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What Is Multisensory Learning and How Does It Improve Intelligence?

Boost your children's learning and engage their senses through multisensory learning techniques.

What Is Multisensory Learning and How Does It Improve Intelligence?

What Is Multisensory Learning and How Does It Improve Intelligence?

Finding effective ways to teach children who have a variety of learning styles is one of the most significant obstacles teachers must overcome. Even though children reach academic milestones at varying rates, using specific tactics in the classroom may help you prepare as many children as possible for big efforts, like learning to read.

Multisensory learning is founded on the theory of whole brain learning, which claims that the most effective approach to teaching ideas is engaging multiple senses and several brain regions. For example, adding a visual component such as pictures to a reading aloud activity may help children improve their literacy abilities.

Are you looking for ways to use multisensory learning to assist your children in developing improved skills? In this article, we explore multisensory learning, how it impacts development, and multisensory activities to implement in your classroom.

brown wooden letters on table next to playdoh containersSource

What is multisensory learning?

Multisensory learning refers to structuring a lesson to encourage children to engage more than one of their senses while learning. This learning approach supports employing activities that appeal to their visual, aural, kinesthetic, and tactile senses.

Why is multisensory learning important?

Multisensory instruction is one of the most successful ways to engage children in learning. The evolution of the human brain has enabled it to learn and develop in a multisensory world. Our brain is involved in everything that we do, including how we learn, and when our various senses are activated as we learn new information, we are able to retain that information more effectively.  

Multisensory learning builds on this concept of how our brains work, and often engages different senses such as visual, auditory, or tactile materials in lesson plans and activities. By incorporating the use of multiple senses, different regions of the brain are stimulated, helping children strengthen their memory of how to do a task.

How can you use multisensory learning?

When teaching a specific lesson, providing multiple sensory elements may help children retain new skills. For example, while learning new vocabulary words, you can have children build alphabet letters out of clay or sing and dance to a song that uses the new words. 

Since children learn in different ways and may depend on certain senses more than others, modifying your multisensory activities will enable you to reach all of their needs. Switch up your lessons to include pictures or graphics for visual learners and include plenty of hands-on, tactile experiences for your kinesthetic learners. 

two young girls in a preschool classroom, sitting at a table, cutting shapes out of construction paperSource

How multisensory learning enhances development during early childhood

Supports cognitive development 

Multisensory learning promotes cognitive development, which is a part of overall brain development. Cognitive development refers to how children think, learn, and work through situations and problems. Multisensory learning, including sensory play like finger painting, water tables, and sensory bins, can play a helpful role in encouraging cognitive development in the classroom. Children can also build problem solving skills, learn about creativity, and practice learning through exploration with activities that include multisensory learning. 

Promotes language development

Language and literacy development is another great benefit of multisensory learning. By offering activities in the classroom that engage more than one sense, you can help children build connections in the brain that help them retain information. This can be so helpful in helping a child discover new words to describe what they’re doing and feeling, and to build their vocabularies. In addition, by encouraging language development, children can build their expressive language skills by describing their actions or their feelings. This skill can also help enormously with emotional regulation and processing.

Strengthens motor skills

Not only do multisensory activities provide children with lots of opportunities to discover interests and learn by doing, these activities can also help them work on fine and gross motor skills and physical development. Practicing hand-eye coordination and skills like catching, writing, and other hand and body movements can benefit children in building their motor skills and retaining information from the lesson.

Encourages social-emotional growth

Social and emotional development is valuable in so many ways, and multisensory learning has a place here, too. Children can learn to work together in small group or pair settings, and encouraging interaction while including visual, aural, and kinesthetic skills can grow social skills and foster cooperation. Establishing positive relationships with peers and adults in the classroom can be beneficial in helping a child to learn about and regulate their emotions, as well as starting to explore problem-solving. 

Multisensory learning and the theory of multiple intelligences

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences graphic showing existential, musical, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, linguistic, logical, naturalistic, visual/spatial, intrapersonal


Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Have you ever heard that saying?  (It’s often credited to Albert Einstein.)  

This fun metaphor illustrates that teaching each child in a way in which they’re prepared to receive and retain the information is crucial to their individual learning abilities. The primary research on this theory is based on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, developed the theory of multiple intelligences and outlined it in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 

In this work, Dr. Gardner outlined six intelligences (there are now nine) and used them to challenge the classical way of thinking of intelligence—that there is just one standard intelligence, measured by IQ tests and similar metrics. Instead, he proposes that intelligence can be more specific to an area of understanding.

For example, you may be familiar with the idea that individual learning styles can be visual, auditory or kinesthetic (using your body to learn). In his theory, Dr. Gardner takes it a bit further. Visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, and bodily-kinesthetic are three of the intelligences he explores, while also adding intelligences that relate to music, nature, math, morals, and interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities.

