Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
This time of year can get a little crazy, but the energy that leads up to this string of holidays and the impending break can be a good thing if channeled in the right way. I engage students in experiential learning activities for the holidays that are fitting for the time of year.
Yes, this time of year can be a little chaotic, but it is also one of my favorite times of year in my high school classroom and home learning environment with my own children
This is the season of giving, so a lot of what my students do this time of year is focused on being grateful and giving back. There is also a lot to celebrate, which can be fun.
It's exciting to take the things that kids (and adults) love about the holiday season and use those interests to engage students in other content areas such as science and math (examples to come), and help them build essential 21st-century skills (ex: problem-solving) and life skills (ex: budgeting).
So let's get to it! Before diving in I want to note that the resources mentioned in connection to some of the activities below are really designed for secondary students (7th-12th grade). I modify a lot of these activities for my own children, who are 5 and 7, but rather than give them the templates included in the resources to plan their own experiences, I use the templates to plan an experience that is fitting for their age group and skill levels.
If you're looking for some free resources to help you navigate and manage these activities during this wild time of year, grab my free experiential learning activity tools mini-bundle.
10 Experiential Learning Activities for the Holidays
I have done the following experiential learning activities for the holidays with my high school students and my own children. Some will be more fitting than others. Browse your options, get inspired, adapt the activities to work well for you, and above all, have fun!
1. Kitchen Science
My high school students love cooking. And if they don’t really enjoy the cooking piece of it, they really enjoy the eating part. So learning in the kitchen is always a win, especially during the holidays season when there are so many celebratory dishes and seasonal flavors.
To make cooking during school more than an excuse to eat great food, I make the activities experiential. Experiential learning requires active involvement in the concepts as well as self-direction. So I have my students do self-directed experimental inquiry based on holiday-themed cooking or recipes.
I wrote an entire blog on this idea -The Science of Cooking: 10 Holiday Inspired Kitchen Inquiry Activities. It gives experimental inquiry activity ideas that look at the science of making eggnog, pie crust, gingerbread cookies, hard candy, and more.
2. Plan a Dinner Party
Every year around this time my school hosts an event called “Feast”. Each advisory organizes a dinner party within a set budget, we cook the recipes together and have a “feast” as a school community the day before winter break.
I love this activity because it is an excellent relationship-builder, incorporates real-world life skills such as budgeting and cooking, and the kids love it.
This could be executed in a variety of ways. I have a resource called Plan a Dinner Party on a Budget that walks my students through the planning process. Sometimes we actually cook the planned menu as a class, other times it is hypothetical.
If you’re unable to actually cook the meal together as a class or group, you can still have the students participate in the planning process. They develop a variety of skills and could bring those new skills home with them to host a dinner party on a budget with their own friends and family. This is perfect for this time of year when friends and family tend to gather and celebrate around big meals.
3. Service-Learning for the Season of Giving
The holiday season is a great time for giving back. All of the time is a great time for giving and showing gratitude, but there is something about that time of year where it makes more sense to students. Kids, teenagers especially, tend to get wrapped up in their own worlds, and the holidays are a great time of year to snap them out of that.
Every year around this time I have my students self-direct their own service-learning experiences. They identify community needs that are meaningful, important, or relevant to that student on a personal level. They explore ways to serve the community to meet or fulfill those community needs. They participate in an act of service that they themselves plan, coordinate, and execute.
I have my students do service-learning projects this time of year around the topic of community helpers or workers. They choose a community worker that has impacted them or benefited them in some way, someone they appreciate for their sacrifices (ex: teachers, librarians, firefighters, social workers, doctors, etc.), and give back or say thank you by serving that person in a way that fills the need.
If you’re looking for guiding materials, check out this self-directed service-learning resource on giving back to community workers.
4. Holidays Around the World Project-Based Learning
The holiday season is also a really great time for students to explore holidays that they do not themselves celebrate. Students develop an awareness of unique differences among people and cultures around the world. They see the world beyond only what they observe and experience in their own lives.
I always have my students do a self-directed project-based learning experience on a holiday of their choice, preferably one that they do not celebrate, for these reasons.
I have my students research and learn about their holiday of choice by organizing authentic learning experiences, interviewing or speaking with those that DO celebrate the holiday they are studying, and creating a virtual exhibit as the final product to demonstrate learning.
For guiding materials, take a look at my Project-Based Learning Holidays Around the World resources.
5. Holiday Season-Inspired STEM Activities
I do a lot of indoor STEM this time of year with students because the weather where I am tends to be unpleasant. STEM is exciting for students, challenging, and interesting. It is also very hands-on, perfect not only for kids that are ready for holidays and a break but are bouncing off the walls because the weather isn’t pleasant enough to enjoy.
I wrote an entire blog post on winter-inspired STEM activities that my high school and own young children love, such as a sled race, making a robot Yeti, building a ski lift, and more!
