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  • Jennie Lou Harriman

Hands-on Math with Playdough: Using Multiple Intelligences to Engage Learners

playdough and dry erase board

How do you learn best? By watching, by doing, by listening? How do the children in your life learn? Not everyone enjoys repetitive pencil and paper activities.

One of my students, who is in kindergarten, excels at math: counting, addition and subtraction, recognizing numbers, categorizing items, and making patterns. But if he has to do worksheet after worksheet of pencil and paper math, he sometimes becomes frustrated. Writing can be challenging for this student and repetitive two-dimensional worksheets can be boring.

The foundation of my approach to teaching is to engage learners based on who they are as individuals.

What is the problem?

The learner excels at math, but can become frustrated with pencil and paper worksheets.

What is one solution?

This student prefers visual, kinesthetic, and tactile activities. He also likes playdough, the color green, and my dog puppet, so I incorporated these into the lesson.

  • The dry erase board makes the act of writing easier, because the marker flows on the board with less resistance than pencil on paper.

  • Making and counting out playdough pieces, and erasing the board, adds body movement to the lesson.

  • The playdough pieces add a three-dimensional, visual representation of the written numerals.

  • And the pig and dog add a fun dramatic play element that increases communication and language skills!

Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory describes eight distinct intelligences we all have as human beings. As individuals, some of these intelligences are stronger and others are weaker. Our stronger intelligences may correspond with our preferred learning styles.

  • Spatial (Picture Smart) Learners have strong visual skills. They enjoy painting, drawing, and building things. They may learn more effectively with pictures, images, charts, three-dimensional objects, and written words and numerals.

  • Bodily-kinesthetic (Body Smart) Learners have strong body skills. They enjoy sports, dancing, and building. They may learn more effectively with hands-on activities and by moving their bodies.

  • Musical (Music Smart) Learners have strong musical skills: rhythm, pitch, and melody. They enjoy sounds, singing and playing instruments. They may learn more effectively with auditory-verbal instruction.

  • Linguistic (Word Smart) Learners have strong language skills. They enjoy the sounds of words, spelling, and books. They may learn more effectively with written and spoken words.

  • Logical-mathematical (Logic Smart) Learners have strong logic, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. They enjoy how things work, numbers, math and science.

  • Interpersonal (People Smart) Learners have strong social skills. They are able to interact effectively with people and are sensitive to the feelings of others. They may learn more effectively by interacting with others.

  • Intrapersonal (Self Smart) Learners have strong self-awareness. They are independent, self-directed, self-confident and sensitive to their feelings and abilities. They may learn more effectively by working on their own.

  • Naturalistic (Nature Smart) Learners have nature skills. They enjoy animals and being outside in nature.

Which of the intelligences do you relate to most? What are your strengths?

Now think about the learners in your life. What are their strengths? Remember, they will have more effective and enjoyable learning experiences when they are given opportunities to learn through their preferred intelligences and learning styles.

It’s Your Turn

For a learner who prefers visual, tactile, and kinesthetic activities, you will need:


dry erase board

dry erase marker


1. Take turns making up number sentences and write them on the dry erase board.

2. For example, if dog has six treats and pig has three treats, how many treats are there? 6+3=___ or 2+___=5.

3. Make small pieces of playdough and count them out to represent each numeral.

4. Find the number of playdough pieces needed to fill in the blank.

5. Write the numeral in the blank space.

If your learners prefer words, music, or nature, how can you adapt a math lesson to be more appealing to them?

I would love to hear about what you have tried and how it went. Let me know in the comments.

Have fun playing math games!

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