitement in my student’s faces when it was that time of day. Children were interacting that typically did not any other time. I even saw my struggling students enjoy the learning process. 

Once this happened I knew I had to find more ways to make learning hands on. I slowly started adding more and more components to our daily schedule. There was a learning curve a lot of trial and error. If you are just starting to implement hands on learning, or just feel like you don’t have it nailed down the way you want, here are my biggest takeaways for you.

Make Expectations Clear

There is a fine line between “learning through play” and “play.” For our students, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Ultimately, we want them to feel as if they are doing some sort of playing, but we have to manage behaviors and make sure that we are maintaining an environment conducive to learning. This means that our expectations have to be clear. Children must know and understand their role during this time. 

Define the Students Role

We always call hands on learning time “centers” in our room. During center time, the student’s role is to complete the task in front of them to the best of their ability. They can work together and help others that are at the same table/area of the room. 

They can:

  • Talk in a low voice with the others in their group
  • Help a peer in their group
  • Ask a peer from their group for help
  • Repeat the activity if they finish it before time is up

They can not:

  • Talk in a loud voice
  • Leave their designated area to go work on something else
  • Not complete the task in front of them
  • Sit and do nothing once they finish

In order to make sure these expectations are known, you must review them before each hands on activity. Modeling for the class is the best way to make sure they understand what is supposed to happen. I always model for them and then have volunteers model as well. It always helps when my students can see what is supposed to happen, rather than just hear about it.

Define Your Role

It is really important that you as the educator, go into this knowing what your role is. Are you going to walk the room and provide support as needed? Is there a specific group of children you will work with? Will you have one-on-one time with students? Have a plan, and let children know what your plan is. This is important because it lends to their expectations as well. Should they plan to be pulled from their group to work with you? Should they prepare to ask a peer for help if they are struggling, because you are busy? All of this planning will help make hands on learning time a success. 

I run small group sessions during hands on learning centers. Whether it’s guided reading groups, math groups, or RTI, I am always working with a small group. Sometimes we are doing the same activity as others, and sometimes we are working on something completely different. It depends on the data that I have on that particular group. What this means for the rest of the class, is that they can not interrupt us. When I am working at my kidney table with students, that is a “no interruption zone.” So unless you are bleeding or about to throw up, do not interrupt! My students know that they can ask for help from others in their group. They also know what they can do when they are finished. 

Make the Objective Clear

No matter how young my students are, I always make it clear what the objective is. I love to use “I Can” statements because they make it very easy for my little ones to internalize the objective. For example, if the objective for the activity is “students will be able to blend sounds to read a CVC word” then the “I Can” statement would be “I can read CVC words.” 

Why is this important? If my class doesn’t know WHY they are doing something, or WHAT they should be practicing and learning, then there can’t be any accountability. It doesn’t matter what grade you teach, because even our young students are capable of being accountable for their learning. We just have to make sure we support them and prepare them properly for this.


Show Students What it Looks Like to be Done

Students should always know what it looks like to be done with a hands on task. This is part of my expectations. It prevents children from falling off task or fooling around. No one is saying “Am I done?” because they know what “done” looks like ahead of time. This is different for each hands on learning center, so it is part of the discussion beforehand.


Plan for Fast Finishers

Later in this post, I’m going to talk about preparing for pitfalls. Having a plan for our early finishers is key. I never want students wasting time and wondering what to do. When this happens, not only are we wasting precious learning time, but we are allowing students to feel as if they have free time. And we all know what happens when kids think they have free time! Have a routine for your fast finishers. I use something called “I’m Done Packets.” It’s a differentiated packet that each student has and keeps in their seat sack. Anytime throughout the day that a student finishes a task, they have this packet to work on.


Repetition is Key

Based on everything I said above, it may sound like you are going to have to spend a lot of time verbally preparing your class for a hands on learning experience. However, there are ways around this. Children are creatures of habit and they crave routine. Find hands on learning activities that you can use more than once but with different skills.

Take a look at the sight word hands on learning we do in my room. We have four different hands on activities to use with our sight words. All year students are working with these same four activities, but the words they are using with them change weekly. Being that the words for the activities change each week, the activities appear fresh and new. At the same time, the expectations stay the same, so there is no need to review these steps. Find ways to incorporate activities like this, so that you can jump right into them.


Understand Group Dynamics for Hands On Learning

When planning hands on learning activities that involve groups, it’s important to think about the groupings ahead of time. I like to have a mix of learning levels so that my students can support each other. I also like to consider personalities that either work well together or not so much. This is a big part of the success of your hands on learning. If you are not working directly with a group, you don’t want to place all of your big personalities in one group. You also don’t want to place children that all tend to go off task easily together. Create a nice mix.


Plan for Pitfalls During Hands On Learning

Plan, plan, plan ahead. Think about the learning activity and envision your class. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are they going to find easy?
  • What might be a challenge for them?
  • Who might struggle with this?
  • Who might find this too easy?
  • What supplies will we need?
  • How will the supplies be distributed/presented?
  • What will we do if everyone is struggling with this activity?
  • What will we do if the children are not engaged?

Thinking about these things is a crucial part of the planning process. I always have a plan for the distribution of supplies, I have ways to differentiate the activity for my higher and struggling students, and I have a back-up plan in case everything just fails! Hands-on learning can seem overwhelming to implement, by being prepared with supplies and mentally prepared for the unknown, it will go smoothly.



How to Manage a Large Class with Hands On Learning

Working with a large class can be difficult. Splitting a class up is a great way to successfully implement hands-on activites. Have half of them work on something hands-on, while the other half does something you know they can do independently. 

Consider pulling in technology during this time. Keep track of who has had computer time and rotate students each day. Connect their technology time to your standards to ensure it is a good use of time.

Setting expectations, organizing supplies, and being prepared for pitfalls, will make hands-on learning time a success regardless of how many students are in the class.


Prepping for Hands On Learning

If I had to guess, I’d say that one of the biggest reasons people don’t utilize hands on learning as much as they’d like, is due to the amount of prep time is required. I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot of work. Just remember, a lot of activities are “one and done.” I typically only have to prep materials (laminate and cut) one time and then I can use them over and over again year after year. If you are willing to put in the time to do this, by the end of one school year, you will have more centers and hands on activities, than you know what to do with. 

I always prep my activities at least a month in advance. I look at the trajectory of our learning, align it with our standards, and make a plan for the skills we will practice. Then I determine which hands on activities we will do, and begin the prep process. Having it done a month in advance is helpful. Keep in mind, prepped centers can be pulled out at any time of the year to help spiral in old skills or help advanced learners. Find a designated spot in your classroom to store centers. I have a closet, and I keep my centers separated in bins by skill or month (if they are thematic). I also keep common manipulatives in the same spot. This makes it very easy to find what I need and prepare to implement a hands on activity.


Download your Phonics Fun for Everyone Guide now. This guide will help walk you through the process of implementing hands-on centers in your classroom, and it’s free!



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Hi, I’m Michelle! I’m a teacher, mommy, and curriculum designer from Long Island, NY. I’ve taught both general and special education, with a focus on grades pre-k through first. My passion is hands-on learning, and finding ways to make all things engaging and fun!

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