Real “hands-on” learning

Published by Lori Pickert on July 8, 2010 at 01:54 PM

Big ideas can always be watered down until they are almost nothing except the name, like painting with plain water.

In the world of learning, “hands on” is watered down until it means literally simply that kids get to use their hands. They get to touch something rather than just look at it from their desk.

When learning math facts, they get to hold some plastic bears. When learning science facts, they get to push a bean seed into the soil.

What does real “hands-on” learning look like?

When we hand over control to the children. When we pass them not the bean seed, but the lesson plan.

Children who have been trained to be passive learners simply watch and wait. They watch you do, and they wait for it to be over.

Children who are active learners look at everything as a possibility, a beginning, a spark. A starting-off point. They are looking to see what they can do with what you are showing them. They see it as something to be played with, manipulated, explored, tested for abilities and boundaries and potential.

A child who is truly allowed to get his hands dirty learning knows that his ideas are valued — not only valued, but absolutely essential. There will be no learning until he grabs hold and sees what can be done with this chunk of life in front of him.

This is about ownership. Are we going to put learning into their hands or keep a tight grip on it? Are we showing them the skills and tools of learning, then dictating how they use them? Or are we mentoring them so they can take over immediately and start apprenticing as makers, doers, creators, explorers, thinkers?

Children know the difference.

When a child reads a great book and then races to write his own mystery/sci-fi adventure/secret code, he is grabbing learning with both hands. He is taking what he experienced and turning it into something brand new — he is learning with his hands, his brain, his whole self.

Whatever he confronts — a new type of story, a movie, a science experiment, a building material, an art technique — he must know that (1) it can be worked with — changed, played with, experimented with, altered, extended, turned upside down, (2) he is capable of working with it, and (3) he is allowed to work with it.

Creating knowledge, making it with his own two hands and his own ideas, sharing it with someone else, seeing what they do with it, using their new ideas as yet another jumping-off point — this is what our family culture must celebrate.

Real hands-on learning is this: Everything is here for you to work with.

You can build something new with it. That new thing comes from you and only you. And I want to see what you do.


Comment by Stacey on July 8, 2010 at 03:13 PM

This part makes sense. I get making an environment that my child can feel free to explore and move in new directions and try things. But when do you reign things in? I know 4 is young but some times I feel like we just try lots and lots of things with out sticking to any of them. Our small pile of unfinished projects makes me squirm when I walk by it.

How do you balance the freedom to try things with creating a calm 'space' for exploring things deeply? Maybe it's just summer but I feel like we're at a life buffet lately and we keep taking little tastes.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 8, 2010 at 04:16 PM

stacey, your question is so important i'm going to answer it in a post. :^)

thank you!

Comment by sarah :: greenclogs on July 8, 2010 at 05:43 PM

Thank you (again) for this. We had such good talks when we are at the beach about just this - about digging in deeply and giving them the space to make things happen. We watched them spend days at the beach damming and rerouting drainage streams in different directions and with different materials. They noticed how the beach landscape was different this year than last year - that the driftwood logs were to the north of us instead of to the south, like they usually are, and they played with currents in their water project to see how that happened. They watched the winds and the tides and how they changed. They learned (much to my chagrin) that if you leave your shoes too close to the water, that one of the shoes will disappear. The awesome suede fringed moccasin boot, of course, because the ocean has good taste.

I had way too many "discussions" about homeschooling with my dad, and he just doesn't get that you can let them just be and explore and learn without a schedule and textbooks and benchmarks. He accuses me of being anti-public school, which I'm not. I'm just pro-hands on learning, which we can't get in public school. Sigh. Hopefully he'll see as they grow that this way is valid and really beneficial to my kids.

Comment by Elizabeth on July 8, 2010 at 09:47 PM

I have the same question as Stacey except my daughter is turning 8 years old. There seems to be certain things that she loves to do like illustrating fairy stories, cooking recipes (all on her own), reading science books, value tales biographies and American Girl books, but for the most part most knowledge seems willy-nilly at times; only scratching the surface. And with the things she's interested in, I'm not sure how to get her to dig deeper. Also, as in the case of her fairy illustrations, she seems to have hit a wall...she's not growing in technique. I feel like I might be enabling her when she asks me to write out the stories that corresponds with the pictures. She hates writing. She dictates the stories, I write them down. She looks over my shoulder to make sure the grammar is the way it should be. Some of my friends question what were doing because they say that making them study things they don't necessarily want to study will help them "grow" as individuals teaching them things like responsibility and fortitude. I know in my heart their argument is flawed but I don't know how to express a rebuttal. Lori, I want to thank you for this excellent website. I've learned so much!

