Teaching and Learning Resources
by Gwen Dewar, PhD
Research suggests that active exploration wires the brain, and helps kids develop powerful intuitions about concepts central to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
What happens in a child's brain when he or she plays outdoors? What do kids learn by sticking their hands in a rushing brook, or dropping seeds into the wind?
You've heard that children sharpen their spatial skills by playing with construction toys and jigsaw puzzles. The rationale is easy to grasp: Hands-on activities allow kids to inspect shapes from different visual angles and perspectives. So they don't just improve fine motor skills. Through practice, they train their brains to imagine and rotate shapes in their own, internal, 3-D simulator. They learn to see with the mind's eye.
It makes sense, and so we recognize the value of puzzles and building blocks for early cognitive development. But spatial toys aren't the only materials that children can learn from, and hands-on activities can do more than improve a child's mental rotation abilities. Active, outdoor play can enhance learning, and spark insights about the physical world.
Fascinating studies support this idea. They indicate that kids learn new "motion" verbs faster when they perform the movements themselves. Children show better comprehension of a story if they act it out, rather than merely repeat the words. And hands-on learning helps students understand physical interactions and natural phenomena. It isn't a passing developmental phase, or a quirk of early childhood. Rather, it seems to be a general characteristic of our brains: Adults and children alike benefit from active, physical learning opportunities....
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