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Why Hands-On Learning Is the Essence of a Quality Preschool Program

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

Hands-on learning is diminishing at preschools so it's important that parents know what it is and why it's so valuable.

Hands-on learning is diminishing at preschools so it's important that parents know what it is and why it's so valuable.

The Importance of Hands-On Learning

Around the world, scholars in early childhood education resoundingly affirm that hands-on learning is vital to a quality preschool program. However, this is in jarring contrast to what a growing number of parents in the US want for their little ones: namely, academic preparation for kindergarten. Unlike moms and dads in countries with top-notch education systems (Finland, Germany, Japan), many parents here don’t know anything about hands-on learning at all, let alone why it’s so valuable. This article, written by a longtime preschool teacher with a master’s degree in education, answers the following questions about this critical element of preschool:

  • What is hands-on learning?
  • Is it supported by research?
  • Why has it decreased?
  • How does government interference restrict it?
  • How does an escalated curriculum diminish it?
  • Does a lack of it turn kids off to school?
  • Is its decline responsible for the rise in behavior problems?

What Is Hands-On Learning?

It simply means that children are active participants throughout the day: exploring materials, playing inside and out, following their curiosities, and discovering things on their own and with their classmates. Their teacher acts as a facilitator, not by telling the youngsters what to do, but by asking questions that challenge them to think creatively and deeply. She knows that young children learn best when they construct their own knowledge based on what intrigues them, not when a teacher force-feeds them material from a curriculum created by an adult.

A skilled educator who champions hands-on learning will often begin her inquiries with how: How can you build that tower taller without it collapsing? How can you grow those plants healthy and strong? How can you play together so nobody feels left out and everyone is involved?

She’s not the source of answers but instead primes kids to think for themselves.

Is It Supported by Research?

Moms and dads who attended preschool as kids likely had a hands-on learning experience. It was the way that things were done in early education for decades, firmly supported by vast amounts of research. Scholars wrote extensively about its value, advocating for its use and lamenting its decline as preschools became more academically focused. Knowing that young children learn best through their senses, through movement, and through their wonder of the world, experts argued that hands-on learning was the ideal way for little ones to begin their schooling journey.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the world's largest organization of early childhood professionals, endorses it as well. It states that a quality preschool is one in which “children are given opportunities to learn and develop through exploration and play...materials and equipment spark children's interest and encourage them to experiment and learn.” As such, the NAEYC supports child-centered classrooms where youngsters are in charge of their learning. Moreover, it warns against adult-centered environments where teachers take center stage at long circle times and present month-long lessons on whatever they choose (dinosaurs, planets, trees) rather than what their students are yearning to discover.

Why Has It Decreased?

If research in early childhood education shows that hands-on learning is most effective, why has it declined so dramatically during the last 20 years? Ironically, the answer is found in legislation designed to improve K-12 education such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core. While these policies can be debated ad nauseam with folks giving pros and cons on how they affect elementary, middle, and high school students, there’s no disputing how damaging they’ve been for preschoolers.

Tragically, these measures that were adopted to increase academic rigor for older kids have negatively impacted younger ones. With an impossibly long list of Common Core standards awaiting their youngsters in kindergarten, some moms and dads now see preschool as a necessary training ground for elementary school. Instead of wanting their kids to play, pretend, and discover things on their own, they demand academic preparation. As a result, much of the time that was once set aside for hands-on learning is now filled with teacher-directed lessons about the alphabet, phonics, numeral recognition, counting, handwriting, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Deeply concerned about these changes, notable scholars in early learning banded together to launch an organization called Defending the Early Years. In their writings and speeches, they call for a return to a child-centered preschool experience. Moreover, they urge the restoration of hands-on learning and other developmentally appropriate practices.

In this video, Leland Melvin, who's both an astronaut and an engineer, explains why hands-on learning is the best STEM education.

How Does an Escalated Curriculum Diminish It?

During the past two decades, many preschools adopted an “escalated curriculum.” As a result, their young students now do academic activities that were once reserved for older ones. A child-centered environment of play and pretend became an adult-centered one with teacher-led lessons, paper-pencil tasks, rote learning, and long periods of kids sitting and listening. Less time was set aside in the daily schedule for hands-on learning.

When standardized test results show US students lagging behind kids in other industrialized countries, a cry inevitably goes out for more rigorous academics at our schools. Sadly, preschoolers become the unintended victims of this charge and hands-on learning gets minimized. They’re further victimized when early childhood educators with integrity, talent, and expertise abandon the profession, refusing to instruct in ways that are unsuitable for young children. They’re victimized again when these veteran teachers get replaced by inexperienced ones who are clueless about the importance of hands-on learning.

The NAEYC, expressing the concerns of preschool teachers across the nation, wrote this about the effects of K-12 policy on early childhood education:

“Preschool educators have some fears about the prospect of the K–12 system absorbing or radically reshaping education for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, especially at a time when pressures in public schooling are intense and often run counter to the needs of young children. Many early childhood educators are already quite concerned about the current climate of increased high-stakes testing adversely affecting children in grades K–3, and they fear extension of these effects to even younger children.”

