Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
5 Innovative, Student-Centered, and Engaging Experiential Learning Activity Types
In the world of experiential learning there is a lot of talk about theory and philosophy; about what experiential learning is and what it is not, the benefits of experiential learning, and the purpose of it.
But the most common question that I get from educators is not about experiential learning in theory but about experiential learning in practice.
How do I practice experiential learning with my k12 students? What is an experiential learning activity? What are experiential learning activity types? What approach or experiential learning activity is the best fit for me and my students? How do I facilitate experiential learning in my classroom and beyond?
These are the questions that this blog post is going to get at. This post is all about my favorite experiential learning activities.
Experiential learning is personalized and self-directed. Students are actively involved in real-world concepts. Experiential learning is deep, authentic, relevant and meaningful to every child.
My favorite experiential learning activities, those listed below, nicely and organically hit those marks, which is why they are included in this blog post.
There are a variety of ways to make learning activities experiential, but there are probably some approaches that will better suit your short- and long-term goals, flexibility level, needs, and interests than others.
I developed a "quiz" that you can take to figure out which experiential learning activity/activities mentioned here could be a good fit. Take this experiential learning activity quiz for free, bookmark the link, and retake it every time you're onto a new experiential learning adventure.
Now, let's gets started! Look through my favorite ways to implement experiential learning. Then ask yourself which one(s) inspire you and which one(s) seem to be a good fit for your students.
Try one or more of the activities! If you like the experiences, do them again, and keep doing them until the activities become your curriculum rather than a sideshow.
Try some of my free tools to help you plan and manage experiential learning activities in your classroom or homeschool. These tools will give you the confidence and assistance that you need to seamlessly plan and execute experiential learning without sacrificing a lot of your time.
Some important notes before I get into my favorite experiential learning activity types...
This following list of experiential learning activity types is not exhaustive. The ones listed are just my favorites.
Some of the activities that I list are personal variations developed around my own experiences in experiential education. For example, problem-based learning can take many forms. The framework of the PrBL activity that I describe below is how I have implemented problem-based learning with my own students. It is not the only way.
Each activity is also not mutually exclusive. You might find that combining self-directed PBL and my design thinking maker projects makes the most sense for your group.
My Favorite Experiential Learning Activity Types
Experiential Learning Activity Type 1:
Self-Directed Project-Based Learning
Self-directed project-based learning is a great experiential learning activity for so many reasons. Experiential learning gets students involved, emphasizes real-world issues and concepts, is authentic and collaborative, personalized, and student-led. That is self-directed PBL in a nutshell.
Project-based learning is based on a unique framework with specific PBL components that make it what it is.
Project-based learning is not any old poster board project. Project-based learning includes authentic learning experiences and community collaborations. Students develop innovative final products to demonstrate learning and share their final products with a public and relevant audience, not just their classmates. It is sustained inquiry that takes time.
But the student-directed piece is really what makes project-based learning experiential, in my opinion. Not only is it authentic and deeply inquiry-based (PBL), but it is also personalized, making the experience relevant and meaningful to EVERY student. Students design and lead personalized PBL's based around their own personal needs, goals, and interests.
Self-directed project-based learning is great for:
Experiential Learning Activity Type 2:
Remember when I said there can be a lot of overlap between activities? Problem-based learning (PrBL) and project-based learning (PBL) are examples of that. Project-based learning IS problem-based learning, but problem-based learning doesn't have to be project-based learning. Get it!? ;)
Project-based learning is real-world problem-solving, but PBL has very specific elements that make it what it is. Problem-based learning, on the other hand, is an umbrella term that could apply to a variety of activities, including but not limited to project-based learning.
The version of problem-based learning that I do with my students is hypothetical, comprehensive, multi-perspective problem-solving. Students identify a real-world community problem, research the problem from a variety of perspectives, explore solutions, and develop comprehensive plans to solve the problem.
The plans are hypothetical. The students do not act on their solutions, although they could if you chose to make that a part of the experience.
