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Involving the Senses Makes Sense

Our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) are the portals through which we gather information and knowledge. Therefore, it stands to reason that the more our senses are engaged, and the more of our senses that are engaged, the greater the opportunity for information retrieval and comprehension. This is why “hands-on’ activities are so useful for teaching — they involve and engage several, or all, of the learners’ senses simultaneously, providing multiple routes for making discoveries.

The goal of hands-on teaching is not literally to get a visitor’s hands on an object or living thing. In fact, this may not be advisable or possible. The goal of hands-on teaching is to amplify learning opportunities by involving the senses in a direct and personal manner. Involvement, after all, is the key to learning. When involved, a learner has both reason and routes for acquiring and retaining information. Allowing visitors to investigate closely and to heighten their sensory awareness ensures a greater level of individual involvement and, ultimately, learning.

Many museums are hesitant to conduct hands-on activities because their collections are too valuable, too rare, or too vulnerable to be handled. While they may be correct about their collections, they are incorrect in their assumptions about hands-on activities. Hands-on activities need not, and perhaps should not, use authentic or original objects. Reproductions, scraps, samples, and other replaceable and inexpensive items can turn a visit to a “hands-off ” institution into an exciting ‘hands-on” experience.

Working with Younger Visitors

If you’ve toured very young children you know that they are innately “hands-on. ” They want to touch everything — even you! This behavior does not constitute intentional insolence or invasiveness. It is a reflection of their natural desire to understand and relate to the things and people around them. Children simply call upon those senses that serve them best.

The first senses we become reliant upon are taste and smell. Certainly you’ve noticed how babies put everything in their mouths. As we begin to age, touch becomes increasingly important. This is evident in the behavior of most toddlers and younger children who develop tactile attachments to items like stuffed animals or blankets.

Knowing that young children’s visual and auditory abilities develop more slowly than their other senses should help educators create age appropriate lessons. Younger children will find activities that require listening or looking for any length of time difficult, so they should be allowed to reinforce these endeavors factually (through touch) or kinetically (through movement)

Among the possible hands-on activities to employ with younger children are to:

  • Let the children feel materials having textures that correspond to objects or art work they are viewing.
  • Have children join hands to form lines or to make shapes that look like the ones they see in art.
  • Ask children to imitate the stance or attitude of a sculpture.
  • Let children explore the past by trying on costumes or hats from earlier time periods.
  • Have children inspect and play with reproductions of toys from an historic time.
  • Encourage children to move in the ways they see certain animals move.
  • Allow children to touch pelts or mounts in order to experience what the animals they see might feel like.
  • Pass around a variety of leaves — deciduous, succulent, evergreen, etc. — and have students experience the differences in their appearance and texture.
  • Give children a sample leaf that they .can examine closely and then search for in the garden.

Older Children and Adults

Even though sight and hearing fully sharpen by 6 to 9 years of age, older children and adults continue to delight in using their other senses. People strolling through clothing stores can be observed touching and stroking the various fabrics. The smell of freshly baked bread or cookies conveys a feeling of warmth and is even suggested to help sell a home. Aromatherapy to relax or rejuvenate is the latest craze. And, bronze sculptures develop shiny spots where viewers cannot seem to resist touching them (even though, in many cases, the objects are not supposed to be touched).

Like their younger counterparts, older children and adults also appreciate hands-on opportunities in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens, especially when such opportunities enlarge upon the gallery experiences. For example, it is both satisfying and enlightening to listen to music that is typical of the appropriate time period when exploring a historic house or museum of history. Being able to touch a canvas with heavy paint applied by a palate knife can appease a viewer’s compelling desire to feel a thickly covered painting. And, nothing can convince a squeamish visitor that snakes aren’t slimy like being able to touch their cool, dry scales.

The activities listed for younger children, above, can be adapted for an older audience. Try using these, or other, hands-on activities to introduce, enlarge upon, or reinforce tour themes explored in the galleries. For instance:

  • Prior to looking at mollusks in a natural history collection, pass around examples of univalve and bivalve shells for visitors to inspect.
  • During a stroll though a garden, hand visitors a variety of aromatic herbs and flowers to smell and look at closely.
  • Following an art tour, offer students a studio experience where they can make art using the principles they learned about in the galleries.

Hands-On Benefits

Whenever you can create an opportunity for visitors to get close, let them. Such opportunities will reinforce your visitors’ desire to learn, open up new ways of learning, and increase the intensity of their involvement.

When I worked for the Smithsonian Institution, the Naturalist Center, located in the National Museum of Natural History, was among my favorite places. (The Naturalist Center has since been moved to an off-campus location in Northern Virginia.) The Naturalist Center was an educator’s dream — a natural history “wonderland ” — where visitors could look through microscopes, weigh or measure, and explore the many drawers and boxes filled with specimens, replicas, and mounts.

The very same students who seemed unfocused when standing before dioramas in the galleries were riveted when allowed to handle owl feathers or compare sparrow bones to those of a mouse. Though the room bustled with activity, it was often quieter than the galleries, as students were more engrossed and less likely to break into personal conversations.

Usually, staff members would give students several questions to ponder as they inspected specimens both visually and tactually. Then, the students were allowed to explore, as facilitators wandered among them, offering assistance or guidance as needed. The students would write out their answers, thoughts, observations, and additional questions and discuss them as a group at the end of their session.

Whether the students spent five minutes or fifty minutes involved in these types of hands-on activities. in general they seemed more eager and attentive than those students who only experienced looking in the galleries. The hands-on opportunities heightened the students’ interest in viewing things in the galleries and gave the objects an immediacy that they would not have had otherwise.

Hands-on activities are worth the extra effort. While it may be easiest to simply tell visitors what they need to know, teaching’s effectiveness is not measured by convenience. The true measure of teaching’s effectiveness must be in the learning that takes place. That is why “hands-on” activities may be among the most important tools available to educators.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Involving the Senses Makes Sense,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 2-3.

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