Tactile Learning: Definition and Examples

Tactile Learning: Definition and ExamplesReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

tactile learning definition and examples, explained below

Tactile learning is learning by touching and using the hands. Tactile learning involves touching, holding, poking, and squeezing learning materials. It gives students an opportunity to directly manipulate objects in a lesson which gives them a more dynamic, more enriched understanding.

Some students prefer to learn through touch. They have a tactile learning style. It is one of several types of learning styles.

Every student is different, and each one may prefer to learn differently.

Some students prefer to listen, some prefer to read independently, and some prefer to work with others on projects.

Over the years, educators have developed different theories of learning that incorporate the notion of individual learning styles.

Tactile Learning Definition and Overview

Tactile learning is usually discussed in the context of learning styles. There are numerous theoretical frameworks that speak of learning styles.

However, it is possible to trace the roots of tactile learning much further back in history.

For example, Piaget (1952; 1959) described the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development as one which could be characterized as almost purely tactile in nature.

The infant learns about its environment through a sense of touch, which not only includes the hands and fingers, but the mouth as well.

Going back even further, the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori (1918) emphasized the use of manipulatives that children can grasp with their hands and engage in experimentation and exploration.

The Montessori method is a constructivist approach where children learn by discovery and working directly with objects, rather than being told about them.

Today it is well-known as offering a wide assortment of specially designed educational materials, usually made from wood. Many of the items are tactile-oriented and specifically designed to expose young children to different textures and interaction opportunities.

chrisEditorial Note: It’s important to understand that the idea that some people learn better through touch than other methods, while sounding common-sense, is highly disputed in the academic literature. Coffield et al. (2004), for example, highlight that of the 70 different models of learning styles, most create arbitrary categories (such as the ‘tactile’ category) with little evidence that people may actually learn better in one way than another. As a result, many scholars see tactile learning as a preference learners have which may influence motivation and resilience in the learning process. The key point Coffield makes is that we can still learn through any medium and there is, as yet, little evidence that people are inherently better at using one medium of learning over another – we just have learning preferences.

Tactile Learning vs. Kinesthetic Learning

There is a subtle difference between tactile learning and kinesthetic learning. Tactile learning involves the hands and fingers, which utilizes fine-motor skills.

However, kinesthetic learning involves movement of the entire body. Kinesthetic learning involves the arms and legs and utilizes what are known as gross-motor skills.

Although students with a tactile learning style certainly can learn with kinesthetic learning activities, they may prefer to be more focused on manipulating learning materials with their hands and fingers.

We can see the conceptual overlap between tactile and kinesthetic learning in various models of learning styles.

For instance, the Dunn and Dunn model of learning styles (1992; 1993), identifies five strands of learning:

  • Environment
  • Emotionality
  • Sociological preferences
  • Cognitive processing inclinations
  • Physiological preferences.

Within this framework, kinesthetic learning and tactile learning are distinct, but both fall into the physiological preferences strand. Therefore, they share some commonalities.

