When she was a preschooler, my daughter Erin spent most of her day in motion. From the time her feet hit the floor until the moment her eyes closed she was dancing. Her days were spent organizing costumes, creating props and planning shows, all for the sole purpose of dance.
Our house was filled not only with the sounds of Raffi and Fred Penner, but also with the pulsing beats of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. Neighborhood children were drafted to play supporting roles, visiting cousins were quickly worked into the script, and Erin’s younger sister was occasionally given the coveted role of tambourine shaker. There were many moments as I searched for essential props and helped with the casting calls that I felt like I had been transported into a Judy Garland/Andy Rooney movie. You know the kind. “Hey I’ve got an idea! Let’s put on a show.” Only this time the producer, director and star was a four-year-old girl. Movement, and everything associated with it, was what inspired Erin to learn about the world.
Most parents know that no two children develop at the same rate, each one setting his or her own pace with varied strengths and interests. When I looked at my friend’s children and my second-born daughter, it became very clear that Erin’s interests were different from theirs. Was she showing a unique and preferred pattern of learning at such a young age?
Research into the “hows” and “whys” of learning have expanded our understanding of individual learning styles and helped us tune into our children’s unique strengths and needs. In his 1983 book, Frames of Mind, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner described his theory of Multiple Intelligences and expanded what had earlier been known about intelligence and learning. He suggested that previously-held notions of intelligence, including traditional IQ tests, were simply too limited. He proposed eight different kinds of intelligence: Linguistic Intelligence, Logical-Mathematical Intelligence, Spatial Intelligence, Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence, Musical Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelligence, Intrapersonal Intelligence and, more recently, Naturalist Intelligence.
Gardner’s work helped the education community, including parents, to understand that “we are not all the same, we do not all have the same kinds of minds, and education works most effectively for most individuals if . . . human differences are taken seriously.”
Multiple intelligences? Learning styles? What does it all mean when it comes to understanding and parenting your preschooler? It’s generally accepted that there are three basic types of learners: kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. These learning styles refer to the primary way our bodies take in information. Almost all children are tactile or “kinesthetic” learners to some degree throughout their preschool years.
From the moment they’re born, infants rely on their senses to learn about their world. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget referred to this early stage as sensorimotor development—a logical name given the manner in which infants process information. Babies depend on their sense of touch to explore the world and are in a constant state of motion. Sitting, crawling, rolling, standing, mouthing toys, banging, shaking . . . there’s no end to their motor activity!
Many children retain this learning preference, whereas others may begin to adopt other dominant styles. While we use all of our senses to varying degrees, most people favor one over another and they may not even be consciously aware of which mode they prefer. Visual and auditory learners take in information through seeing and hearing, respectively, whereas kinesthetic types learn best by moving. These are the individuals who aren’t content to sit back and listen to instructions. “Here, let me try!” is often their refrain.
Movement and action may be distracting to visual learners, but those who respond to kinesthetic stimuli prefer a more hands-on approach. The more active and involved they can be, the better. No sitting and watching for this group! Because kinesthetic learners process knowledge by using their physical senses they often demonstrate a good sense of rhythm and balance and are generally well coordinated. Some children are particularly adept at stringing beads, creating elaborate art projects, or building complex LEGO structures.
Some of the following traits will tip you off that your child is primarily a kinesthetic learner:
- active and full of energy
- likes to touch and feel things
- enjoys building and constructing (e.g. LEGOs, forts)
- likes role playing and creative movement
- likes to draw pictures, paint, and color
- enjoys cutting paper, stringing beads, and puzzle play
- likes to manipulate materials such as play dough
- has good spatial awareness and coordination
To begin to determine the preferred learning style or strength of your children, spend some time observing them play at home, at a playgroup, or at preschool. “Pay attention to activities your child enjoys, and try to approach learning from that point,” says Kurt Fischer, director of Mind, Brain, and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Even at a very young age children may show a preference for certain toys and activities. What are they drawn to and what activities are engaged in repeatedly? Do they return to particular activities day after day? Are they drawn to dramatic play with plenty of opportunities for music and movement? Do they enjoy the fine motor challenges of crafts, drawing, and puzzle play? Are there some activities that they resist or ignore? Answers to these questions can help you figure out how your child approaches learning.
Many children enter kindergarten as kinesthetic learners; they are most successful when totally engaged in an activity. Schools have begun to respond to this need and have incorporated a hands-on approach to a variety of subjects. Topics like math, reading, and science are frequently approached from an interactive perspective. Children are encouraged to manipulate materials, get their hands dirty, and be actively involved in the process.
When it comes to learning styles, don’t be too quick to attach a label to your child. While he or she might have a dominant preference for absorbing information in the preschool years, the child’s processing abilities will overlap and change over time. My daughter Erin, now 21, is still dancing and teaching her moves to a new generation of preschoolers but she has also acquired some other talents along the way. Children are constantly developing new skills and need encouragement and support to expand their base of knowledge.
No matter what their preferred learning style, preschool children still learn best when they have plenty of opportunities for unstructured, interactive play. Jane Healy, a Colorado-based psychologist and author of Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, states, “Adults have really lost touch with the basic needs of the child. Everything about children’s lives these days seems to be so serious, and play looks like it’s not valuable enough.”
Unstructured play is exactly what tactile, kinesthetic preschoolers require. Kick around a soccer ball with your child, drag out a blanket to make a fort in the dining room, spend a morning painting and creating special books. Crank up the Gloria Estefan tunes and let the fun begin!