Hands-on Learning? It’s all in the hand

If you teach in the early years, the odds are your classroom is full of physical learning materials. From plastic letters to wooden blocks, these materials provide children with the hands-on experience that is so important for their learning. But why is hands-on experience important for learning? It seems obvious, but this is a question that researchers have spent many decades trying to understand. This question becomes even more troublesome when considering subjects such as Maths. Why should learning something as abstract as fractions or tens and units, be supported by manipulating objects like blocks or tiles?

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Froebel’s gifts c1820s. That different from what we use 200 years later?

Frobel, Montessori, Dienes. There are just a few of the many educational pioneers who have advocated the importance of physical materials in early learning. In the 1960s, Jean Piaget provided a theoretical rationale by describing how children progressed from concrete to abstract forms of thinking. This ‘concrete to abstract’ development is echoed in practice today – with children progressing from physical materials in the early years to more symbolic forms of representations (e.g. numerals on a page) as they advance through the years. It’s not surprising that many children start to associate physical materials with their younger, or less able, peers.

Piaget’s work inspired many others to better understand how children’s thinking develops. It also provided a starting point for researchers to examine how using physical materials influences children’s thinking and learning. Unfortunately, this wealth of research[e.g. 1] has failed to provide us with any clear understanding of if and how physical materials benefit children, and importantly, how and when teachers should use them in the classroom.

In the last couple of decades there has been a renewed interest in physical materials and hands-on learning for two main reasons. Firstly, new digital learning materials raise pertinent questions. Does moving blocks on a screen using a mouse or touchscreen still constitute hands-on learning? Are there any unique benefits of manipulating materials physically as opposed to through a device? Is there anything to be gained from new technologies that can capture and respond a wide range of physical actions (e.g. Nintendo wii/ Kinect)? The second reason for renewed interest in physical materials reflects some major new thinking about the relationship between our bodies and minds.

The mind-body split articulated by Descartes dominates how we think about the relationship between our everyday physical actions and the ideas we learn. Hands-on experience may be important, but ultimately distinct from the concepts children develop in their brains. This position is being challenged. The last couple of decades a new theoretical paradigm, entitled Embodied Cognition, has emerged that argues that several cognitive processes are best understood when they are seen as grounded in (inseparably linked to) our body’s interaction with the world. There are several claims made under the umbrella term Embodied Cognition[2]. Many of these talk about the way we all use the environment to support our everyday thinking: children’s using their fingers to reduce the demands of adding, or their parents using phones to reduce the task of remembering friends’ phone numbers, for example. However, a more radical claim of Embodied Cognition refers to the nature of our thinking even when not using such ‘task-relevant’ tools – our ‘offline cognition’, for example, solving a maths problem ‘in our heads’, or working out the way across town when you haven’t a map.

We are finding increasing evidence that our ‘offline’ thinking is still body-based – we still activate systems that are concerned with sensing and moving in the world. This can sound confusing, and perhaps more confusing is how we can possibly know what is going on in people’s heads when they are thinking. Here we have several exciting new research methods that are building our understanding. One method is brain scans – looking at what parts of the brain light up when asked to think about different ideas. Another method is gesture research. This is my research area.

When we explain our ideas to people we often gesture. People have studied gestures since the time of the Greeks. Gestures are a communication tool – just look at the way our politicians use them. So why then do we gesture on the phone when the listener can’t hear us? Why does a baby born blind still gesture to another child also born blind[3]? In the last twenty years there has been increasing evidence that the main function of gesture is not to support the listener (although they do) so much as the speaker[4]. Our gestures help us think. This is because gestures help us express the nature of how we are thinking. And for this reason, gestures provide a rich window into the nature of thought itself. Examining children’s gestures is a way to examine what images and actions are inseparably linked in the concepts they hold.

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Gesturing when solving a maths problem

Look at the video linked to image above[5]. This child is solving a maths problem. Without reading the text, could you guess what they are doing with their fingers? The child trained to solve complex numerical sums using an abacus. Their gestures show how they are simulating this abacus to solve the problem ‘in their head’. By examining children’s (and adults’) gestures we are starting to build a picture of what type of sensory and movement experiences provide the foundations for thinking in different areas. My research has sought to examine what type of hands-on experience ground children’s concepts of number.


