Teaching With a Hands-On Approach

If you want students to remember your classroom for many years, hands-on learning is the way to go. Today we’re sharing social studies activities that will help make learning memorable and long lasting.

Topics Discussed

  • Why bother teaching with a hands-on approach?
  • Our tried and true hands-on activities for social studies


Interactive Notebooks:


Interactive notebook guide:


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Ellie 0:00

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to when you were in school. We all know that relationships bubble up first in our memory. But if we think a bit harder, what can we pull from those 18 threads of time. When it comes to the work we did,. I remember a couple of project ideas from junior high. Even though 40 years have passed, I still remember them. One was collecting and identifying leaves, which I'm guessing a lot of us did. But that was a fun adventure. One project from fourth grade stands out, I built a model of a coal breaker. This might have been related to studying Pennsylvania that year. And I chose the coal breaker because many members of my mom's family worked in the coal mines. And then a third project that really stands out was in seventh grade science, I believe. We had to build kites. And I built this really huge double box kite with balsa wood. It was really cool. And it flew really well. And my dad made this really cool handle that I could use to like crank in the string as it was flying. How about you? Brittany? Do you have any particular things you really remember?

Brittany 1:07

Those sound awesome, Ellie. I can vividly remember a lot about second grade, because that's when I found the desire and passion to want to be a teacher. My teacher that year was so caring and passionate herself. It was her first year teaching. And she taught us by immersing us and everything want to learn about cows and milk. She would take us to a farm and a dairy and let us see the process. And then make us taste unprocessed milk, which is not good.

Ellie 1:42

That sounds fun.

Brittany 1:45

Oh, and then she had us design milk gathering devices. So that was interesting and fun. And then when she wanted us to learn about different writing styles, she took us to the newspaper and had us learn all about how they make the newspaper and stuff. And so and then she had us write a newspaper for the entire school. Yeah, we did that all year long. So second grade was absolutely incredible. But I also remember, instead of just learning how the government worked in ninth grade, we had mock Congress for an entire semester of ninth grade. So each student was assigned a role. I was the clerk of records for my class period. So bills were drawn up by members argued and debated, passed into law vetoed voted down. I was in charge of all the papers, keeping track of all the records. But it was a powerful process to go through. I really felt like I understood how government worked by pretending like we were the government. So

Ellie 2:54

Oh, that's awesome. That's amazing. Well, welcome to the teaching Toolbox Podcast. Today, we are talking about teaching with a hands on approach. And today we're thinking specifically about social studies.

Brittany 3:07

So why should we even bother with teaching with a hands on approach? Well, number one, it's more memorable. If Ellie and I are remembering certain activities and projects from 40 years later, our students will remember projects 40 years down the road as well. You're trying to get students to learn and remember things in your classes. So why not choose a route that's going to be more memorable. Number two, students are more motivated and more attentive, because they're more involved in the learning process with the hands on route, then, you know, if they're just sitting there watching a movie in the dark, or if they're just listening to a lecture, they're not going to be as attentive, they're gonna have their head down, they're gonna be you know, thinking about something else. But if they're having to move around, maybe move pieces get information discussed. Point A was student X. use that knowledge to create something with student y disproves Student B, you know, they're going to be far more involved and interested than if they're seated in a desk. Get out and get hands on.

Ellie 4:23

Absolutely. Another reason that getting hands on experience I'm sorry, that we should use a hands on approach is that that hands on experience helps improve student's critical thinking skills and problem solving skills. Some of the things that Brittany was just alluding to have you seen the video making the rounds on social media of the woman trying to return one of those big carts with the cars to the grocery store cart return been in the parking lot?

Brittany 4:48

It's hilarious. Have you seen it? This lady she's at a grocery store and she has one of those giant carts and she goes to the end of the cart return that just closed, you know, that has metal bars on it. Oh yeah. And she's trying to get this giant cart in to the cart return been through the metal bars, and she's banging it into it.

Ellie 5:13

Like she's trying to open it somehow?

Brittany 5:15

like she's trying to fit it through,

Ellie 5:18


Brittany 5:18

And then she tries to go under the bars, she tries to like lift up the whole cart return and go under. And then she tries to lift the cart up and over the whole bars,

Ellie 5:34

oh my gosh. So there's a better way,

Brittany 5:38

there is a better way. And another lady comes to help. And you think, okay, that lady will show her how a cart return actually works. And instead, she helps her try to lift it over.

Ellie 5:50

Oh my gosh.

Brittany 5:51

And so there's not a lot of critical thinking going on out there right now. And finally, this other guy who is filming the whole thing get gets out and helps the two of them and shows them? There's a big opening on the other side, if you just look, my gosh, my point is, we need some more critical thinking out in the world.

