The Benefits of Hands-On Learning

Recently I’ve been pondering the way in which humans assimilate information. I’ve been observing my own kids, and in so doing, learned a lot about, well, how we learn.

We’ve been taking a break from our regular work cycle to “go out” as we say in Montessori; we’ve been taking weekly field trips, enjoying the gorgeous weather, and doing a lot of real life activities.

Last week, we visited the Naper Settlement, a popular field trip destination site in Chicagoland. It’s basically a “museum village” in the middle of Naperville (a very nice suburb of Chicago). The buildings there are authentic to the early 1800’s (many of them actually were early buildings in Naperville), and kids can enter each building to find out about daily life in the 19th century.

As we walked from the blacksmith to the post office, and then climbed into a covered wagon, I listened to my kids talk to me and each other about everything we were seeing. The thought crossed my mind that we could be reading books about life in the 1800’s, but it would never be as real to them as walking through a real 1800’s town.

Other great places we’ve been include the Chicago Botanic Gardens, Cosley Zoo, and the DuPage County Children’s Museum. Between these diverse places, we’ve had a chance to study Botany, Zoology, Physics, History, Geography, Language, and Math.

I realize this post is Chicago-centric, but if you live anywhere in the Midwest, these places would be well worth a visit if you found yourself near Chicagoland. I am thankful all the time that I live near so many wonderful resources; I want my kids’ childhood to be as rich as mine was. My two favorite Chicago field trips while growing up were The Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I look forward to those as my kids get older.

We also have raised Painted Lady butterflies from caterpillars. They just hatched yesterday, and we spent much of the day just observing them as they stretched their wings and learned to walk and fly. It was amazing to watch them up close as they ate, rolling and unrolling their proboscises (probisci?) to drink the sugar water we provided. We read some books about the butterfly life cycle, and it was much more meaningful because we had observed it firsthand.

After our butterflies emerged, the thought crossed my mind that I should have my son write a little essay about the butterfly life cycle. That’s what a “teacher” would do, right? I know that’s the kind of thing I had children do when I was teaching. There’s nothing wrong with a little creative writing, but another part of me wanted to let him enjoy the experience without turning it into an assignment. I think we’re afraid, sometimes, to let the experience stand on its own without “schooling” it up. But we shouldn’t be.

Don’t you think people have had enough of kids sitting at desks, penciling in answers in workbooks? I do. I think the evidence is overwhelming that hands-on, child-directed learning – whether Montessori or some other format – is the way to go. I’m excited to see what the future will bring in this area.

No matter where you live, there are places to go with children that make learning come alive. If not museums, a simple walk through a park, or a trip to a farm or a library will do. Part of the process is just getting out…getting out of the classroom or the house and observing street signs, the weather, transportation, and human interaction.

Last week, a friend of mine came over and brought her 8-year-old daughter. Now, my son is 6 and my daughter is 3, so I wasn’t sure how they would all get along. To my surprise, they all played very happily together outside for quite a long time. My friend told me later that her daughter talked about my daughter all the way home. “Mom!” she said. “She’s only 3, but she knows so much! She told me about how birds have beaks, and how they use them to pick up seeds and dig in the ground for worms. She told me that her caterpillars each made a chrysalis! She knows stuff that I don’t know!”

That made me feel great. We don’t always see the results of the activities, the books, the field trips, and the playing. When we do, it’s an unexpected gift, one that I am very thankful for.