Consider your most memorable learning experience in school. Did the experience involve a lecture or a worksheet? Perhaps a bit more likely is that your memorable experience included a project or activity that required you to do something hands-on — building something, acting or performing, or some form of hands-on activity or movement.

"Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." Chinese proverb attributed to Confucius

For many students, the incorporation of hands-on experiences leads to higher levels of engagement and learning. In 1915, John Dewey discussed "learning by doing," later termed "experiential learning."

Today, several initiatives including the maker movement and project-based learning (PBL) incorporate the fundamentals of hands-on learning for all students. The idea is to include and involve learners in experiences that will help them to learn the content and skills being taught. This includes using physical objects that can be manipulated, and can be extended in education to include physical movement by the student in the classroom.

When working with English learners, incorporating hands-on or experiential learning is especially beneficial. For English learners, using hands-on materials and manipulatives:

Makes the abstract concrete: When students are able to physically manipulate materials, abstract concepts in mathematics, science, the social studies, English language arts and other subject areas become clearer and more concrete.

Lowers linguistic demand: Students can practice and show what they know using less language, relying on movement and manipulatives in addition to reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Encourages active engagement: When students are using manipulatives or are involved in hands-on activities, they are often more highly engaged. This type of engagement is visible as the teacher can observe the students' involvement with the material and concepts.

Involves creativity, collaboration and communication: Depending on the particular activity, students can be encouraged to be creative with materials they are using, such as when they are building a model or creating an artistic representation of a concept. If students are working in partners, teams or small groups, collaboration and communication are also involved. Communication is also included when students write or speak about the activity.

Accesses differing areas of the brain: As students use their hands to build, sort or otherwise manipulate materials, different areas of the brain are activated. When we add in reading, writing, listening and speaking, a variety of areas of the brain are activated.

At times it is easy to see how a lesson can incorporate hands-on activities.

Science experiments, for example, often include materials that students manipulate or use to learn the scientific concepts being presented. In mathematics, many textbook materials and programs contain manipulatives that students can count or sort. Measurement in both science and mathematics lends itself to using tools and manipulatives to learn the content.

In social studies and language arts, students are sometimes asked to build a model (or a pyramid, for example), or create a diorama of a scene in a novel. These can be culminating activities or can be incorporated into other parts of the lesson as appropriate.

At other times especially as concepts get more abstract it can be more difficult to determine how hands-on materials or manipulatives can be used to help students learn a concept. Consider that materials can be used in a variety of ways, such as organizing topics written on cards, creating a new model, solution or physical model to represent a concept, classify objects as they relate to a concept, experiment with uses of an object, observe materials or realia, rearrange objects, dismantle and rebuild, and more.

"One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try." Sophocles

Numerous strategies can be used to incorporate hands-on materials, manipulatives and movement in the classroom. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but will hopefully spark additional ideas that can be incorporated into classroom lessons.

Word cards

For vocabulary practice, students can match words with their definitions, each written on different cards. This can be done alone or with a partner. As an additional scaffold, sketches or pictures can be added as a third option. Students can be given or can make a three-column chart on 11x17 paper to sort the words, definitions and pictures, or can simply sort on a desk.

Sentence strips

Similarly, students can practice with sentence frames by using word cards with content vocabulary to make sentences. The frames can be written on sentence strips and placed on the desk. Students then physically put the words into the sentence and read the sentence for accuracy.

Graphic organizers

There are several creative ways to make graphic organizers more hands on including using hula hoops to create a large Venn diagram. Students then insert word cards or pictures to show similarities and differences. Timelines can also be used as a hands-on activity as students draw the timeline and then physically place word cards, pictures, and objects on the appropriate place on the timeline.

Revising and editing during writing

Students can use small sentence strips and pocket charts to write out a paragraph, then physically manipulate the sentence strips to revise the order, add information, or make edits.

Picture file sort

A picture file is a collection of pictures, graphs and diagrams that represent a topic of study. These pictures can be used for a variety of purposes, including making instruction more comprehensible and building background knowledge.


Students can build models, decorate a box, create a model, draw, sketch or paint an artistic representation, or otherwise artistically represent the concepts and skills they are learning.


Students can fold paper in a variety of ways to create graphic organizers or shapes that represent skills and concepts.

Other strategies include having students physically move, rather than just manipulate materials. The following ideas are just a few that can be used during lessons to benefit student learning.

Graphic organizers

Groups of students can create large scale graphic organizers by standing together. For example, having students stand in a line wherein each student represents an event can create a timeline. Students can also stand in lines to create a bar graph representing a specific data set, or stand in a circle and yarn can be used to draw out a pie chart.

Move to music

This activity is similar to musical chairs in that when the music plays, students stand up and walk around. When the music stops, hey turn to the person that is closest to them to read a passage, discuss a concept, etc.

Find a friend

Have students partner with someone else in the room based on a specific criteria. For example, students might pair up with someone who has a similar shirt color, length, color or style of hair, a same or adjacent birthday month, a similar number of siblings, or other criteria.

Four corners

Have students go to one of the four corners of the room (or as many groups as desired). The areas can be set up by content concept, colors, numbers, activities, or other topics. Once in the designated areas, students can work on a particular project, discuss a topic, etc.


In the carousel activity, students move around the room in small groups, visiting a poster. The poster can have a set of pictures, a question, or review topics. At each station, students write their responses or sketch a response. At specific intervals, the teacher has all students rotate to the next poster, read what the previous group has written, discuss the topic, and write their own response. Each group can carry a specific color marker in order to determine which group wrote a particular response on each chart.

Total physical response (TPR) and gestures

There are many ways to include TPR in the classroom. One idea is to have students move to respond. For example, students might stand if they agree and sit if they disagree. Other options include having students vote with their hands, from fist (zero) to five, or stand when they finish a particular task. Gestures can also be used to practice vocabulary words and concepts. Make up a hand signal for a particular word, and have students use the gesture whenever you or another student says the word. For added fun, have the students create gestures for a variety of vocabulary words.

Matching activities

Give each student a piece of information; it could be a part of an equation, a chunk of text, or a piece or a graphic organizer. Students then must find the matching parts among their classmates.

By incorporating a variety of activities such as hands-on activities and manipulatives, and having students move around the classroom for academic purposes, we can increase engagement while helping lower the linguistic demand for English learners and helping make abstract concepts more concrete. While not every lesson will naturally have an activity that includes manipulatives, there are many ideas that teachers can build upon or use to make learning meaningful. These activities assists teachers with formative assessment and determining what students have or haven’t learned as well as misconceptions, as they can directly observe students’ thinking processes as they work.