Hands-On Learning

In chatting with some home school moms several years ago, the question came up,

“How do you motivate your kids to do their schoolwork?”

One woman expressed her frustration over constantly battling with her son. She would send him to his room every day to do his schoolwork, but when she checked on him later, she found that he had hardly accomplished anything at all. Some of the other ladies echoed similar experiences in their own homes.

I quickly realized that these really sweet, well-intentioned moms were missing the heart of home education. They had mistakenly equated education with completed workbooks. What was missing was the opportunity for rich learning experiences and the relationship-building interaction home schooling can provide.

Thinking about my own family’s home school journey and what had helped us thrive, I recognized the stark contrast between a home where completing curriculum is the goal and a home where learning is a hands-on, multisensory, interactive adventure. Yes, our children still need to complete their math problems and reading assignments, but there is a way to create an atmosphere where the joy of discovery and the thrill of deeper understanding are common in our homes.

You have undoubtedly heard the William Butler Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” The goal of our home education experience should not be to cram a particular set of information into our children’s brains. Rather, when we waken interest and kindle enthusiasm, our children can develop a great love of learning that will last a lifetime.

An amusingly descriptive quote by Arthur Prince goes like this: “Education which is simply intellectual taxidermy–the scooping out of the mind and the stuffing in of facts–that kind of education is worthless. The human mind is not a deep-freeze for storage; the human mind is a forge for production.”

A love of learning, coupled with an understanding that a child is created by God and that He has a plan for his or her life, will provide a solid foundation of inspiration and purpose in each child.  There are no limits to what a child can become or achieve in this kind of environment. We can avoid the trap of being consumed with “doing school” and instead focus on developing the love of learning in our children by incorporating hands-on learning in our daily home education enterprise.

Hands-on Learning is Multisensory

We were created to experience the world around us through our senses. Look for ways to incorporate the five senses—touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight—whenever possible.

Incorporate Multiple Learning Styles

It is helpful to know your child’s learning style so that you can find curriculum and present information to him in the manner that will be most easily received. It is also important to expose your child to all three styles of learning. The more ways he encounters information, the more apt he is to learn it, and the more adept he will be at receiving instruction in various forms.

  • Auditory: Do things that involve the student listening and also speaking.
  • Visual: Do things that involve the student seeing as well as representing in visual form (drawing, painting, writing).
  • Kinisthetic: Do things that involve physical movement and touch.

Teach Children Together Whenever Possible

If you have more than one child, look for opportunities to teach them together. History, science, and literature are excellent subjects for teaching children of varying ages. If you are all learning about ancient Egypt, for example, you can simply create more challenging, in-depth assignments for older children while having younger children engage in activities that are appropriate for their own age and ability. Teaching children together saves preparation time and makes learning even more fun because it is something you are sharing as a family!

Read Aloud to Your Children Regularly

In all my years of home schooling, this idea was one of the most revolutionary for me! I had wrongly assumed that once my children learned to read, my reading aloud days were over. Thankfully, this notion was challenged early on by a friend of mine! Even up into their teen years, I have read aloud to my girls. We have shared quite an adventure together reading biographies and other great books this way.

Select some quiet activities to have available for your children to do while you read to them. My girls often enjoyed working on a project (painting, drawing, knitting, making collages, etc.) while I read aloud.

Reading aloud works well with children of varying ages. It helps expose younger children to new vocabulary and gives them the opportunity to enjoy literature that may be beyond their current reading levels. I regularly read aloud books that corresponded with whatever we were studying in history.

Incorporating Hands-On Learning Infuses a Love of Learning

Learning with lots of hands-on activities is a bit like making pickles! If you take a cucumber and dip it quickly into a bowl of vinegar, the cucumber might have a little vinegar on its skin, but it will remain unchanged. However, when you soak a cucumber in a salty brine and spices, heating it, cooling it, and letting it sit for a period of time in that mixture, the cucumber becomes infused with those flavors, changing it into a new creation—the pickle.