Problem-based learning is great for:
Experiential Learning Activity Type 3:
Maker Projects Through Design Thinking
I began learning about design thinking not so long ago, and was immediately inspired to add it to my portfolio of teaching strategies. My maker projects with a design thinking approach ask students create products through the phases of design thinking that solve a defined problem.
Design thinking phases:
1) Empathize - understand the source of the problem and explore different viewpoints to best solve the problem
2) Define - develop a statement of the problem
3) Ideate - brainstorm and explore solutions
4) Prototype - develop a plan/solution
5) Test - develop a system for testing the product, test the product, modify the product, and repeat until the product effectively solves the defined problem
Maker projects are great for:
Experiential Learning Activity Type 4:
Community Action Projects
Community action projects are above and beyond the most time-intensive and they demand a high degree of independence on the part of the learner, especially if you take a student-directed approach. But they are the most meaningful and impactful of the activities I suggest here, in my opinion.
My community action projects have evolved into a combination of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning.
Students, if self-directed, choose a community issue under a theme assigned by you (example: water quality) or a theme that they identify and choose as their focus. They research that issue, gather information from a variety of community sources, explore viable solutions, develop a course of action that they could themselves take, and take action.
Here's a quick community action project example. One of my students was interested in sea turtle conservation. She explored the natural history, threats, etc. and determined that tourism was a big source of the problem. She developed an education campaign specifically geared toward tourists and created a brochure with tips for tourists as they related to sea turtle protection.
A regular project might end here. A community action project positively impacts the community long-term on an issue personally relevant and important to each student. So the student went on to write a script proposing that tourism-related companies located near or in sea turtle habitat put her brochure on their websites and in their lobbies. And they did. And It was beautiful.
The most beautiful part is that my student discovered that tourists want to be a part of protecting sea turtles. Her project was a not a nuisance or an attack on travelers, it was simply to raise awareness and offer suggestions for responsible tourism.
Community action projects are great for:
Experiential Learning Activity Type 5:
Scientific open inquiry is student-centered experimentation that puts students in the shoes of a scientist. They go through the steps that a scientist would. They make observations, ask their own testable questions based on those observations, design their own experiments, etc.
The benefits are vast in comparison to teacher-directed experimentation. Rather than follow a recipe experiment, students are in the position to think and behave like scientists, which helps them develop critical thinking, analytical, and problem-solving skills.
Scientific open inquiry is not limited to science. My students have designed and led experiments around topics in human behavior, social issues, the economy, demographics, and more.
Scientific open inquiry is great for:
BONUS Experiential Learning Activity Type 6: Self-Directed Service Learning
I added this activity recently because it's really important, in my opinion. Service-learning is similar to community action projects except service-learning really focuses specifically on local community issues with an emphasis on filling a specific community need.
So for example, a student might live in a river basin experiences annual spring flooding, damaging homes, businesses, and farms in their community. The students decides to explore specific needs in their community as it relates to river flooding. That student determines that housing protection is an expressed need by many in their community.
The student then decides to develop design and execute a service-learning experience where they will examine areas that are especially vulnerable to runoff, develop a rain garden plan/blueprint, and recruit community members and collaborators to build rain gardens throughout the city.
This is an example of student-directed service-learning. The student chose a topic of interest, identified a community need, and carried out a service to fill that need.
Service-Learning is great for:
So, what do you think? Do any of these activities/experiences resonate? Spark interest? Inspire you to get started with experiential learning right now? If so, do it! Take the chance. You can do it. If you think you can't, you're wrong. Just sayin'.
Grab those free experiential resources and browse through them. They'll hopefully answer some of your questions about planning and managing experiential learning activities.
Then grab a piece of scratch paper and start dumping your ideas on it (or if you're like me, Post-It Notes). Then take one of those ideas and plan an experiential learning activity using those freebies.
If you're struggling to find the time to plan these activities and need a helping hand, take a look at Experiential Learning Depot's experiential learning activity tool kits. You just print and go. The tool kits include templates that are designed to smoothly walk students through each experience.
Good luck! Reach out anytime with questions about experiential learning activities, firstname.lastname@example.org
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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.