I can’t tell you how often as a child I heard the words, don’t touch! However, we are born with a need to explore our world with more than just one or two of our senses. Doing so helps us learn. And touch is one of the most overlooked senses when it comes to learning and teaching. There are different ways of “learning by touch.” One way is sometimes called haptic or tactile learning and another is kinesthetic learning. It’s been proven that people learn best when they can engage multiple senses. Each of us has a predominant sense for learning, and for those of us who learn best “by touch,” it can make all the difference.
I was reminded of this phenomenon at the grand re-opening of the recently-renovated Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas. All the displays of sea life were beautiful, and on a grand scale, quite enjoyable. But then came the jellyfish exhibit where I could actually interact with—that is touch, the little jellyfish.
What an experience! These gelatinous, unprepossessing creatures are a study in transparency and hold nothing back in interaction. I was mesmerized as they propelled themselves slowly and gracefully through the water, bearing the gentle touch of the human hand with a patient intelligence and curiosity that seemed to match my own. It’s difficult to describe—a crackling sense of electricity, of my entire brain firing all at once, with a feeling of joy and connectivity that is rarely present. For me, there’s a higher level of understanding, a knowing, intuitive and instantaneous, that kicks in when I can touch kinesthetically as part of my learning process. Suddenly the input from my other senses aligns with things already understood and an authentic neural connection is made. This is learning, for me, at its most essential.
In addition to the aquarium, Moody Gardens has a DaVinci Discovery Museum that also gives some opportunity to touch. Although many of the replicas of DaVinci’s inventions have a sign that says, Please Don’t Touch, some of the inventions have signs that say, Please Touch! That was music to my ears, or fingers in this case.
As I’ve previously discussed, dyslexia is a processing disorder whereby the written word presents a challenge. Dyslexics have difficulty breaking the code of the written word, and reading is never automatic. Therefore, one key to optimizing learning environments for students who don’t learn as easily from print is to incorporate teaching strategies that involve multiple senses. It’s important to understand as much as possible about the optimal learning style of each child. Any learning challenge can be managed if only the child’s strengths can be discovered and utilized as compensation.
How can you look for opportunities to offer tactile learning experiences for your child or students? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Spend time outdoors: learning while exploring and moving engages multiple senses. Kids remember experiences more than lectures, even when they don’t have a learning challenge.
- Offer opportunities to touch: collections of items that can be handled are a better way of learning numbers and simple arithmetic than just looking at numbers on a page, for example.
- Drawing, painting, or creating models of subjects being studied makes things real to a tactile/kinesthetic learner, rather than something abstract, which is problematic to remember and understand.
- Utilize 3-D letters as teaching aids: allow the child to explore each shape.
- When reading to your child, follow each word with your finger. Select words and help your child trace the letters in the air as an aid to mapping the design of the words in their brain.