Incorporating hands-on learning activities helps us infuse our children with the love of learning and give a broader, deeper understanding of a topic as they are exposed to information in more and varied ways. The act of reading a chapter and answering questions, for most children, is like being dipped in the information and then quickly removed. Minimal saturation occurs. If they read it, talk about it, re-tell it, paint illustrations of it, play a game about it, taste it, hear music associated with it, and demonstrate how it works, that knowledge becomes part of their being—useable and alive.

For the majority of human beings, the following statement holds true:

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
~Confucius (450 BC)

If I watch someone build a birdhouse, I have witnessed a demonstration. If I get the chance to build one myself, I have gained understanding and skill. We make our jobs as home schooling parents easier when we teach in a way that sparks interest and enthusiasm in our children.

You do not need to invest a lot of time or money to make your home school experience a rich adventure. Look for little ways along the journey to make learning a joy for your child. You will be amazed at the difference it makes!

There are an unending number of activities you can incorporate into your home education adventure with very little preparation, time, or money! Even if you are not especially creative, do not despair. This list will inspire you and get your creative juices flowing. Use these suggestions as a springboard to finding resources at the library or on the Internet that will give you more specific ideas and directions.

Motion-based Activities

Motion-based activities are perfect for the kinesthetic learner or a child with lots of energy!

  • Marching, Rolling, Jumping, Bouncing a Ball
  • Have your children recite their math facts (skip counting, times tables, etc.), spell their spelling words, or answer questions while marching, rolling, jumping, or bouncing a ball. One of my girls’ favorite activities when they were learning phonics was “Tumbling with Mom.” We would pick a word ending like “at” and then take turns doing a forward roll on the carpet while adding a letter and making a word (cat, bat, sat, rat) until we could not think of any more words with that ending. What they loved most was that I was not on the sidelines watching them; I was doing it with them.
  • Shooting Baskets
  • Have your child answer a question and then toss an object into a basket. The object could be a ball, small stuffed animal, bean bag, or rolled-up pair of socks; the basket an empty box, a laundry basket, a plastic bin, etc.
  • Felt Shapes
  • Felt is an inexpensive material that can be used for a myriad of activities. Use a permanent marker to write numbers, letters, facts, etc. on pieces of felt. Call out a question and have the child jump onto the correct answer. You can also attach pieces of adhesive-backed Velcro® to a ping pong ball and have your child toss the ball onto the felt squares. The Velcro® will cause the ball to stick to the felt. This game would be a great way to learn the books of the Bible in order, for example.

Review Game and Word Game Actibities

Anytime you can review what you are learning in a fun, creative way, the more apt your child is to remember it.