Comment by PrairiePoppins on July 8, 2010 at 11:00 PM

This is such an excellent insight. Thank you for sharing. I'm a words person and my son is more hands-on and I struggle with getting this sort of idea into my psyche. I love a few of the ways you've expressed this.

I'd like to put parts of it in my quote journal. Would you mind emailing me your name so I can give you authorship?

Comment by Elizabeth on July 8, 2010 at 11:52 PM

I reread my previous comment. I think it's very muddled and unclear. I think what I was trying to ask had to do with being a mentor. You said in your post:

"Are we showing them the skills and tools of learning, then dictating how they use them? Or are we mentoring them so they can take over immediately and start apprenticing as makers, doers, creators, explorers, thinkers?"

What is my role as mentor? What are some things I can do to be a mentor? I've been wanting to introduce the concept of a notebook to her. Do you have examples of a child's notebook? (I've seen your examples of a parent's notebook that track's the child's learning and questions). When I present the notebook to her, what do I say? Do I give her instructions on how to use it? I guess it will help that I have my own commonplace. Is that what a project notebook is...a commonplace?

Comment by Lise on July 9, 2010 at 01:48 AM

Lori, this is a great post. I sent the parents in my early childhood program over here today, and posted a link on my blog as well. (here:

Comment by Alex on July 9, 2010 at 06:46 AM

@Elizabeth- In my teacher training days in a mildly progressive private school, I was told that 3rd grade--about your daughter's age--is a time when a child's ability to think up stories often surpasses the technical ability/patience for actually writing it down. As a matter of course the third graders were given opportunities to dictate and type their writing, so that their creativity and growth in expressing themselves was not unnecessarily limited.

Comment by Alice on July 9, 2010 at 08:40 AM

At my daughter's school they get the beans in second grade, they grow a bean plant in class and then they proudly carry it home. That's the end of it.

The school garden is untended and bare - pity they don't do any real gardening. And what about growing something new every spring - building on your past experience rather than ticking off the subject and moving on?

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 9, 2010 at 01:51 PM

sarah, that sounds awesome. and lol the ocean has great taste - i knew that! ;)

it's hard (re: your dad) when people assume that you are making a choice based on negativity - i.e., rejecting the alternatives - rather than positivity - embracing the thing that you think is the best fit for you and yours.

elizabeth, re: encouraging her to dig deeper, there is a lot of material here and there on the blog .. i'll try to find you a couple links .. see, this is why i'm writing the book. ;)

do you mean she hates the act of writing? just off the top of my head, i might try giving her access to a computer to type, getting her a typewriter (i bought one for my son at the thrift store and he absolutely loves to write on it), letting her choose her own writing supplies (notebooks, paper, etc.), helping her make her own blank books, giving her poster board to make large-form posters/stories, getting her a tape recorder or memo recorder so she can dictate her own stories, giving her access to a video camera so she can film her drawings and tell her stories.

re: "making them study things they don't necessarily want to study" .. rather than teaching them responsibility and fortitude, i would say that it teaches them how to do what is necessary without involving themselves at all in any real way. they go through the motions to do what you want so they can get it over with. i would respond to your friends that actually, she can experience real responsibility when she manages her own learning and authentic fortitude when she works hard to achieve her own goals. :)

you can force a child to do things for you, but she will *grow* when she does things for herself, when she is fully engaged and involved and motivated by her own ideas, thoughts, questions, and plans.

and thank you so much for your kind words! i'm glad you've found the site helpful! :^)

prairiepoppins, thank you so much. my name is Lori Pickert & i appreciate the attribution! ;)

elizabeth part 2! ;)

i didn't find your comment muddled or unclear at all. :)

i am going to address your questions about mentoring in my next post where i try to answer stacey's question as well. but in short, a mentor is someone who is focused on transferring skills, decision-making, and power to their apprentice. it is a process of moving up, if you will, rather than a continual relationship of "i'm in charge and you will do what i say." i'll go into it more in my post... i promise. ;)

i posted pages from one of my son's notebooks here:

somewhere there is a post showing notes from my younger son's project journal but i'll be darned if i can find them now.

definitely you want to have your own project journal. i don't know what a commonplace is — please explain! if you keep a journal, she will be able to observe how you use it (drawing, making notes, putting in copies of photographs, putting in artifacts like maps or brochures, etc.) and she will probably "copy" you at first as she begins to use her own. you can wait for her to ask for a journal or suggest that you could make or choose one together for her to use.

