Active Learning: Exercise For the Brain

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer

Every family wants the best for their child, in all aspects of life, including academically. For years, researchers have studied what types of classroom experiences lead to building a solid learning foundation for young children. When many of us think about school, we remember back when we were in 1st or 2nd grade and we think about desks, worksheets, drills, and homework. We think that in order for our child to be prepared for the rigors of these tasks, we should introduce them earlier and earlier. In fact, research shows us the opposite is true.

Young children that have the opportunity to engage in play-based learning in intentionally designed classrooms, and with caring educators there to support and extend their experiences are best prepared for long term success in school and beyond. At The Sunshine House, we incorporate this research into each classroom and learning experience we create for your child. We build our curricular offerings around what we know children need to be ready for the next step academically, and for life. In order to support your child in developing critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills, his or her growing brain needs the active learning that occurs during play.

You may be unfamiliar with the term active learning, but it is easy to identify in action. When trying to determine if a learning environment or experience is built around active learning, just remember the acronym HOMES.

H is for hands-on. Young children are concrete learners; they learn better when they can manipulate real objects. These real objects allow them to create a sort of folder filing system in their brains in which they can store more and more information as they gain it.

O is for open-ended. Open-ended experiences or questions are those that do not have just one answer or one right way. They are those that force children to think through possibilities, to create and test hypotheses, and to explore how things change and interact when used in different ways.

M is for meaningful. Children are egocentric, they cannot think much beyond themselves; their brains just aren’t designed that way. A learning experience is much more powerful when we can connect to it to something that is already of interest to them. We can teach literacy by reading stories about horses or writing the names of horses. We can teach math by counting how many seeds get planted in a garden or how many cups of salad result from a single head of lettuce from that garden. Whatever is meaningful to a child can be turned into a learning experience.

E is for engaging. Children’s bodies are developing so quickly, and they are learning new ways to use them every day. Their bodies scream to move, and the best learning experiences give them opportunities to do just that. Often, when a child sits passively for a long period of time, the brain disengages, and learning stops. In our classrooms, moving children are learning children.

S is for sensory-oriented. Piaget, a great early childhood researcher, said that young children are sensory-motor learners. Not only do they need to move their bodies (as described above), they need sensory engagement. Recent studies warn that too much sensory input can lead to overload, and lessened learning. That is why our classrooms balance a neutral pallet with interesting things to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste. When children explore through their senses, their brains create new connections as well as strengthen existing ones.

If we, as educators, spend the first few years of a child’s life introducing important concepts (math, literacy, science) through experiences built around active learning, they are much more likely to be able to use their brains critically and creatively at each step of their academic careers. Studies have shown that children who are pressured into academic tasks too early (before their brains are ready) suffer not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well. One long-term study shows those benefits continue to exist and even grow as children (now adults) enter their 40’s (and the study continues).

So, the next time you see your child at play, think of HOMES, and look for the aspects of active learning at work. You see, child’s play is more than just play, it is your child hard at work developing the tools and understandings he or she will need to make a mark in this big wide world.