When public preschools became results-oriented, hands-on learning got diminished.

When public preschools became results-oriented, hands-on learning got diminished.

How Does Government Interference Restrict It?

The federal government has become increasingly involved in policy at all levels of education including preschool. Because 35 percent of all 4-year-olds in the US attend publicly supported pre-kindergarten programs, politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats need to show that funds are being well spent. As such, the federal preschool program for low-income families, Head Start, states that its mission is to boost school readiness with a “child outcomes framework” that identifies learning expectations in five domains.

State governments demand input as well, establishing early learning standards for the years before kids start kindergarten. Because of these academic goals, preschool teachers must spend more of their time assessing students, documenting their findings, and filling out paperwork. They're forced to devote less time to promoting hands-on learning and more time to instilling rote knowledge.

Because of governmental participation, the sweet preschool experience that so many people cherished when they were kids is vanishing. Reflecting on those long-ago days, adults may remember playing with big wooden blocks on the rug with their buddies. They may recall riding tricycles like maniacs on the blacktop. They may have precious memories of painting masterpieces at the easel. Today, though, many preschoolers don’t have these meaningful, magical experiences. As a consequence, some get turned off to school from the get-go.

Does a Lack of It Turn Kids Off to School?

Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige wrote a marvelous book about the value of hands-on learning entitled Taking Back Childhood. I highly recommend it to all parents of preschoolers but especially to those who are convinced that early academics are key to producing smarter kids. She’s also co-founder of Defending the Early Years and a long-time champion of unstructured play at preschool. She has seen the tragic changes in early childhood education during the past two decades and is sounding the alarm. She writes:

"Sadly, the worst of the restrictive, standardized, drill-based education is happening in our poorest communities. More often the teachers in these underfunded schools have less training. They are more dependent on the standardized tests and scripted curricula and more willing to impose them. These teachers haven’t learned what they could do instead of the drills and tests, and they haven’t learned how harmful these approaches are for kids.

I wish you could see the faces of kids in the low-income communities I visited this year. They are scared, sad, and alienated. I see on them an expression that says, 'School is not fun, and it is not for me. I want out of here.'"

Is Its Decline Responsible for the Rise in Behavior Problems?

With the decline in hands-on learning at preschool, behavior problems have risen. Today, little ones are much more likely to be labelled as hyperactive, disruptive, unfocused, or immature. Twenty years ago, most teachers wouldn’t have expressed concern about a 4 or 5-year-old child who couldn’t sit still and always wanted to be moving, playing, talking, and interacting. They would have seen that as perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate. They never would have suggested that this kid had ADHD, emotional issues, or behavioral problems.

Nowadays, though, some inexperienced teachers routinely dole out such labels, causing parents undue grief and worry. Feeling intense pressure to prepare the class academically for kindergarten, these educators have unrealistic expectations for preschoolers. They don’t appreciate that the attention span of a 4 or 5-year-old child is a mere 15-20 minutes. Therefore, circle times, teacher-directed lessons, and seat work should be brief and infrequent. With this in mind, the NAEYC warns about common preschool routines that are harmful to young children:

“Practices of concern include excessive lecturing to the whole group, fragmented teaching of discrete objectives, and insistence that teachers follow rigid, tightly paced schedules. There is also concern that schools are curtailing valuable experiences such as problem solving, rich play, collaboration with peers, opportunities for emotional and social development, outdoor/physical activity, and the arts. In the high-pressure classroom, children are less likely to develop a love of learning and a sense of their own competence and ability to make choices, and they miss much of the joy and expansive learning of childhood.”

Final Thoughts

It's critical that parents of preschoolers educate themselves about the value of hands-on learning. Tuning out chatter from their Facebook friends and advice from their well-meaning but ill-informed relatives, they should read what experts in early childhood education write on the subject. Well-regarded organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and Defending the Early Years provide excellent articles and resources.

Today, too many preschools have embraced early academics to please and placate anxious moms and dads who worry their child will fall behind their peers. To get back on the right track of hands-on learning, play, and pretend, parents need to get onboard. They are the greatest advocates for their youngsters and have the power to change what’s gone wrong in early learning.

Hands-On Learning Is What Parents Need to Consider When Choosing a Preschool

The NAEYC Is Concerned About Excessive Lecturing to the Whole Group

Questions & Answers

Question: What's your opinion about computer use in preschool?

Answer: Computers in preschool are not a good use of class time. Young children are much better served with activities that spark their imaginations, tap into their curiosities, and get them interacting with one another. What a shame it is for preschoolers to engage in a virtual world when the real one around them is filled with blocks, puppets, puzzles, play-dough, and paint! Preschoolers are wired to be active learners--discovering through movement, through their senses, through their curiosity, through play, and through hands-on materials. For these reasons, computers in preschool are not considered within the realm of “developmentally appropriate practices” by the vast majority of pediatricians and scholars in early childhood education.