Why does 1+8 make the same as 2+7?

This question was designed to tap into how children conceptualise numbers. There are many ways to explain this numerical relationship, with one way (often used by adults) is to talk in terms of how 7 is one less than 8 and 2 is one more than 1. Often children’s language reveals much about how they are thinking about numbers, often it does not. Another window is how they gesture when they explain this relationship.

In one study[6] with 104 children, 62% of children gestured when explaining this relationship. By watching video clips over (and over…) again, it has been possible to code the types of gestures children use. Gestures generally fell into two types – those that looked like children were manipulating imaginary objects, and those where children seemed to be indicating points along an imaginary line running left to right.  This is significant, because these gestures relate to interaction with two different types of maths materials – physical materials, and number lines. Traditional theory might suggest that the less able children’s gestures simulated actions with objects and more able children’s gestures simulated actions with a ‘less-concrete’ number line. This was not the case. Indeed, our research is examining how the opposite may be true for this particular problem.

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Gesturing when explaining maths

As a researcher, I love to take a small study and generate a major theory that goes well beyond the evidence. In journals, I get caught out, so here I have a chance. I believe my research supports theoretical work in cognitive science saying that all numerical concepts are grounded upon two major ‘metaphors’ – that we conceptualise numbers as ‘collections of objects’ or as ‘points along a path’. But I also believe that we draw differently upon these metaphors depending on the problem at hand. Want to add numbers? It’s maybe better to think of them as being along a line, which you can ‘count up’ or ‘count down’. Want to solve a fraction problem? Then you may find it easier to think of numbers as collections you can ‘break’ into smaller collections.

If, as I believe, we draw upon these two metaphors in different ways for all number concepts – from counting to calculus – that would suggest we need to think carefully about the materials we provide throughout children’s development. It would contend the traditional move away from ‘concrete’ objects.

So where was I? Oh, what is the importance of hands-on learning? It is possible that our hands-on experiences of moving objects into collections or walking in steps along a path (then linked to tracing arcs along a number line) are internalised into our very concepts of number. Consequently, when explaining our thinking about numbers we often simulate these experiences – observable in our gestures.

I hope I haven’t confused in this blog. Take away points?

  • Think critically about what materials children are using and how that relates to the way you can talk about different number ideas.
  • Encourage children to increasingly imagine these materials in their heads
  • Don’t let children (or adults) stigmatise physical materials as being for the less able
  • Look at how children gesture. Teachers don’t have video cameras and hours to analyse gestures but even in real time, they can provide an interesting window into children’s thinking
  • Look at how you gesture to children. Research tells us that teachers very often gesture and naturally change their gestures according to children’s understanding. Yet when’s the last time you had gesture training?
  • Think critically about technology. How do they change children’s physical actions? Do you think that matters?

The main message however is we now have a way to examine and understand questions that have been in education for decades. There are implications for classrooms, but no definitive solutions yet. What we do know is that once we are able to see how children gesture to express their thinking in a classroom each day, we are in a strong position to contribute to our understanding of the importance of hands-on learning; and the relationship between our minds and bodies.


By Dr Andrew Manches


For more information on Dr. Manche's work please click here.



1          McNeil, N. M., & Jarvin, L. (2007). When theories don’t add up: disentangling the manipulatives debate. Theory into Practice, 46(4), 309-316.

2          Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.

3          Iverson, J. M., & GoldinMeadow, S. (1997). What’s communication got to do with it? Gesture in children blind from birth. Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 453-467.

4          Goldin-Meadow, S. (2000). Beyond words: The importance of gesture to researchers and learners. Child Development, 71(1), 231-239.

5          Brooks, N., Barner, D., Frank, M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). Gesture in Mental Abacus Calculation. SILC Showcase. fromhttp://www.silccenter.org/index.php/showcase/167-showcase-november-2012-gesture-in-mental-abacus-calculation

6          Manches, A., & Dragomir, M. (2015). Gesture as a means to examine the role of physical interaction in early numerical development. Paper presented at the Paper presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the AERA, Chicago, US.