Learning is experience.
Everything else is just information.
Last winter, during our rainy season when the clay soil was wet, I began digging a broad, shallow hole in my backyard as a base for a patio. The problem was, I didn’t know what to do with all the dirt that came out of the hole. There was a LOT of it! After hauling a few wheelbarrows full of clay to the back end of the yard, I realized that wherever that dirt went, it would stay. I did not want to dig it up and lug it around more than once.
As I began to brainstorm where I could put the rest of the dirt, my daughter squealed—“Don’t get rid of it! I’ve always wanted a dirt pile!” Who knew?
In a trice her shoes were off, her pants rolled up, and she was happily knee-deep in dirt, digging, smoothing, shaping, playing. My daughter was doing what children do best, celebrating her senses, connecting with the earth, learning with her whole body.
Contrast this with another “kid-friendly” experience we recently had. I took my children to Disneyland to see Innoventions’ “House of the Future” in Tomorrowland. I have seen this exhibit a few times over the last 20 years, but this time the Tomorrowland vision of the future really worried me. The house was certainly beautiful—much cleaner than my own home, and better furnished. But the world of tomorrow, as envisioned by Disney, was missing the thing I value most—sensory experience. It got me thinking about the “Classroom of the Future” and what it might be like. And it got me scared. The House of the Future featured a world without touch. Hands-free, with a brilliant, built-in virtual friend.
“Meet Lillian!” a chirpy salesman said. “Say hello, Lillian!” A high-pitched feminine voice filled the room. “Hello. How may I help you today?” A shiver went down my spine.
“Lillian, I need a kid-friendly recipe for dessert,” the salesman said. Instantly, the kitchen counter began to glow, and a recipe appeared, as if on a computer screen. “Can you check the cupboard to see if we have the ingredients for it, Lillian?” Lillian said, “You are missing brownie mix.”
The salesman turned to my daughter. “How about that?” Then he said quietly, “Are you thirsty?” My daughter nodded. “Watch this!” He spoke louder. “Lillian, turn on the water.” Water began to flow from the faucet. “Lillian, turn off the water.” The water stopped. “Cool, huh?”
My daughter reached for the water. “Oh, no,” the man shook his head. “I wouldn’t touch that. It’s recycled.” Don’t. Touch.
Life’s most pleasurable, hands-on experiences – playing with water, cooking — taken out of our hands and homes and given to a computer. If this is the house of the future, what will happen in our classrooms, our play spaces, the world at large?
Many people fondly remember some kind of hands-on, multi-sensory play in kindergarten or preschool—playing with play dough, splashing in a water table, building with blocks. According to Dr. Aric Sigman, a British neuroscientist and fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, such sensory play needs to continue beyond the preschool years. And not just for fun and games: hands-on experiences are essential for neurological development. Hands-on, sensory experiences help the brain make vital connections between mirror neurons, the brain cells that enable us to understand and copy another’s movements—the very basis, Sigman says, of social and cultural education and intelligence. Autism is one example of what can happen when mirror neurons do not function properly.
The importance of the hand-brain connection can be seen early in fetal development, according to Dr. Sigman: “…nerve connections from the hands to the brain develop before the connections that allow the brain to control the hands. It is now believed that the fetus’s hand movements and thumb-sucking, far from being controlled by the brain, may actually wire the brain” (Sigman, 2006). In other words, it’s not our head that makes us smart; it’s our hands.
Frank Wilson, author of The Hand and a neurologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, studies the connection between the hand and the brain. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods,” he says, “about how valuable computer-based experience is. We are creatures identified by what we do with our hands,” (as cited in Louv, 2005, p. 67) and much of what we learn—and can learn—comes to us from what we do and feel with our sense of touch.
In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv celebrates the importance of what education gurus John Dewey and Edward Reed called primary experience—“that which we can see feel, taste, hear, or smell for ourselves” (as cited in Louv, p. 65). When a child learns through their senses, they construct their own knowledge from that experience – no one else decides what they have learned from it. Long ago, Dewey warned of the danger of replacing primary experiences with secondary experiences mediated by an outside authority.