Why is this important in the classroom? Research shows that teaching a lesson to a group of children including as many of these intelligences as possible will encourage each individual child to relate the material to their strengths. Connecting new concepts to individual strengths can help learners to comprehend material and retain it longer.

Plus, including ideas or activities that speak to intelligences like music or nature can add variety and fun to your lesson planning.

For example, teaching children the alphabet song taps into verbal-linguistic and musical-rhythmic intelligences. Adding a visual aspect like writing letters or using letter flashcards or a bodily-kinesthetic aspect like moving arms to make letter shapes, includes multiple intelligences that may encourage a broader understanding to your children.

two boys writing on a picture bookSource

How does multisensory learning strengthen reading skills?

Reading and language development can be one of the primary focuses of an early education classroom, and multisensory learning techniques offer significant benefits in these efforts. There is much research that infers that as a result of implementing a variety of learning senses and techniques in reading lessons, children retain the information over a longer period of time. Studies also suggest that by offering a multisensory reading lesson, children are more engaged and more likely to perform well in reading exercises.  Even pairing up one sense with one piece of a reading lesson (e.g. tapping out syllables or phonetic sounds, or catching a ball while learning to spell) can offer a change of pace that increases cognitive development and understanding of reading principles for children.   

Examples of a multisensory strategy in an early education reading lesson could be using fingerpaint, sand, or shaving cream to write letters. Sounds and songs can be combined with group work to engage aural and kinesthetic learners. Benefits of adding these elements can include increased understanding of new words, retention of words and sounds, and increased reading performance. Also importantly, adding these pieces to your reading lessons can make them fun for your children, and for you!

group of children sitting on the floor facing a teacherSource

Multisensory activity examples that boost children’s engagement

Multisensory activities are especially effective when teaching early reading and writing skills. Here are some activity ideas involving multiple senses you can try in your classroom.

Air writing

This activity is great for kinesthetic learners as children use part of their bodies and movement to reinforce the important concept of letter shapes. Have your children use their pointer and middle fingers together to trace letter shapes such as “A” or “B” in the air. You can also have them pronounce the sound of each letter as they make the correct shape. 

As they trace the letter, encourage your children to visualize it. This movement can help strengthen their muscle memory for creating letter shapes and prepare them as they learn to write in the future.

Writing in shaving cream or sand

This multisensory method reinforces the letter-sound relationship via audio, visual, and tactile pathways. Spread a tactile material such as shaving cream or sand in a shallow tray or container. Call out a letter sound such as /p/ and have children repeat the sound and write the corresponding letter in the shaving cream or sand using their fingers. 

Similar to air writing, drawing letter shapes with their fingers in a different material other than using a pencil or crayon to write on paper can help promote children’s early writing skills. 

Tapping out sounds

Tapping out sounds helps children build phonemic awareness, or the ability to distinguish between individual sound units and manipulate them into words. For this activity, have children tap each letter sound with their fingers and thumb. 

Consider the word bat. Have children tap their index finger to their thumb as they say the /b/ sound. Then, have them tap their middle finger to their thumb when they pronounce the /a/ sound. Then, they tap their ring finger to their thumb as they say the /t/ sound. Finally, they combine the sounds together to form the word bat.

Shared reading

Children can participate in or take turns reading a book with you in this activity. They may engage with the material by circling long or short vowels or underlining sight words. They can also follow along while you read aloud or as they listen to an audiobook version.

For collaborative reading, children may use printable books. For example, they may write in sight words or create illustrations to fit phrases in printable books.

Word building

In this activity, children can construct words using letter tiles or magnetic letters. This can help children associate sounds and letters. For extra assistance, you can look for letter tiles with vowels in one color and consonants in another. 

Give children age-appropriate words to spell out with the magnetic letters. Have them sound out each letter as they place it to form the word.

Sandpaper letters

This activity can help children maintain a tactile (touch) recall of letters and their corresponding sounds. Using letters cut out of sandpaper, have children trace each letter with their fingertips while saying the letter sound. As they trace the letter shape, they can feel the rough texture of the sandpaper.

Final thoughts

A multisensory approach is a method of teaching that incorporates more than one sense. Some children might depend more on their sense of sight to see text and images when they learn. On the other hand, some children might depend on their sense of hearing more to listen to instructions and comprehend what the teacher is saying.

Multisensory instruction extends beyond sight and hearing and attempts to create lesson plans and activities that appeal to all the senses (hearing, smell, sight, taste, touch, and movement).

As children participate in multisensory learning, they have a variety of opportunities to learn, improving their ability to understand and retain new information.

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