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Making Distance Learning Multisensory

One of the hallmark features of strong instruction for young learners (well, all learners, really!) is the engagement of multiple senses.  Think about it: can you recall sitting in a lecture for work or school and feeling your attention drift elsewhere? Now consider a time when you had the chance to move while you were learning, and where movement was encouraged.  Which environment had you more stimulated and primed to take in new information?  

We see much the same in our classrooms. When we engage multiple senses of our students, we not only garner more attention, but we also engage multiple brain pathways, which ultimately leads to an increased capacity to learn and retain information.  Not only is learning more fun when we engage multiple senses--through what we call “multisensory instruction”--but it also leads to better learning.

So what happens when the three-dimesnsional classroom environment is replaced by a two-dimensional screen?  Unfortunately, we end up engaging fewer senses by the sheer nature of the delivery. As teachers, we can certainly embed some multisensory elements in our lessons: we can have students incorporate arm motions, use surfaces and writing utensils that give more input (spoiler alert: crayons work best!), and promote involving the full body when practicing words and facts that require rote memorization.  As parents, you, too, can work to inject extra multisensory input into your students’ learning. The ”trifecta” of multisensory instruction follows the acronym VAKT: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile. The visual and auditory are used most often in traditional schooling. Here are a few kinesthetic and tactile suggestions to help you boost your child’s engagement level:

  • Use writing utensils with tactile feedback.  Crayons reign supreme, with pencils, then pens, and markers as the caboose.  Feeling creative? This tactile feedback is why students learn words, math facts, and rote facts well if they write them in shaving cream, whipped cream, or chocolate pudding.  Your only limit is your imagination (and your threshold for messiness!).
  • Provide sensory bins for practicing writing letters, words, numbers, or even answers to content-area questions. You can create sensory bins using all kinds of materials around your house.  Place pom poms, pasta, beads, sand, confetti, or rice in a shallow bin, and allow your child to “write” in it. Up for a craft? You can easily dye rice (you can see how to do that HERE, but do not use rubbing alcohol; I use plain water and it works just fine!), as one of our sweet kindergarteners did earlier this week. It’s fun to make, and fun to use!
  • See this link for many more suggestions. They are geared toward literacy activities, but you can adapt them to fit any subject.
  • HANDWRITING. In our digital age, and particularly this age of virtual learning, we deprive our students of opportunities to forge connections via forming letters by hand.  There is a body of evidence, put forth eloquently here by Diana Hanbury King, that traditional handwriting (manuscript and cursive both) connect more deeply in the brain than typing.  Typing is important, of course, but we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because we are learning via a screen, we don’t have to only show what we know on a screen.

  • Incorporate playground equipment/outdoor space.  Got stairs? Sounds like a great place to tape multiplication facts/red words/letters and practice every time you climb (note: say it out loud, to keep the auditory sense engaged!)  Got a trampoline? Time to bounce your spellings! No trampoline? How about bouncing a basketball to bounce letters and then taking a shot to “swish” through the full word?
  • Allow flexible seating.  Yoga balls make wonderful chairs for little bodies that need some extra vestibular stimulation. Sitting on the floor works, too, especially if you are on their level.  And standing desks aren’t just for adults! Allow your child to work standing up and bounce, shake, and move as needed. Try to reframe “fidgeting” as a way they are working to keep their body in the zone.  Little bodies need different input than adults.
  • Bring on the manipulatives! Brains learn best when we help make abstract concepts concrete, and then slowly “baby step” toward the abstract.  For our youngest learners, that means they will need objects to count on, versus counting in heads. For intermediate learners, they will still need concrete supports for challenging concepts like fractions (I heard a few of you shudder from over here!), and advancing learners can still benefit from exercises like writing their Spanish vocabulary on notecards and sorting by gender, part of speech, or any other category. 

Feeling creative? Try one of these multisensory methods with your student(s).  
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The Walker School is a private, co-ed day school offering opportunities in academics, arts, and athletics for preschool, elementary, middle, and high school students in Metro Atlanta.