Multi-Sensory Tools in Early Learning
As we get settled into the new routines that come with fall and the begining of the school year, caregivers and educators alike often wonder whether their children’s learning needs are being met. We constantly want to adapt the tools we use so that we can capture our learners’ attention and help them learn.
Young children are naturally curious learners who make sense of the world around them through their senses. They individually have their own way of processing information as they explore the things in their environment through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
It’s often interesting to witness how young children respond to new play situations. When we give them a new fidget toy, they would often try out a variety of ways to engage with it. They may squeeze it, smell it, shake it to see what it sounds like, or even put it in their mouth to taste it. Research in cognitive development suggests that children learn best and retain information better when they are provided opportunities for multisensory learning.
What is multisensory learning?
Multisensory learning is an approach that engages more than one of the senses or modalities – visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. Learning visually may include reading a text, watching a video, or looking at pictures and graphic organizers. Auditory learning may involve listening to music, rhymes, chants, and songs, having conversations, and talking about one’s own ideas. Tactile learning is also like hands-on learning wherein we make use of materials with different textures and functions to learn various concepts. Kinesthetic learning includes gross motor activities such as dancing, playing games, or having races.
The multisensory approach is not a new concept in the field of education. More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered the first multisensory preschool programs in Italy, preparing young learners for reading and writing.
The Montessori approach uses multisensory materials such as touch boards, wooden shapes, puzzles, and metal insets for children to learn concepts in early literacy and numeracy. Children are taught sound-letter association by having them trace the letter sandpapers while saying their corresponding letter names and sounds. They also used moveable and cardboard letters that learners could hold and use to build and read words. For learning math, sandpaper numerals, counters, blocks, and manipulatives are also utilized.
Subsequent research on multisensory techniques mostly centered around literacy and teaching struggling readers through the combination of visual-auditory-tactile stimulation. These include the works of Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham which further led to the development of other reading programs like the Wilson and Barton systems. These have a systematic, explicit and multisensory approach to teaching reading.
What are the benefits of multisensory learning?
Involving more than one of the modalities helps children build connections in their brain pathways and recall information better. It also helps them develop problem-solving skills, language skills, fine motor, and gross motor skills.
Moreover, multisensory activities in early childhood education combine play with learning concepts, piquing preschoolers’ interests and keeping them engaged.
Using multisensory tools is beneficial for children who have different learning styles and needs, including those who may be having difficulty with one mode like those with learning disabilities. For instance, some learners may have difficulty with visual processing or auditory processing. Using multisensory tools would involve engaging two or more of their senses, especially the tactile or kinesthetic sense to enable them to learn more effectively.
Today, we thought we’d give you some functional ideas on multisensory activities we can do to help our young children enjoy learning a variety of concepts:
- Play dough activities
Play dough is a very versatile material that we can use for concept and language development among preschoolers as they use their senses to smell it, feel the texture, and see different shapes and colors, while talking about the whole experience by using descriptive language. They are also developing dexterity as they knead, mold, spoon, and mix ingredients like flour, oil, and salt.
We can talk about sizes; big and small, long and short, or fat and thin. We can use food coloring to talk about colors and what happens when we mix them. We can also make different shapes with cookie cutters, tell stories, play pretend, and use play dough mats for learning letters, numbers, counting, and a whole lot more. The possibilities are endless.
- Sensory bag explorations
Sensory bags are filled with many different materials that can provide young learners, usually infants and toddlers, with the sensory input they need. These are easy to make, inexpensive, and mess-free, which parents and educators really appreciate.
Fill a clear plastic bag like a Ziploc with a liquid of choice (water, oil, hair gel, shaving cream, or paint) as well as small objects like buttons, beads, pompoms, toys, sequins, glitter, and anything we can possibly think of depending on the concepts we want to learn with our children.
We can explore colors with oil, water, and food color sensory bags. We can also sort tiny objects according to a similar property, like sorting beads, pompoms, or buttons according to color. We can play I Spy games, counting games, or make abstract paintings. There are so many ways to learn and engage the senses with sensory bags.
- Playing with manipulatives
Mostly anything that kids can pick up, handle, and tinker with their hands are essential for hands-on learning. One of the best ways to learn early math concepts like number sense, patterns, and shapes is through using manipulatives. Early childhood educators consider the following as some of the most frequently used manipulatives in the classroom: counters, pattern blocks, tangrams, unifix cubes, and colored links. These can be bought in toy stores and even dollar stores.
However, we can also use items we have at home like clothespins, pebbles, popsicle sticks, and many others as manipulatives, depending on the activity we want to do with our learners. For example, we can use popsicle sticks with round Velcro on each end to form different shapes and explore their properties. For one-to-one correspondence counting and matching activities, we can use clothespins and cardboard. This also helps them develop their pincer grip. There is definitely a lot of room for creativity and resourcefulness in using or upcycling things we have at home.
- Sand trays
From “small worlds” play to writing letters and spelling words, using sand trays in early learning is also one of the most flexible multisensory tools. Sand trays can be used to make miniature settings like a jungle, savannah, beach, or construction site. Simply fill it with small animal toys and other elements relevant to your theme like seashells, tiny rocks, plants, or even toy vehicles.
For learning literacy, we can also make use of sand trays for tracing and forming letters, learning phonemes, and spelling words with older children.
- Music and movement
Singing and dancing are not just fun activities for young learners, they are also beneficial for their overall development. As they groove to the beat, they learn things like patterns in sound, rhythm, and language. They also develop balance, control, and coordination with their gross motor movements. Not only that, it helps them express their emotions and creativity as they interact with others.
Some tools we can use are instruments like xylophones, tambourines, egg shakers, maracas, castanets, bells, small drums, rain sticks and rhythm sticks. In settings that involve a group of children like in preschool classrooms, parachutes and stretchy bands are also sometimes used in circle time and music and movement activities.
These are just some activities we can do to incorporate multisensory learning with our young children. We hope this resource will help as we continually experiment with different tools and techniques to help our kids enjoy learning and develop holistically.
We hope some of these ideas help making learning enjoyable and that it helps your children learn!