Personalizing Play: Integrating the Learning Styles Model and the Multiple Intelligences Theory in the Early Childhood Setting

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Every child has his own best way of learning. If our goal is to support that, we can apply two models that address different aspects of learning, to meet each child where he is. But can they be used together? I believe they can and in so doing, will benefit a wide variety of preferences, learning styles, and strengths.

The Learning Style Model, developed by Dr. Rita Dunn, highlights five elements that affect learning: psychological, physical, social, environmental, and emotional. The model was intended to assist teachers in organizing the learning environment, to meet children’s individual needs and styles. Each of the elements encompasses several dimensions that impact each child in a different way. It’s Important to remember that the specific preferences a child may have are not static… they can and will change with age and can certainly be influenced by gender and culture.

Let’s take a look at some of these dimensions:


Impulsive/Reflective- One child may be cautious and pensive about the activities in which he engages, while another is ready to jump off the deep end at the get-go.

Global/Analytic- Some children learn things best when they can see the whole concept at once. Others need things broken down into smaller parts.

Hemispheric- This has to do with which side of the brain exerts dominance. For example, left-brain learners may enjoy problem-solving and math, while right-brain learners prefer the arts and expressing their creativity.


Sound- Some children like noise and don’t mind it. Others like things quiet.

Light- Some children work best in subdued lighting, while others prefer bright environment.

Temperature- Some children like to be warm, while others prefer cooler temperatures.

Design- Formal learners prefer sitting on chairs at tables, while informal learners like to stretch out on the carpet or in beanbag chairs.


Motivation- Some children are self-motivated, while others require a parent or teacher to motivate them.

Persistence- Some children will stay with an activity until it is finished. Other children need continued encouragement in order to complete a task.

Responsibility- Some children need supervision, while others can work independently.

Structure- Some children do better with specific instructions and guidelines. Other children prefer more open-ended activities.


Self- Some children work best by themselves

Pair- Some children enjoy working with another child.

Peers/Team- Some children like to learn with their friends in small groups.

Adult- Some children prefer to work alongside an adult with sustained guidance.

Varied- Some children work better with predictable routines. Others enjoy variety and don’t mind changes.

Music Workshop 2

As we reflect on these, we can certainly recognize many of these preferences in the children in our classrooms… with wide divergence and combinations. We can accommodate many children’s needs with some thoughtful planning. A music center, for example, can be set up with a space for creative movement, a DVD player with headset, a variety of children’s musical instruments to play, several real instruments to try out, and a table with sets of glasses with varying amounts of water to arrange by pitch. A small tent could be set up with large pillows and speakers, for relaxing while listening to music.

1 tent

The teacher can drop by periodically to sing with the children and lead some music games. Some of the more independent children can take over for her when she leaves. Multiple children could approach this center and find opportunities to learn in their own way.


Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences also suggests that each child learns differently, but also possesses different levels of strength in eight specific intelligences. As teachers, we often try to provide children with particular materials and activities that will engage their individual strengths of intelligence, based on our observations of what those may be. However, it’s also important for children to have opportunities to create, learn, and problem-solve through all of the intelligences.

As we examine each of Gardner’s Intelligences, we can identify the kinds of activities children might enjoy and those that would stretch them a bit and expand their horizons.

Bodily-Kinesthetic– The ability to manipulate objects and move the body.

-Handling sensory materials

-Art activities

-Dance and creative movement­­­


-Active games and sports


Musical– The ability to identify melody, pitch, rhythm, and sound patterns.

-Musical instruments, including sticks and drums

-Singing songs


-Listening to music


Linguistic- The ability to relate to words and language

-Word games

-Playing with sounds and words (nonsense words and rhymes)

-Listening to stories

-Telling stories


Spacial- The ability to visualize things and change the into new forms.

-Painting and drawing


-Videos charts, maps

-Manipulating designs and colors

-Taking machines or devices apart

Logical-Mathematical- The ability to use deductive and inductive reasoning, as well as recognizing patterns and order of objects

-Solving problems

-Working with numbers

-Sorting and organizing things

Interpersonal- The ability to relate and communicate with other people.

-Team activities and cooperative games

-Playing with friends

-Opportunities to help others

-Opportunities to be a leader

Intrapersonal- The ability to be tuned into one’s own feelings

-Opportunities to use imagination

-Independent work

-Availability of personal spaces

-Opportunities to listen, observe, and reflect on things

Naturalistic- Ability to engage with plants and animals and have an understanding of the natural world.

-Caring for plants or pets

-Outdoor field trips

-Opportunities to use equipment like magnifying glasses and binoculars to study natural materials and organisms.

-Collecting natural specimens

If we go back to the music center example previously mentioned, we can further accommodate children by adding CDs with stories set to music, encouraging children to draw while listening to different types of music, and providing recordings of a variety of bird songs in nature. We could also buy a large, used music box or radio from a thrift store and set it on a table for the children to take apart and examine.

One size never fits all. If we only give children single-direction activities, they will naturally try to make their own adaptations. This can, of course, lead to what may appear to be failure to follow directions or misbehavior… when, in fact, they are only trying to make the best of what has been offered.

We can easily use both theories congruently, to support children’s learning. With some intentional planning, based on the preferences and strengths of each child, we can create learning centers and activities that benefit everyone. This is truly supporting how children learn best.


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