Tactile Learning Examples

  • Dinosaur Bones Dig: This is an activity that involves students digging into the “ground” to uncover dinosaur bones. There are many kits available to purchase that allow students to use different toy tools to dig up bones or break into eggs and discover skeletal structures. Some kits also provide reference cards that include facts about different dinosaurs.  
  • Felt Story Boards: Letting children retell a story using felt cut-outs that they can place on a felt board is a great tactile learning activity. Students can manipulate the different pieces and enjoy placing them in different spaces as they talk about what is happening in the story.
  • Finger Phonics Writing: Young students can learn phonics by using their fingers to write different letters in different textured substances such as sand, rice, or shaving cream…or all of the above.
  • Playdough: Playdough can be used in so many different learning activities. Students can learn about the body parts of an insect by forming each one and putting them together, or making different geometric shapes to learn about sides and corners.
  • Sorting Toy Animals: When learning about animal classification, students can be given assorted toy animals and asked to place them in different taxonomic classes (e.g., mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, etc.)  
  • Dioramas: Students love to make things and dioramas can be used in so many contexts. For example, students can learn about animals and their habits by building their own diorama that contains the different features of where an animal lives. Tactile learners will thoroughly enjoy manipulating the scene.
  • Chemistry Experiments: Students can learn about chemical properties and how different chemicals interact by conducting their own experiments. These can be highly structured or exploratory.
  • STEM Kits: Kits are available that allow students to construct toy cars or boats that are powered by air or other forces. Students enjoy putting the objects together and experimenting with how the different contraptions operate.     
  • The Clay Volcano: Using clay or playdough, students can shape their own volcano and then make it erupt with baking soda and vinegar. Before the clay hardens, students can cut a wedge and paint the inside to show the flow or magma through the main vent and secondary vents. It’s a great tactile-base activity that impacts student engagement.
  • Popsicle Sticks: These sticks can be used to make various geometric shapes. If cut into smaller pieces, students can also shape them to form letters and numbers.   

Applications of Tactile Learning

1. In the Classroom

The most extensive applications of tactile learning activities have occurred in the classroom.

In lower grade levels, tactile activities have been used to teach preschoolers about geometric shapes (Batt, 2009), third-graders about alphabetic principles using multisensory word-study lessons (Donnell, 2005), and at-risk students struggling with reading (Fisher, 2016),

Tactile learning strategies can be especially beneficial for students with visual impairments. For instance, Hirn (2009) developed tactile-based maps to help visually impaired students understand the spatial environment of their classroom.

Vivoda (2019) developed an art education project for teachers in Croatia to help address the lack of specialized tactile books and picture books for blind and visually impaired children.

2. Tangible User Interface

In recent years, there has also been a particular focus on the use of touch screens and tablets as tactile learning tools.

Mobile devices such as tablets are interacted with primarily through touch and are easy to operate, even for younger children (Nacher et al., 2015), and children with ADHD (de la Guía et al., 2015).

Although the traditional tablet interface is unidimensional Garcia-Sanjuan et al., 2018), Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) involve manipulating physical objects that effect the digital environment (Africano et al., 2004) and is also consistent with Piagetian theory (1952; 1959).

Examples of TUI and related tech-manipulatives include Systems Blocks (Zuckerman & Resnick, 2003), physically interactive storyrooms (Montemayor et al., 2004), and LEGO® type robotics and programmable toys (e.g., Rubens et al., 2020).

At higher grade levels, tactile learning via TUI extensions has also been applied to the teaching of Augmented Chemistry (AC) (Fjeld et al., 2007) as an option to the traditional ball-and-stick model (BSM).

Similar applications of TUI have been explored in a wide range of subject areas, from neuroscience (Schneider, et al., 2013), to trigonometry (Urrutia et al., 2019), to music education (Amico & Ludovico, 2020)

TUI systems exercise various sensory and learning modalities which help students comprehend advanced theoretical concepts (Quarles et al., 2008), and result in deeper processing of knowledge and greater retention (Alaman et al., 2016).


Tactile learning is learning by touch. It involves grasping, feeling, and manipulating objects in the environment. Tactile learning offers a much more dynamic and enriched learning experience than traditional educational practices that involve listening or observing.

Tactile learning is often used interchangeably with kinesthetic learning and included in most models of learning styles. However, one is more oriented towards fine-motor skills and the other towards broad movements of the arms and legs.

The Montessori educational philosophy integrated tactile learning as a central component of how children learn through experimentation and learning. The Montessori philosophy had led to the creation of educational materials specifically designed for manipulation and tactile exploration.

Tactile learning is applied extensively in lower grade levels. It can be beneficial for most children, and may be particularly helpful for children with learning disabilities or visual impairment.

The invention of TUI has led to the rapid development of technologies that allow students to manipulate the digital environment by manipulating physical objects.

This creative use of tactile learning has been applied to the teaching of neuroscience, chemistry, and music education.


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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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