Kinesthetic Learning

Modern day classrooms are structured in a way that benefit children who do well by sitting and listening to information.  Unfortunately, this is not a lot of younger kids and even some older kids struggle with this set up.  If we think about how many children are being diagnosed with disorders like Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD) yet these same children are capable of learning when deeply involved in a task, we see how one’s learning style can conflict with one’s learning environment.

The basis of the modern learning environment is the idea that children learn best by first being given information, then thinking about this before acting, if they are allowed to act at all.  This is the antithesis to what we call “kinesthetic learning” in which action comes before thought and doing preceeds learning.

Research on kinesthetic learning

In some countries and classrooms, a push for kinesthetic learning is taking place, even though current research actually doesn’t support its effectiveness in the classroom.  You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to talk about it at all if research doesn’t support it, but the problem seems to come from a variety of different factors, including the types of kinesthetic learning that exist and how we identify learning styles.

For example, the main focus of research into kinesthetic learning has been on “meshing”.  Meshing refers to the idea that children learn better when given a teaching method that fits their learning style.  This sounds perfect and should result in better learning, but it one of the largest problems that has emerged in the research is that teachers aren’t actually very good at assessing a child’s given learning style.  Thus we have to question if the research says kinesthetic learning isn’t helpful, or we don’t know how to best identify a child’s learning style.  What we do know is that the inclusion of more “hands-on” activities (a la kinesthetic learning) actually increases learning in a mixed group of children, not just those who have been identified as kinesthetic learners.

Types of kinesthetic learning

The primary component of kinesthetic learning, as previously mentioned, is doing and this can happen in different ways, some more effective than others.  The most basic implementation is simply the inclusion of movement when learning and this has shown to be highly effective for children with ADHD (and some early studies suggest for all children as well).  That is, when children with ADHD are given desks which double as stationary bicycles, they actually learn more than when forced to sit still.  Some parents may notice when they are reading to their child that the child likes to be moving around and not quite “focused” on the book, but then the child actually retains everything that was mentioned and is actively involved in the story; this is one example of kinesthetic learning.

More advanced implementations include having children use action when learning a concept.  Some uses include drama to learn a variety of concepts, the use of manipulatives for math, or any hands-on element in science (amongst others).  In many cases, these types of learning activities are far more interesting for all students, which may explain the success of these methods in heterogeneous groups.

Finally, in its purest form, kinesthetic learning allows children to explore the world without a formal lesson before or during.  If we look to Japan or Finland or Germany where early childhood education (up to ages 6-7) is entirely (or almost entirely) free play, we see kinesthetic learning first hand.  Children are constantly learning about math, social skills, science, and much more just by interacting with their environment and others.  For example, children who enjoy making mud balls will learn elements of mathematics, such as greater than or less than as well as certain scientific properties like cohesion.  This may not be explicit knowledge right away, but having experienced it means the knowledge is there when more formal terms arise later in the educational process.  Most notably, teachers are not engaged in formal instruction, but are there to oversee play, ensure safety, and answer questions if needed.

Older children and kinesthetic learning

Although more emphasis is being placed on allowing free play (and thus kinesthetic learning) for younger children, it’s often ignored for older children.  I personally believe this is a mistake as many kids can benefit from kinesthetic learning in its purest form.  If you think of the child who enjoys taking the computer apart to try and rebuild it, you have an example of kinesthetic learning and one which is often far more enjoyable and engaging than looking at diagrams of computers and trying to figure things out from that.

Most of us need some form of hands-on experience to truly master a concept, the question is when this experience comes in the learning process.  I would argue that in most cases, we are actually better off letting children (young and old) explore first in order to understand the questions they need to be asking.  In short, they need to realize what they don’t know in order to learn what they don’t know.  After all, isn’t that supposed to be the main point of an education?

By Tracy Cassels

October 26, 2015