Ellie 6:13

Absolutely.And what better place to start than in the classroom? Yes. Oh my gosh. So maybe these ladies needed to be taught using the hierarchy of learning pyramid, where traditional lecture is the most passive of the learning methods, perhaps that was a big focus in their classrooms that has a retention rate of only about 5%. If you're just lecturing to students giving them the information, they're not really going to retain it. Demonstration, on the other hand, has a much higher retention rate of 30%, helping our students to learn and remember more, while group discussion is about 50%. And then practicing by doing in other words, hands on is estimated to result in about a 75% retention rate. And so that's why we are still remembering things 40 years later, because these are things that we actually you did we practiced by doing. So one way to use hands on activities is by using interactive notebooks where students can take notes, draw illustrations, and even create foldable crafts to understand better and remember key concepts. These notebooks not only serve as a study tool, but also encourage students to be actively involved in their learning process.

Brittany 7:28

For instance, when I'm teaching ancient China for example, students use a stepped flipbook and my original articles that I've researched and written to read about the five original dynasties of China and what they were known for. During this they can read about how the Shah dynasty invented the chariot, perhaps copying down a chariot diagram into their books as well. Afterward, using marshmallows, spaghetti, pretzels, playdough, tinker toys, whatever they want, they try to build the chariot wheels of the ancient Chinese properly. Oh, cool. So although interactive notebooks sometimes get a bad rap, because of the amount of paper they consume, or all the cutting, coloring, gluing, it's really up to you to make the interactive notebook the way you want it to be. It can be a mix of writing and folding crafts, graphic organizers, other learning strategies, you don't have to use all the paper, and you no longer need to follow the left side as material. And the right side is the response method, you can blend the two together if you'd like don't like the folding crafts that are out there create your own to fit your needs. There's lots of different ways that you can do interactive notebooks nowadays. And I have dozens and dozens and dozens of interactive notebook lessons. But I also have a free guide that can lead you through the steps of how to make your own as well and how to make your own foldables too. So we'll link that guide in the show notes. But you can find it yourself at the Colorado classroom.com website.

Ellie 9:15

That sounds awesome. Your interactive notebooks are amazing. So I'm sure that guide is amazing. Also, another fantastic way to teach social studies hands on is through demonstrations and through practicing by doing whether it's a simulation of a historical event, a reenactment of a cultural tradition, or a hands on experiment to understand geographical phenomena. Demonstrations bring history and geography to life for students. By actively participating in these activities. Students can develop a deeper appreciation for the subject matter and gain a better understanding of the world around them. Simulations are a wonderful way to entrench and immerse students in the semi realities of the day and time that you're simulating. They can take a lot of preperation on the front end, but the discussions at the end make the time spent well worth it. Think about your time period, your end goal, and what's available to create the illusion of that day or time. Brittany has created simulations for Roman social classes, the French Revolution and the American sweatshop just to name a few. Immersing your class in this way is a great way to build memories and experiences.


Another example of hands on learning is to get 6-10, rectangular plastic ware dishes, all you need is just six to eight inches long. Take a mixture of flour, sugar, and cornstarch and poured in to cover half the dish depth wise. And now you have yourself a desert, not a dessert,


I was hoping we were having dessert.


With these little models in each group in your class and some straws, students can look at how winds shift sand. Add in some construction paper or cardboard land water trees. And you can look at how desertification works. There are many different demonstrations and experience you can do with your little deserts. And all you have to do is tell your class not to eat the little balls that develop because they're little balls of spit and sugar, and they'll want to eat them. But it's gross,


not the spit. Now, that kind of reminds me of one year, when I was teaching fourth grade, Pennsylvania was part of our curriculum. So studying Pennsylvania, that's geography and history and all of that. And we made Pennsylvania cakes in order to show the different landforms in Pennsylvania. So there were topographic maps. And each group made their own cake, I'm pretty sure they brought the cake from home, you know, the moms baked them, and they brought them in. And then they added different food items to represent the different geographical formations like the mountains, the rivers and the lakes, things like that. And show you know, what parts of the state where we're forests and, and that kind of thing that was a lot of fun. And they did. I don't know, I think they did get to eat them when they were done because they were too messy. Well, they were messy, but they weren't too gross. But it was really fun. I have pictures of them somewhere that was really fun. Salt dough topography is another good way to show this information. And much easier than you think and probably less messy than baking a cake.


If you take just some construction paper or masking tape, a small garbage bag and a pitcher of water. So just four items. You can show how saguaro cactus swell and absorb water after a rainstorm. Oh, cool. It absolutely shocks and amazes your kids.


That's awesome. I would love to see that. Well, these are just a few of the many ideas we have used or shared and swear by. If you have questions, please reach out. We'd love to hear from you. And if you'd like to hear ideas for hands on teaching and other subject areas, please let us know.


We hope this episode gave you a few new ideas you can add to this aspect of your teaching toolbox. Remember to follow us on your favorite platforms so you don't miss an episode. And a big shout out to hungry is a fun turtle. Thanks for the review. We appreciate it. See you next time.

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