Robin Moore, professor at North Carolina State University, warns that this outside authority takes a new form today in our society—electronic media. Multi-sensory experiences, he says, are being replaced by the “secondary, vicarious, often distorted, dual sensory (vision and sound only) one-way experience of television and other electronic media” (as cited in Louv, 2005, p. 66).
The increase in screen-based recreation and learning is having a testable effect on children’s understanding of the world. In one ongoing test of key cognitive developmental markers, researchers tested 10,000 British school children’s abilities to compare and estimate volumes of liquids in different-sized containers and the weights of objects of different shapes and sizes. This kind of visceral, body-based knowledge—having a “feel” for the physical world—forms the basis of our understanding of science and math among other things. The results astonished the scientists. Eleven-year-olds today had similar scores to eight-year-olds 30 years ago. Researchers attribute this deficit in cognitive and conceptual development to the increase in virtual learning and screen time, and the lack of hands-on experiences (Varlas, 2008).
If hands-on, multi-dimensional, sensory learning is so beneficial to brain development, what is the role of technology in education? Educational institutions, like the rest of society, are obsessed with technology. In classrooms all over the country, teachers, parents, administrators and students are placing their faith in expensive, high tech tools to ensure learning and bring up test scores.
The change from hands-on experiential learning to high-tech virtual learning has been marked in many school districts. In the Kyrene School District in Tempe, Arizona, for example, while technology budgets have grown exponentially, “the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music art and physical education,” (Richtel, 2011) according to an article in the New York Times. In short, hands-on, multi-sensory learning has lost ground to high tech, screen-based learning.
Part of this change may have come about because of commerce. Technology companies have sales reps. The dirt pile in the corner does not. Tech sales reps present their goods and services to school boards and district administrators with slick advertising campaigns and pitches promising the holy grail of high test scores. According to the New York Times, “This is big business. Sales of computer software to schools for classroom use were $1.89 billion in 2010. Spending on hardware is more difficult to measure, researchers say, but some put the figure at five times that amount” (Richtel, 2011).
In addition, high tech, hands-off classrooms promise to free-up teachers to work with even more students. Thus, in many districts, more tech means larger classes. And larger class sizes means less direct teacher-student contact. To school administrators, spending on technology can sound an awful lot like saving money on salaries.
But high spending on high technology may not be able to deliver the improved test scores salespeople promise. The New York Times reports on the findings of Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo to say that “…the research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning” (Richtel, 2011).
Studies have not revealed a connection between spending on technology and improved test scores. In the Kyrene School District, superintendent David K. Schauer told the New York Times, “My gut is telling me we’ve had growth…but we have to have some measure that is valid, and we don’t have that” (Richtel, 2011).
Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE what the tools of tech bring to the classroom. It’s hard to imagine teaching in the classroom I grew up in, without access to the internet for research, email for communication, Google Earth for geography, and communication and authoring tools such as blogs, twitter, web pages and video to get our messages across. But hands-on learning must not be lost in our eagerness to embrace technology. In the classroom and on the playground, we must provide opportunities for kinesthetic, multi-sensory engagement—the modalities that wake up kids’ brains give them a “feel” for the physical world, and help them learn with their whole bodies.
If kids are immersed in technology in the classroom and at home, the best thing we can do for them is provide time and space for multi-sensory learning to take place at school and in the community. One way to do this is to deconstruct playgrounds.
American playgrounds have transformed in the past thirty years. Gone are vacant lots filled with trees for climbing, streams for wading, wildflowers for picking, sticks for making forts –those dirty, messy, wet activities. Gone are merry-go-rounds for spinning out of control, and in many communities, even swings for touching the sky – those risky, dangerous toys. A cadre of companies, adult architects, and regulatory sentinels have descended on children’s play spaces and sucked the very life—and learning—out of them.
When my son was four, he loved playing around the roots of a giant sycamore tree that shaded his school playground. Then one day, the sycamore was cut down and replaced by metal bars holding a triangular cloth shade. Sure, it was an attractive and well-built structure. But it was not alive. It was not a tree. The preschool had been forced to cut down the tree because the law stated that branches could not be within a six -foot reach of a child with 2 foot long arms. They might use their hands to grasp, their legs to jump, their bodies to climb to the stars. Someone could fall and get hurt. Someone could sue.