the most powerful use of the journal or notebook is the same as the bulletin board — it pulls all the ideas together in one spot and lays them out next to one another so she can see them and be reminded of work she had planned, so she can make connections among different ideas, so she can see the growth and shape of the project, etc.

let's keep talking about this!

lise, thank you so much! so glad you found it helpful. :) i will get over to your blog later to read & comment.

alex, thank you for your comment!

alice, there are so so so many ways that this could be improved. what if after the bean planting they had one at school and one at home and observed to see the differences in how they grew? what if they planned and executed their own experiments? what if the kids from 3rd grade came in and helped them plant and talked about their own experiences from the year before? what if the teacher wanted to know what else they wanted to do? what if the school garden was available to them for planting and experimenting? and on and on.

this constant skating on the surface and just lightly touching on something then moving on (regardless of whether the kids' interest was sparked) is just .. infuriating. this is the kind of activity that is talked up and made a great deal of - so adorable, so "hands-on" - but even if it has the potential to wake the kids up and get them interested, it doesn't *go anywhere*. they never intend it to go anywhere. it's a useless spark.

Comment by Stacey on July 9, 2010 at 03:19 PM

"this constant skating on the surface and just lightly touching on something then moving on (regardless of whether the kids' interest was sparked) is just .. infuriating. this is the kind of activity that is talked up and made a great deal of - so adorable, so "hands-on" - but even if it has the potential to wake the kids up and get them interested, it doesn't *go anywhere*. they never intend it to go anywhere. it's a useless spark."

I think it goes beyond the world of education. You see it in children's television. Even though it is supposed to be educational each episode is less than a half hour and then the subject is over. All it does for ds is give him a few facts and leaves asking for another episode, to satisfy something.[I know all the TV debates].
Even in the home learning situations these cursory looks at things permeate. I wish I could go back and never have shown my son a video but I have and now I need to learn how to counter-act their effects.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 9, 2010 at 05:23 PM

stacey, yes, you are so right! it's everywhere! and i think we adults adapt — we start to automatically chunk up kids' activities, like we cutting up their meat in bite-size pieces.

anyone who sticks with a single idea or subject for weeks at a time .. well, that's suspect. it was suspect when we did it at school, and it's suspect at home. shouldn't kids be doing .. oh .. more? they mean more = more variety, however. not more = more depth.

absolutely agree with you re: "cursory looks" .. again, we have to reach in and deliberately help children stick with something longer. it's what makes the difference.

Comment by Leisa on July 9, 2010 at 08:03 PM

As a public school art teacher, I am constantly retraining my students to engage in REAL hands on learning. Giving a short demo of a technique or material and then just opening up TIME TO EXPERIMENT and PLAY seems to blow the mind of jr. High students. It's been so long since they've had these kinds of opportunities! And I get so many comments on how engaged my students are! If only this approach were supported across the curriculum.

Also- our "gifted" classes are supposedly hands on(but not really)- and it annoys me that we only open up these experiences to our gifted classes. The regular classrooms need this engagement too!!!

Ahh... To be back at white oak..... But I know that through this I am growing as a teacher:).

Ps- pardon the typing- on the Iphone on our way home from Colorado:)

Comment by Elizabeth on July 10, 2010 at 03:02 AM

Lori, Thank you so much for taking the time to write out such a great response to my question. I am SUPER excited about your book! When are you able to give us more details about it? It will be so great to read your wisdom in book form! My time is limited this evening as my husband and I are going to be setting up my daughter's room to surprise her with guinea pigs for her birthday but I wanted to link you to a site that explains what commonplacing is.

I came across your blog about 8 months ago. I read as much as I could as late as I could keep my eyes open. I think the public schooled soul in me wanted step-by step instructions on how to incorporate project-learning in the home."Just tell me what I need to know for the test" kind of mentality. I couldn't quite grasp all of what you were saying, especially the things you said through the eyes of the child. I decided the best way to empathize with a project-learner was to become a project-learner myself. I came across the above post about commonplacing and decided to have my own commonplace book. It's been great and my daughter loves to help me cut and paste the images into my book. She even says it's "no fair" that I get to have a book like that so I'm pretty sure she'd be receptive to having one herself, but I'm hesitant for some reason to give her one. I feel like I have to have the perfect words to introduce her to the concept...but maybe I've already introduced her to the concept through my own example.

