Hands-on learning, or stepping on more than a few toes. You decide

H. has been doing some terrific school work this fall, as I believe I have mentioned. While this is great, I am still very careful when we have a new math concept being introduced. Sometimes I just never know if she will understand it right away or if it will be something that hangs us up for months to come. Since the second choice is frustrating for both of us, I try to introduce it as clearly as possible. I also know that after 19 years of homeschooling and part of that teaching my children from rough backgrounds, I am much better at knowing what is going to be a hang-up and have more ideas about what to do about it. I've learned the hard way that you just can't skimp on foundational concepts. 

This is all by way of backstory to explain our math success of the day. H. had reached a point in her math book where the exercise was to say whether two things were equal or not equal. Normally, this is a sort of gimme concept when we reach it. Most typically developing children intuitively understand it and enjoy the page because it is so easy. My gut was telling me that this might not be the case for H. As I was thinking of concrete ways to demonstrate the idea of equal and not equal, I remembered our bucket balance that I bought years and years ago, but which has mostly been a mildly played with novelty for the rest of the children. No one has really needed it to understand something. I realized with it and our interlocking cubes, H. and I could play with the idea of equal and not equal to our hearts content, and not only would we just be talking about it, she could see it at work.

I explained what the words meant and then spent some time showing her how the balance works and how the buckets have to have the same number of cubes in each of them to be balanced. We then played a game where I would put an unknown number of cubes in one side and she would have put cubes in the other side to figure out the number. To explain how not intuitive this whole process was for her, it took several rounds of the game just for her to figure out that to figure out the amount in one side, she would have to put cubes in the other. Then, once she had done that and got it balanced and remembered how many cubes she had put in, she still couldn't figure out how many were in the other side. After many rounds of doing this, the light bulb went on and she got it.

An interesting rabbit trail we followed in the middle of all of this was when H. asked if it mattered what color cube she used. I realized she didn't understand that their weight was equal, so we spent some time figuring out together if all the colors were the same weight. She loved this game playing, by the way, and by the time we were done and attempted her workbook page, she whipped through it with ease.

When helping children from deprived or less-than-ideal backgrounds to learn, we just cannot take anything for granted. Typical children in healthy homes have spent years playing around with concepts such as this. They have played with blocks, they have balanced things, they have created levers and other simple tools which rely on concepts such as this. These children intuitively understand when something is the same and that something can be the same in different ways. They might not be able to use words to describe the concept, but once the concept is explained to them it makes sense.

It is the manipulation of objects, testing, experimenting, all done in the name of play that provides the intellectual foundation for children to understand more abstract concepts. The hands-on experience is what makes it possible for children to learn. Here is one of my major concerns about parents using computer based curriculum to teach children, especially those who most likely missed out on key experiences in their early childhood. Watching something on a screen, even watching someone else use a manipulative, is not the same as doing it for yourself. It doesn't use the same part of the brain and does not involve as many of the senses as actually doing it with ones hands.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that they could short-cut key parts of childhood in the name of efficiency and ease. Sure it's easier to plunk a child down in front of a computer or screen and tick 'school' off the to-do list. But just because something is easier for adults does not make it better or easier for the child. Children need to use their hands, to discuss things with a real, live adult, to experiment, to make messes, to break things, and to fail. And they need to do these things themselves. No amount of screen time watching someone else do these things will take the place of actual real life experience.

If this is true for typical children, how much more true is it for children from hard places? We can't just assume that because they are 7 or 10 or even 14 that they have the necessary foundation for learning. They may be able to do some intellectual tasks, but it is a house built on sand if they do not have the play experience with real objects underlying it. And just because they are older does not mean that they have to be done with school at 18. If you are homeschooling the one thing you have in abundance is the gift of time. Time to go back and catch all the experiences that were missed.

Please, please, please, put the screens away.


Carla said…
I loved this! What a great reminder to be deliberate about limiting screen time for my almost 5 and almost 1 year old. Just playing is so, so, so good for them. I sometimes feel badly when my son asks to watch a movie and I say, "No, you watched one yesterday. Today is just a good day for playing." He whines and complains, but I needed this post to keep my resolve and encourage a variety of hands-on playing.

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