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Five Ways to Design Multi-Sensory Units of Learning

Classroom Development

11/22/2021 | Erin Weisman

Every time I smell freshly cut wood I remember sitting at my grandfather’s worktable and learning how to weave a basket. I am instantly brought back a full decade to this space in which we spent hours shaping, weaving, and learning. Smell is just one of our bodies’ tools to process sensory information. When designing units of learning in a classroom, it is important to remember that our learning toolbox includes more than just listening and talking.

Constructivist educators define study as instances taking place over time where individuals create new understandings based on their experiences and perspectives. In the early childhood classroom, we prioritize social interactions and hands-on explorations in order to encourage a more holistic comprehension of content. Rote memorization, lecture-style conversations, and drill-based activities do little to shift knowledge from the brain’s short-term memory into long-term memory. Multi-sensory units of learning engage as many of our senses as possible. Likewise, connecting content to personal experiences and perspectives yields a deeper, longer-lasting understanding.

Depending on your desired learning outcomes and the students’ interests, there are many ways to incorporate multi-sensory learning into your curricular procedures. The following suggestions provide an outline for designing a holistic exploration that effectively encourages content assimilation in your young students:

1. Provocation as an Alternative to Lecture

Find one or two physical items that could spark a conversation among your students when introducing new knowledge to the large group. In a common style of introducing new ideas, we formally sit down with the whole class and talk at them about a new concept. Our hope here is that they will focus on the information regardless of their personal investment in it. In contrast to this teaching style, using physical provocations will inspire original lines of inquiry and excitement for this new topic.

Here, you can offer an opportunity for every child to explore these items with as many senses as possible. For example, when we begin learning about the changing seasons in my classroom, we start with a full-group exploration of different leaves. I bring green leaves, leaves in transition, brown leaves, and forms of needle foliage to our initial large-group gathering on the topic. I encourage my young friends to pass the leaves around. They smell them, crunch or rip them up, listen to the sounds they make when rubbed together, etc. This initiates a natural and immediate sharing of observations, connections, comparisons, and anecdotal sharing.

2. Informal Assessment Through Art Exploration

Each student in your class has a unique learning style as well as personal experiences that influence how they internalize new information. Based on these experiences, your students will have different levels of baseline information when entering a new exploration. It is important to observe and document these different levels in order to effectively design a unit of learning. Children learn most effectively when they can form personal connections with the content. They also learn most effectively when we as educators meet them where they are developmentally.

Try partnering students with similar materials interests (ie. building blocks, paint, playdough, etc.) and encourage them to interpret the initial provocation-based conversation. For example, when we assess our students’ knowledge of the changing seasons, we split them into intentional partnerships and offer varied materials for interpretation. In the past, we saw pairings build forests by stacking Legos in columns, inquisitive friends press the sample leaves into playdough to observe the veins, and young artists mix primary colors to match the colors of the leaves. These student-driven activities continue to build excitement for the topic. They also provide information for the educator on where their students’ interests and their previously held understandings lie.

3. Hands-on Experimentation with Relevant Materials

I recommend avoiding “cookie-cut” activities and worksheets. When we put pre-cut shapes in front of a child and force them to construct our vision, it may activate fine motor muscles, but it will not yield meaningful learning. When lesson-planning, try making an outline of all five senses and including at least one activity that will engage each sense at some point in your unit of learning:

  • Are there child-appropriate songs that are relevant to this topic? Host a dance party or work with your young friends to learn the sign language lyrics. 
  • Do you have a group of friends with busybodies? Create a simple yoga routine that encourages them to use their muscles to interpret the content. 
  • Are your emerging scientists hungry for new experiments? Research a relevant recipe and recreate it with your friends in the kitchen. Cooking can encourage smell and taste experiments in a safe way.

If you are unsure how to engage a specific sense with your topic, ask your students! “This morning we looked at three different kinds of leaves. Are leaves something we can eat?” Regardless of how realistic your students’ suggestions are, they could inspire you to research paths of learning you may not have considered previously.

4. Venturing Outside of the Classroom

It is important for children to know that many answers are not immediately available in their personal environments. No one person has all of the answers and the more diverse the sought perspectives are, the more comprehensive these answers will be. Scaffold research practice as part of your class culture. You can visit a local library or museum, or try asking an “expert” at some point in your line of inquiry. This may be an academic expert like a museum professional or a scientist, this may look like walking to the nearest local business and interviewing employees. When we introduce opportunities for exploration outside of the classroom, we model problem-solving and critical thinking for our students.

For example, my teaching team worked closely with an expert on foraging in our local woods. This expert-led our class through developmentally appropriate hiking trails and helped us identify and pick edible flora. My students successfully internalized strategies for finding wild spring onions as well as necessary caution over eating unknown samples. They began picking handfuls of onions on our weekly hikes (with teacher supervision) to add to our afternoon snack. This type of exploration gave them agency over their learning, taught important skills, and engaged with their passion for nature.

5. Student-Led Summative Assessment 

When you feel your students’ interest waning, or that you’ve explored a topic thoroughly and it is time to move on to something new, it is important to assess how effectively your students assimilated the new content to their previously held knowledge. The data yielded from this type of assessment (when compared to the informal assessment at the start of the exploration) will help you reflect on what works for your students and what requires supplementation or alternative strategy.

Try encouraging the class to engage their larger community. Ask essential questions like:

  • What is most important about this topic? 
  • Who needs to know this information?
  • How can we share this information with them?

For example, we read fiction and non-fiction books about how seasonal change affects animals around the world. For one cohort, a specific folk tale we found at the library became a central focus for my young friends. They requested it every day during our full-group gathering. They connected every lunchtime conversation back to this book. In response, my teaching team encouraged them to create a puppet show version of the story. The children delegated jobs for the production including making puppets, designing the set, inviting other classes to be in the audience, and making the background sounds during the performance. This activity at the end of a year-long study of seasons engaged every type of learner in my class and effectively showed me which skills and knowledge points were most comprehensively shifted into long-term memory.

For years after this puppet show, children that had been in the audience at the time passed through my class and asked to be a part of the production. When we turn the lights off in the room for another activity, these friends point out that the lights were out during that puppet show. When we play instruments in class, they remind me how those same instruments served as background sounds for the folk tale.

These children, both those behind the scenes and in the audience formed lasting memories from this multi-sensory learning unit. Their senses bring them back to the experience every time. People learn best when they have a sensory, emotional, and personal connection with the content. Truly, I will never forget my grandfather’s basket weaving practice. Whenever I enter a playground with fresh wood chips under the monkey bars, my classroom after sharpening pencils, or take a walk in the woods, the smell of freshly cut wood brings me right back to that workbench. I recommend offering your students the same opportunity.

References:

Bullock, 2021. “Improving Long-Term Memory in Students in Early Childhood Education Through The Use of Multi-Sensory Interventions”. 

https://mdsoar.org/bitstream/handle/11603/21457/BullockAngelique_paper.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Cowan, 2015. “Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education”.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4207727/

Hein, 1991. “Constructivist Learning Theory”.

http://beta.edtechpolicy.org/AAASGW/Session2/const_inquiry_paper.pdf

Weisman, 2021. “Exploring Challenging Conversations with Young Children”.

https://www.tryplayground.com/blog/exploring-challenging-conversations-with-young-children

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