I love the idea of the bulletin (project) board. How do you present the idea of a project board to them? I just made my own bulletin board. Perhaps I should hang one up for my daughter right next to mine. Do you have examples of what a child's project board may look like?

Thank you for your links to your past posts. Also, thank you for the great ideas on my daughter's stories. I never thought to give her own tape recorder or video camera! I'd love to hear more assurances about project learning and virtues. It's the one thing I seem to really grapple with both with other people and myself. I've had people ask me if I worry what sort of person she will become if she's allowed the freedom to choose what she learns. You see, with the freedom to choose she can choose to NOT do things because they are hard. If this be the case, they argue, won't she always choose the easy road or choose not to cook, clean, care for her children because she doesn't feel like it. You made a very good point that she can learn responsibility by being responsible for her own learning. Maybe you and your readers, myself included, can come up with a list of all the virtues that are acquired through project-based learning. In any case, the people who have argued these points with me have children who hate being homeschooled. When I ask what they like to learn about they just shrug their shoulders, say they hate learning and beg to change the subject. That's one reason why I know their arguements against project-learning are flawed.

Thank You.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 10, 2010 at 03:12 PM

leisa, first, what sticks out to me is that even older kids who haven't had these opportunities can still *be* engaged if we give them the opportunity. that's hopeful. although i'm not hopeful the schools will change to give them those opportunities.

second, that old problem .. the gifted classes get to do hands-on, the gifted classes get time to work on their own ideas .. ugh. you're so right. ALL kids deserve these things.

elizabeth, thank you so much for the link! i was not familiar with the idea of a commonplace, and i love it. (and i do it!)

it sounds to me like your daughter is ready to take that idea and make it her own .. and if she doesn't do it the "right" way, that's okay. it'll be fascinating to see what she *does* do with it.

re: the book, it is really impossible to lay out a straightforward guide to these ideas in blog form; a book just lends itself better to a reference format. hopefully it will be a great resource for people who are interested in exploring these ideas for themselves.

re: a bulletin (project) board .. just hang one up above her work area (desk, table, or wherever most of her materials are) and stick a few things on it that go with her project (photos from field trips, xeroxes of book pages, artifacts, drawings, sketches, artwork, etc.) and let her know that she can hang things up herself. once things are displayed together, they tend to draw and focus attention, spark questions, remind you of plans, etc.

a list of questions you can add to over time is a great start, too.

you may want to read (incl comments)

you said, "I've had people ask me if I worry what sort of person she will become if she's allowed the freedom to choose what she learns."

wow, that is fascinating! what an idea — that if children have a say, they will be .. selfish? i would say that a person raised with respect will grow up to be someone who respects others. that if her ideas are respected, she will respect the ideas of others. etc.

"You see, with the freedom to choose she can choose to NOT do things because they are hard. If this be the case, they argue, won't she always choose the easy road or choose not to cook, clean, care for her children because she doesn't feel like it."

ah, well, that one i've heard. :) many times! and it simply isn't true. i've written several posts about this; here are a few:

in a nutshell, allowing children to work on something that is personally meaningful capitalizes on their strong interest and engagement. they work hard because they *care* about what they are doing. then they learn all the lessons about work — that it is hard, but worth it. that sometimes it doesn't work out the way you want, but you can try again. that sometimes there are things you don't enjoy doing that still need to get done.

these lessons are easy to apply to regular life. like .. we may not love doing the dishes, but if we don't wash them, we can't eat dinner on them tonight. and cleaning the studio may not be our favorite thing, but if we want to make prints tomorrow we will be really happy the studio is clean and ready. and etc.

what amuses me is that the same people who will make these kinds of arguments — that children won't *voluntarily* do anything difficult (so untrue!!) — are the same type who say that children have short attention spans and can't handle freedom or choice or expensive materials, etc. etc.

basically, they get kids coming and going. they won't give their children the opportunity to prove them wrong because they are so confident they are right about *what kids are like*. and their opinions are so negative! they think negatively about children and they get negative results .. what a surprise.

going to have to go back to the hundred languages poem here:

in reality, children who are given the opportunity and the support can do amazing work. but if adults don't believe in them, they won't. period.

who decides what you can and cannot do?

Comment by kellyi on July 10, 2010 at 08:15 PM

I have the same dilemma as Stacey, the first commenter! We have projects laying about - some for over a year and occasionally the kids will pick them up and start on them again, but mostly they are in the workshop, all alone.