  • Concentration: A game of Concentration is a great way to reinforce vocabulary. Write each vocabulary word and definition on separate pieces of cardstock or index cards—use one color paper for vocabulary words and another color for definitions. Place the cards face down on the floor or table–definitions in one area, vocabulary words in another—and take turns choosing one of each to try to make a match. 
  • Create a Word Puzzle: A favorite review exercise at our house was for the girls to take their vocabulary words and create a crossword puzzle or word search (plus answer key) on graph paper. We made photocopies of the puzzles for Dad and others to solve.
  • Create a Board Game: Let your children use a piece of poster board or cardboard and other art supplies to create a board game. They can compose question cards that coincide with a topic they are studying. Designing the game board layout and rules of play helps them learn strategy and organization as well.
  • Pictionary, Scattergories, Trivial Pursuit: These are examples of board games you can play with words pertaining to what you are studying. If you have any of these games, search the cards to find ones that match your topic, or you can create your own cards. Then play the game according to the rules using those cards you have selected or made.
  • Sorting Games: Younger children can learn to sort and sequence (smallest to largest, shortest to tallest, lightest to darkest, smoothest to roughest, etc.) using household objects, food, clothing, toys, and objects from nature.
  • Bingo: Create Bingo cards to go with a topic or theme. For example, your children could use stickers to create Animal Bingo cards, putting a different animal sticker in each box of the grid. You can create a grid on the computer or draw one by hand with as many boxes as you like. A card of nine to twelve boxes works well for younger children, and sixteen to twenty-five boxes for older students. We often played Preposition Bingo with our girls when they were learning grammar. I would give them a blank Bingo grid, and they would write prepositions they chose from a list that I would provide. I used the list to call off prepositions until someone got Bingo. To make your Bingo cards reusable, give your children little candies (a roll of Smarties works really well), cereal such as Cheerios, or plastic counters to mark the spots that have been called.
  • Songs: There are a number of good resources available for using songs to reinforce concepts and facts—or you can make up your own. Examples include:  multiplication, skip counting, addition, subtraction, etc. There is also a really good curriculum called Lyrical Life Science that puts science information to familiar (and some not-so-familiar) tunes.
  • Words-within-a-Word: Words-within-a-Word is a great language exercise. Choose a long word or a short phrase that goes with what you are studying (such as “the human body” or “the Declaration of Independence” or “metamorphosis”). Set a timer for two to five minutes and instruct each person to make a list of as many words as he can find using the letters in that word or phrase. Each letter may only be used once (i.e., if there are three E’s, then only three E’s may be used in any one new word).
  • Memorization Game: This is a very easy way to help children memorize a Bible verse, quote, or other saying. Write each word on an individual index card. Tape the cards to a wall, door, or other flat surface. Read the entire verse together out loud a few times. Then, one at a time, start removing the cards. (The cards do not necessarily have to be removed in order—a student may remove a card from anywhere in the saying.) Recite the entire verse out loud after each card is removed until all of the cards are gone. If you have several children, have them take turns removing cards. At the end, have them say the verse together without any visual cues, and then see if they can put the cards back up in the correct order.
  • Jeopardy!  A favorite review game for the end of a study is to make a Jeopardy! game. Create categories and four or five questions for each category, giving each question a point value (100, 200, 300) with the lower-point-value questions being easier and the higher-point questions a bit harder. Tape the cards to a wall with the point value side facing out (questions hidden) and let your children take turns asking for and answering questions (“I’d like Invertebrates for 400, please.”). Jeopardy! is a great review game for the end of a co-op session too. For a study on the human body, for example, categories might be The Integumentary System, The Skeletal System, and The Circulatory System. For US geography, the categories might be Landmarks, Notable People, and Capital Cities.

The great thing about incorporating hands-on learning activities on a regular basis is that it stimulates creativity in your children . . . and in you too! I won’t lie. It does take extra time and energy to prepare hands-on activities for your children. You might be asking yourself, “Is it worth it?” I believe the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Your efforts will undoubtedly yield a child who grasps information and concepts better and who discovers that learning can indeed be fun!

Proverbs 15:2 (The Living Bible) says,

“A wise teacher makes learning a joy.”

Write this verse on a little card, and hang it on your refrigerator or your bathroom mirror–somewhere you will see it every day. It is a great reminder of what is possible!

“If we succeed in giving the love of learning, the learning itself is sure to follow.” John Lubbock

Here are some additional ideas to help you inspire your students to experience the joy of discovery.

Art Activities:

  • Sketch/Draw – Instruct your child to draw a picture that represents something you are studying. Go outside and explore. Give him a sketchbook or nature journal to sketch things he sees.  Have your children do some additional research and write facts along with their sketches.
  • Paint – Use watercolors and acrylics; do bubble painting and straw painting. Give your children different items with which to paint:  leaves, branches, feathers, cotton balls, and so on.
  • Sculpt – Make a model out of clay such as Sculpey® (e.g., parts of a flower, stages of a butterfly’s life cycle).
  • Make Models – Build a ziggurat out of Styrofoam; assemble paper models of an Egyptian temple, the New York skyline, etc. (Dover Publications has a wide variety of Cut & Assemble books.)
  • Make a Diorama – Use a shoebox to create a three-dimensional representation (i.e., the savannah, dinosaurs, ocean life).
  • Make a Collage – Cut out pictures, shapes, and words, then assemble them in a collage on poster board, canvas board, or wood. Adhere with decoupage medium or white glue.
  • Lapbooks, Mini Books, Notebooks, and Scrapbooks – Use Google to learn how to create lapbooks or do notebooking in conjunction with something you are studying. Have your children make a scrapbook with photos and journaling for a family vacation or something about which you are learning. For example, if you grow butterflies or frogs as a science experiment, your students can document the process with photos and notes about what they observe.
  • Maps – Color and label maps. Make a salt-dough map. These are excellent enrichment activities when studying geography and history.
  • Make a Poster or Display – Allow your child to design a poster or three-panel display to illustrate something he has learned. One year we were in a US geography co-op with two other families. Each student created a display that showcased information about the region they were assigned. Parents and grandparents viewed the displays and asked the children questions. The kids had fun sharing what they had learned.
  • Make a Graph – This is a great way to consolidate and share information. Students can conduct a survey and then make a graph with the results (e.g.., ask friends and family their favorite flavor of ice cream, favorite place to buy groceries, least favorite vegetable, etc.) Or students can do research such as how many people put their grocery cart in the cart corral or how many people shake hands versus hug when greeting someone at church.