Computers in preschool are a red flag, warning moms and dads that the director is unfamiliar with the latest findings on kids and screens. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, American children and teens are spending more than seven and a half hours per day on screens (computers, TV's, and smartphones) and that amount is increasing. While this report didn't include preschoolers (just kids 8-18), it's staggering evidence that our country's problem is too much screen time for youngsters, not too little.

Sadly, preschoolers get hooked on technology, and their addiction can lead to major health issues as they mature. These include obesity, depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide. While it may look cute and precocious when a 3-year-old uses daddy's smartphone, it's anything but adorable when a 13-year-old becomes socially isolated, earns poor grades, gets bullied online, can't communicate effectively, and doesn't experience empathy.

Unfortunately, too many ill-informed parents get impressed by computers in preschool and think early exposure is beneficial. They foolishly brag that their preschoolers are “smart” because they're more adept with technology than some adults. This, however, is not an indication of true intelligence but just illustrates kids' fearlessness with devices. Real intelligence comes from real-world experiences, not virtual ones.

It infuriates me when parents of preschoolers recite the cliché “earlier is better,” knowing it's not true but wanting to relieve their guilt about letting their little ones use screens. According to the American Association of Pediatricians, children 2-5 should have only one hour of “high-quality programming” in front of screens per day. However, anyone with a lick of common sense knows it's highly unlikely parents are adhering to this guideline. Many of us have had the experience of being with our families during the holidays and seeing kids get on their devices. Most moms and dads have no idea what they're watching but are just glad they're busy, quiet, and safe. Before parents realize it, their children have racked up 3-4 hours watching screens!

Computers in preschool give parents the wrong message about young children and technology. Preschool directors and teachers have an obligation to inform parents about appropriate practices for this age group and warn them against screen time. There shouldn't be computers in preschools any more than there should be TVs.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on January 09, 2020:

Thanks, Canary, for your kind words. I love that video, too. When I visit preschools today, one of the saddest things that I observe are kids being pulled away from hands-on activities. They're building with blocks or playing in the sandbox and are called over by their teacher for an assessment (don't get me started on that) or to do a craft project. They miss out on that uninterrupted time to learn by doing because it's not valued anough.

Canary from New York on January 08, 2020:

Again, thank you for your candid handling of a critical situation in education. The Leland Melvin video description of how he was exposed to engineering through a practical life hands-on project orchestrated by his father is a clear demonstration of why hands-on education is a must for very young children. Very, very well done!

McKenna Meyers (author) on August 24, 2017:

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sybol. I've been reading more research about the value of downtime for both adults and kids. It seems crucial for stimulating our creativity, staying mentally sound, and becoming our best selves. Many of the children I know are over-scheduled with too many structured activities and have very little of school and at home.

sybol on August 24, 2017:

I agree that hands on learning is very important especially for young children. Memorization is important but the ability to think and reason is very important. Playtime, down or free time, and creative time are also very important. Teachers, good teachers, seasoned teachers definitely know better that bureaucrats and corporate heads.

Kathryn L Hill from LA on December 21, 2015:

Yes, people may become more interested in the truth about early child hood when speech problems become evident.

I believe speech disabilities are developing with greater frequency as children are dropped off at day cares and preschools

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 21, 2015:

Yes and a lot of the young, inexperienced teachers think hands-on learning, play, and exploration are old-fashioned ideas. Kindergarten teachers are now being chosen for the job because they're good at handling discipline problems. Nobody stops to think: The problem is not with the kids; it's with the instruction. I hope you keep being a voice in the wilderness, Kathryn!

Kathryn L Hill from LA on December 21, 2015:

"Young children become the unwitting victims of this when hands-on learning at preschool is greatly reduced and minimized as “just play.”

They're hurt further because early childhood educators with integrity, talent, and knowledge choose to leave the profession, refusing to teach in a way that's unsuitable for young children. "


"Young children are hurt again when these experienced teachers get replaced by ones who know very little about the uniqueness of early childhood education."

Precisely what I am witnessing, wherever I sub.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 12, 2015:

I think it's crazy that parents of second and third graders say they can't help their children with math because Common Core is so strange and convoluted. But, it's even crazier when parents think they can't do the preschool curriculum with their children. They can do it and be 100 times more effective because it's one on one and nothing beats that! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 12, 2015:

"Parents become less involved, less empowered." That's a dangerous red flag warning that the powers will make specimens of the children. Thanks for dealing with this topic; hope parents listen up and act.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 12, 2015:

I'm pretty cynical about education these days. Whenever there's a new movement (e.g. the current one, STEM), there are people profiting from it. There are so many products now (toys, supplies for teachers, teacher manuals, etc.) that encourage STEM learning. Somebody is making a lot of money, but it's never the teachers! The basics of good teaching don't change, but that notion isn't a money maker.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 12, 2015:

I totally fact, let's extend this to the older kids as well. Let's get away from the standardized testing and let's get back to real education. :)