One evening while one of us (Colosi) was making dinner, her six-year-old daughter, Gianna, appeared with 10 little pieces of paper in her hand. She had been doing her homework, she said, and each of the scraps contained one of the words she was supposed to learn. When her mother asked why Gianna had torn apart her spelling list, she shrugged: “So I can do stuff with it.” For Gianna, abstract concepts became easier to understand after she had transformed them into physical objects—in this case, pieces of paper she could hold, feel and manipulate.
The connection between touch and understanding is deeply instinctual, beginning in infancy and continuing, in varying forms, throughout our lives. Experiments have found that touch is as important as vision for learning and retaining information. Studies also show that tactile activities such as playing with blocks help children improve everything from their math abilities to their thinking skills. We are knowledge architects, building intellectual edifices through physical experiences.