Theatrical Activities

  • Act Out a Story – After reading a story, have your kids retell the story or act it out for you.
  • Put on a Puppet Show – Puppet shows are a fun way to retell a story or to create a new one. Puppets can be as simple as a drawing that is cut out and attached to a Popsicle stick, as involved as making sock puppets, or even more elaborate puppets.
  • Create a Weather Report or News Report – Children can pretend to be news anchors and deliver a live or videotaped report. When studying a particular region, state, or country, students can present a weather report describing the weather in that area. For a study of a period of history, a news report could be given as if the student were living in that time period sharing news that illustrates their understanding of that era.
  • Reader’s Theater – A Reader’s Theater is a choreographed reading. Students read from a script, and reading parts are divided among the readers. No memorization, costumes, blocking, or special lighting is needed. Students read the text with expressive voices and gestures, making comprehension of the text meaningful and fun for both student and audience.

Other Activities

  • Cook/Bake/Eat – Use the senses of taste and smell to experience food from a particular region, state, country, or period in history. This fun activity incorporates following directions, units of measure/math, and chemistry if students cook the food themselves.
  • Music – Listening to music from a particular area or period of history enhances the learning experience.
  • Write Letters – Improve penmanship and communication skills through correspondence with friends and family. The act of writing letters and thank-you notes also increases a child’s awareness of and care for others.
  • Creative Writing – Instead of writing a report, assign a creative writing activity such as writing a newspaper article or journal entry from the perspective of a person from a period in history, of an animal or object, or of a character in a book. Add illustrations by hand or with computer clip art.

More Creative Writing – Write a family newsletter. Create a dinner menu. Write step-by-step instructions for how to perform a common activity such as tying one’s shoes or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

  • Geography Postcards – This is something we have done with friends who travel internationally, and our girls have found it to be a lot of fun. Ask a friend or family member who lives in another part of the country or is traveling to somewhere interesting to send your child a postcard from that state or country. Ask them to include on the postcard several geography or history questions about that place. Children love to receive mail, and they will not mind doing research to answer these questions! Our girls wrote a letter back to our friends answering questions they sent about France and the Netherlands.
  • Videos and Audio Books – Using a variety of media can make a study multisensory and more interesting. Rent or borrow videos and audio books for a low-cost alternative to purchasing them. It is okay to use only segments of a video too. Audio books are especially nice for road trips or lots of time in the car.


There are countless resources available to help inspire you with hands-on learning ideas. Here are a few to get you started.  In addition, you can conduct an Internet search for “lesson plans” plus whatever topic for which you are searching.

Ignite the Fire by Terri Camp

Creative Family Times by Hadidian and Wilson (preschool activities)

Preschool at Home:  What Do I Do with My Child before Kindergarten by Debbie Feely

Spelling Power Activity Cardsby Beverly Adams-Gordon

Lyrical Life Science

Math for Fun Projects by Andrew King

Science for Fun Experiments by Gary Gibson

MathART Projects and Activities by Carolyn Ford Brunetto

Kids Learn Americaby Gordon and Snow

Activity Guides(e.g., Classical Kids:  An Activity Guide to Life in Ancient Greece and Rome; Westward Ho! An Activity Guide to the Wild West)