Supporting Hands-on Learning at Home

By Maryrose Gray

The buzz in education these days is all about deep understanding and conceptual learning.  As parents, we want our children to be successful and prepared for the types of critical thinking that they will be expected to apply in the workplace and beyond. The more deeply a child understands a concept, the more likely they will be able to apply that learning in a new situation. The Common Core standards are an example of this trend in education. While Common Core standards and assessment are not universally popular, there is still a lot to be said for encouraging deeper conceptual understanding behind all of the arithmetic and step-by-step math instruction that many of us may have received in school.

Why Hands-on Learning is Beneficial

Many researchers have documented the importance of hands-on learning as the foundation of a learning continuum. Children generally need to have a concrete understanding before moving onto more abstract representations and symbols. By giving children the opportunity to manipulate math tools and gain competency in a hands-on way, they will be able to navigate math concepts more fluidly and transfer to abstract concepts.

How Parents Can Continue Hands-on Learning at Home

The internet is full of ideas to continue hands-on learning at home. Most of these activities extend or go beyond what is taught in schools. At any level, these are great ideas, but they might not seem like an efficient use of time if your child has a lot of homework or is struggling with math in school. On an even more basic level, it is important for parents to understand that children progress through understanding on a concrete level (using physical representations) before moving on to pictorial representations, numerals, and symbols. This means that students may need to represent concepts using physical tools or counters, especially at the beginning stages of learning a new concepts, whether it is something simple like counting or more complex like multiplication.

It is easy for children to pick up on patterns and “trick” us into thinking they have a deeper level of understanding. I recommend having some math tools available at home for children to use if they are still in the concrete phase of learning a concept. This can be a great way to support your child during homework time. Instead of trying to teach a trick for how to get the right answer one problem at a time, allow your child to show what they understand using counters or blocks. This will help avoid frustration on both sides, and can turn homework help into a fun activity rather than a chore!