Having said that, I had a "true" experience of hands on learning with my son this week. Against my better judgment (I am not keen on computer games in any form) he's been playing a dinosaur strategy game. It is really tricky. You need to balance books, understand about archeology, dna, people management etc. I thought at 7 he was too young to understand this game but I kept quiet. He perservered and has enjoyed some success in the game.

BUT this is not all. The overspill from this game has been a renewed, far deeper thirst for dinosaur knowledge, an understanding of book keeping (he has duplicated the system for his pocket money!) and a burning desire to see "real" archeology.

If ever I needed evidence that self directed learning is the way for us, this is it.

Thank you for being the blog of reason when I've wobbled!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2010 at 01:39 PM

kelly, what a great example of how NOT shutting down your kids' interests and methods can lead to overall success.

i've written elsewhere (i think in "who owns the work"?) about how teachers try to overly control the project (no no i want you to study THIS content .. and in THIS way) and end up killing it.

also, good for you for not giving in to your knee-jerk rejection of the computer game! my older son had a love of history-based strategy games and they always spurred him to study and learn more about history. they fit into his learning in a fantastic way, letting him literally "play" with the subject.

and your thinking the game was too difficult for him made me laugh. i had the exact same experience with one of the games my son had. i told him i was so sorry but it was far too complex; he was so young, but he just waved me away distractedly and said he would look at it. and he totally figured it out. :^P

when you get too choosy and controlling about how you want your kids to learn (and express what they know), you end up getting between them and their intense engagement. if you can stay back and let them try it their way, so often you can be overwhelmed by everything they accomplish -- *and* how the learning turns back on itself .. how computer games can lead to books, for instance, instead of killing a child's desire to read (which is the knee-jerk reaction).

thank you for your wonderful story! :^)

and i am blogging an answer to stacey's question today, so stay tuned...

Comment by Becky on July 13, 2010 at 04:24 PM

Lori -
Your posts of the last two days are thought provoking, especially as I gear up for the first year of "officially" homeschooling my son as his friends head off to kindergarten.

My question has to do how to deal with a young gifted learner who mental capacity exceeds his physical capability to work with materials. As an example, my son has had a microscope for over a year . . . he requested it as a reward for filling up his first sharps container after being diagnosed with diabetes at age 3. He spends a lot of time using his pipettes independently to investigate pond water and generates his own exploratory materials from the world. The big question over the weekend was "what does corn look like at the cellular level?" He is clearly not physically capable of wielding a scalpel to shave off a thin slice of corn (and he has problems lining up his slides and needs help to focus) . . . so is he directing his learning and truly being hands-on when his explorations take him further than his body allows?

Sorry for the rambling post, but I spend a lot of time trying to balance these types of issues and would appreciate your thoughts.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2010 at 04:51 PM

hi, becky. absolutely he's still directing and managing his own learning. he might need you to use the scalpel -- or operate a kiln -- or put use a bandsaw. he needs you to drive for him, too. i presume. :^)

some parents may have to negotiate certain things that they just aren't comfortable with children doing even if the kids are gung-ho to try it. i have no problem saying, “i'm not comfortable with you doing this [e.g., using a box cutter] yet” -- stress on “yet“.

remember to always be open to his ideas and let him try different things even if you are sure they won't work. leave room for him to make his own mistakes and discoveries.

your comment wasn't rambling at all! stick around, i'll show you rambling. ;^)

Comment by Deirdre on July 30, 2010 at 01:31 AM

Can I just say I'm furious? After checking in here compulsively in May and June, I come back today to find this BOUNTY of posts on just what I would want to, when I've just declared August an unplugged month?!

Your Inspiration Overload post says everything I couldn't articulate to a friend today about why I feel the need to unplug. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't know about the revival going on here or I wouldn't have been as eager to take the rest of summer off blog reading.

I'll still be emailing so I'll pester you with questions there, and trying to catch up here before Aug 1st. Lori, I'm the whiny student in the back of the room who keeps asking the same thing...can't you use feedburner or something to "alert" subscribers to a new post? Or just me;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 30, 2010 at 02:34 AM

deirdre, lol, sorry for my poor timing! i suggest you print out & then you can read them in an unplugged fashion. :^)

i think taking time off is a great idea. after all, *i'll* still be here when you get back. as well as *most* of the rest of the internet. ;^)

we are launching a new site in october and i promise that we will have e-mail subscriptions & whatnot! i promise! thanks for pestering; makes me feel loved. :^)


(p.s. enjoy your unplugging!!!)

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