The Public Playground Safety Handbook, put out by the federal government, offers 60 pages of regulations and suggestions about how to turn on fun hands-on play spaces into a safe zones of static sterility. The pages feature pictures of familiar climbing structures, tube slides, rubber mats and metal bars.
Metal bars. When children have interacted with such a play space once or twice, they lose interest. There is no challenge, no surprise , no purpose in such a play experience. The structures are immobile. They can’t be changed to suit a child’s fancy, pushed and pulled into place, transformed with a child’s imagination. Children can’t get a feel for the world if they can’t manipulate it with their hands.
Consider instead, play spaces that have sprung up throughout Europe called Adventure Playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds are play spaces that provide surprising, changing and challenging experiences. Adventure Playgrounds invite children’s decision-making, encourage reasonable risks that build skills and confidence, and allow children to build and create. They can involve water and wood, dirt and plants, tools and tires—and most of all, imagination.
In Adventure Playgrounds, children build structures and take them apart, they dig in the dirt and splash in water. They climb ropes and trees and make forts in the bushes. Adventure Playgrounds are playgrounds for hands. The only remaining Adventure Playground in the United States is in Berkeley, California has the only remaining Adventure Playground (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/adventureplayground/).
Part of what make Adventure Playgrounds breeding grounds for primary experience is that they often include elements of nature. But a play space does not have to be a certified “Adventure Playground” to include natural elements. In fact, any school playground, backyard or park could be transformed into a multi-sensory learning environment through a few key changes.
The Institute for Nature in Childhood, a nonprofit organization which sprang up to help reconnect children with nature and repair what has been dubbed “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” (Louv, 2005, p. 1) recommends that the following elements—with a few additions by this author—be present in any hands-on outdoor play space (Finch, 2009).
Each of these elements allows children to use not only their hands, but also their whole body and senses to discover the world, construct meaning, and learn. A play-space like this would be both an antidote, and an essential addition, to a high tech classroom.
Transforming a schoolyard into an adventure-playground-like space—including hands-on opportunities to take appropriate risks—doesn’t need to involve expensive or radical changes. The introduction of logs and stumps for balancing, leaping and sitting would be a simple place to start. Or perhaps bringing in palm fronds or branches for building forts, or small rocks and a pile of dirt for making fairy houses. Each year, a few elements could be added—dirt one year, water another—natural elements that require thinking, doing, imagining, incorporated one by one.
In our backyard, my daughter and her friends have moved beyond the dirt pile and have taken possession of a home beneath an Indian Hawthorne bush. It is a cozy hollow. In spring it is roofed in pink flowers. The fine, leafy flooring includes a few pokey blackberry brambles. The children press down an old sleeping bag as a rug. They bring books, plates of crackers, lemonade and set up shop on an old stump. This is where they play house, grind gelatinous berry-leaf-mud-water concoctions on a flat rock, read and sing to sick dolls. It is a perfect house of the future, filled with friends, smells, feelings both prickly and soft. It is a world that appeals to all the senses, requires the eyes to focus near and far, allows for experiences of over and under, wet and dry, in and out, dark and light, heavy and weightless. It is a house for doing. A house of hands that feel and touch, learn and hold. It gives me great hope for the future.
Finch, K. (2009). A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play, Green Hearts, Institute for Nature in Childhood. Retrieved from www.greenheartsinc.org.
Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Richtel, M. (September 4, 2011). In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com.
Sigman, A. (May 23, 2006). Brain and Behavior: Making a Hand Stand. TES Magazine. Retrieved from www.tes.co.uk.
Varlas, L. (July 21, 2008. Hands-On Learning Stimulates Brain. ASCD Newsletters and Publications. Retrieved from http://.ascd.typepad.org.
Weiderhold, K. (March 9, 2006) Adventure Playgrounds: a Dying Breed in the U.S. National Public Radio. Retrieved from www.npr.org.
To learn more about turning school yards and playgrounds into places of exploration, see www.natureexplore.org
For information on Berkeley, California’s Adventure playground, see their website at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/adventureplayground/