Antidotes to Screen Time: How to Make Learning More Tactile

What I remember from my pre-school/kindergarten years is creating dirt cakes decorated with dandelions and tacos out of giant leaves. I also remember the feel, shape and color of the alphabet from those old school plastic refrigerator magnets. I probably would have been called a “tactile” learner, even though that phrase wasn’t around at that time.

I believe all children are tactile learners to some degree and the benefits to tactile learning are well-documented from cognitive and language development to socio-emotional growth.

Screens can’t compete with tactile learning. Even the best educational app on an iPad leaves the child’s fingertips only interacting with a flat, glossy surface. So how do we get our kids to engage in more tactile learning? 

The first thing I needed to do was understand the difference between kinesthetic and tactile learning. Kinesthetic learners require movement to learn while tactile learners require hands-on learning. Click here for a good article on the difference between the two. Sensory learning is when all the senses are engaged (smell, sound, feel, taste), not just touch.

One of the things I noticed is that tactile learning with its slow, calming pace of touching objects and placing them in a particular way can quiet the mind and spark intuition. Willow Bradner says in Episode 2 of Soul Path Parenting, that “intuition is spontaneous and it’s quiet and it is really a bit magical…intuition is in the spaces. It’s in the times that you’re not expecting it in general day-to-day life.”

This is what I believe tactile learning can promote – the opportunity for unexpected learning through the space created in the brain when it is not overstimulated by the flash and sound of screens.

When it comes to tactile learning, one of the things I found most effective were open-ended toys that compelled you to create an environment for that toy. For example, I used to always travel with toy planes and when we were in an airport or waiting for a train, we would use anything we could find – straws, napkins, packets of ketchup, to create an “airport.”

Yes, people had to walk around us as our “airport” got pretty large, but I will tell you that my child was not the fidgeting, crying kid in the airport, he was completely engaged. In fact, one parent walked by and simply said, “that’s brilliant.” Could I have used a screen to engage my child? Sure. However, I decided to save screen time for the flight only. What was happening here was much more, though, than keeping my child entertained – they were involved in tactile learning.

We did this a lot with cars as well. The challenge was to build a track or a city outside with sticks, rocks, etc. or inside with household objects. This works with toy furniture and food as well. We have built houses out of snow and sand and carpet out of leaves and grass. It also can be as simple as finding everything in the house with a “rough” surface and everything in the house with a “smooth” surface.

Sometimes you will find in tactile learning that your child will struggle. Those two sticks will not come together or the dough will not keep its shape the way they want. In those moments, don’t be too quick to jump in. Instead, consider asking a question. The question I pulled from Amy Breeze’s guide to magical parenting questions from Episode 34 for this situation was this:

Question #3
What do you want to do about it?

When they face struggles, or set-backs, we empower them. In Episode 11, Michal Berg, CEO of Spirituality of Kids International, recommend asking open-ended questions when our kids face challenges. Let them struggle and learn, rather than trying to solve the problem for them. Our need to spare them suffering comes from our own ego.

Tactile learning can be a lot more fun and simple than you think and it does not require tons of expensive manipulatives. Beyond the brain development and cognitive skills they will acquire, tactile learning can also calm the nervous system and fidgeting. When screen time is done, let the tactile learning begin!

Below is a list of tactile learning resources (including one that combines tactile learning with screens):

Tactile learning ideas for children

100 Hands-On Activities for Tactile Learners

DIY sensory stuff

Hand-on Apps for Diverse Learners (combining screens with tactile learning)

Shannon is a therapist, former school teacher, and mom. She is the co-author of the book "Sweet Spot: Leveraging Your Talents in Leadership and Life" Currently, Shannon writes about the areas that align with areas that she is passionate about...letting go of the energetic ties that keep us down, personal evolution, and true self-expression.

Further reading