6. Mental Health Community Action Projects
This time of year can be hard for many, for those that have lost someone, for those that are struggling financially, for those that live with depression and/or anxiety, and more.
I have had my students do projects on mental health around this time of year because I have found that it is needed not just in the community, but for my students’ well-being.
I take a community action project approach around mental health issues in the community. Students identify community issues relevant to the topic of mental health, develop an action plan to tackle the issue, and take action.
Community action projects are similar to service-learning projects in that students examine and participate in community issues, but a community action project is different in that it isn’t limited to serving. A student might tackle an issue by raising awareness, raising money, or getting involved in policy/legislation.
One of my students who is an incredible artist wanted to raise awareness about the stigma of mental health for her mental health community action project. She created these incredibly moving and impactful paintings and worked with different public spaces to get her paintings hung and seen. This is one of many examples.
7. End of the Year Reflection
I like having my students reflect on the calendar year by putting together a reflection presentation. They do this around the new year. They look back at their learning experiences, goals met, aspirations and goals for the following year, and more. They add photographs, videos, and written reflections to the presentation.
Making New Year resolutions, as we all know, can be quite a waste of time if there isn’t reflection going on in the process. Part of making goals for the future is looking back and learning by reflecting on what went well and what could use work. The presentation piece is a great way to do this. It really encourages students to deeply reflect.
My students use a specific reflection slideshow template that offers scaffolding questions to promote deep and meaningful reflection.
8. Holiday-Themed Inquiry Bingo
Sometimes this time of year I just need my students to do something fun that gets them up and moving and collaborating. This time tends to come a day or two before the break where we are just trying to fill time. Sometimes I just want my students to play a game!
What better way to get their energy out and fill that time than with a game like inquiry bingo? Inquiry bingo is a research-based trivia-style game that I created where students are asked to find the answers to questions that cannot be answered with a simple Google search. The questions may require multiple-step searches and even actual conversations between students and experts.
The awesome part about an experience like this is that it promotes research skills, inquiry, and information literacy. It is also a fun experience with a little healthy competition sprinkled in. I have a food and New Year-themed inquiry bingo resource, both of which are fitting for the holiday season.
9. Shadow a Community Event
There are so many events going on this time of year from festivals to fundraisers to concerts. The virtual events can even be really cool. One experiential learning activity that my students do every year is shadowing and participating in the planning, coordination, and execution of a community event of their choice.
This time of year is PERFECT for that. A student doesn’t have to work at the most popular, most attended, and important event of the year. The student could assist a community center in putting on a play, help plan and host a gingerbread house-making competition (one of my students did this), or help their little brother’s preschool put on a holiday party for the kids.
The goal is to get students involved in and connected with the community. I do this through the process of self-directed project-based learning. Click the link for guiding templates for Behind the Scenes of a Community Event Project-Based Learning.
10. Community Action Projects
I’ve already mentioned community action projects in reference to a mental health experiential learning activity. You might be thinking, “I like the idea of community action projects this time of year, but do not have the need for a mental health-focused one at this time.
That is fine! The ideas are still there and an experience that encourages students to give back is great for this season. Have students identify community issues of importance to them, examine the problem, brainstorm solutions, develop an action plan, and take action. It doesn’t have to be about mental health.
One of my students, for example, was interested in pediatric cancer and ways that she could help this time of year. This issue was of particular relevance and importance to this student. Through research, she found that some kids with cancer will spend their holidays in the hospital.
She decided to collect toys to donate to kids that would have their holiday celebration in the hospital. This student developed a marketing strategy to collect toys, collected those toys, and delivered the toys to the hospital. She was able to get four large boxes of toys from community members to donate. She also raised money to donate to the hospital and volunteered at the hospital’s holiday family dinner event.
If you are looking for guiding materials for self-directed community action projects, check out this tool kit.
Bonus: Design Thinking Maker Projects
My students have fun with this experience, but I have even more fun watching them go through the experience. The idea behind a maker project is that students identify a problem, in this case, one that is associated with the holidays, and build a product to solve the problem.
So I have had students create systems of getting holiday lights up on rooflines without risking a fall. I’ve had students create storage systems for frustrating holiday decorations such as ornaments. The list goes on.
This whole process follows design thinking phases including empathizing with those that experience the problem day-after-day, brainstorming solutions, building, trial and error, testing, etc.
I have a maker project tool kit that includes all of the pieces needed to design and execute a holiday problem with a product solution.
There are so many ways to make this time of year meaningful, relevant, fun, and engaging for students. The ideas for experiential learning activities for the holidays offered here are just some of many. I personally like to wrap up that time of year with a bang, so I tend to lean more toward service-learning and community action projects. But sometimes you just need a little fun and action, in which case I would recommend games and STEM.
Whichever way you choose to go, all of the activities mentioned here do the job of engaging students during a wild and chaotic time of year, but they ALSO offer incredible learning opportunities.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.