Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Experiential Learning Activity Schedules for all Ages and Skill Levels
Welcome to distance learning, everyone! School closures across the globe have forced educators into converting their entire teaching portfolio to an online platform. Parents are trying to work from home and homeschool their kids at the same time; no easy feat.
We're all finding our way, and that's great, but sometimes it's nice to have a schedule or plan laid out for you. I have been an experiential high school educator for 12 years, and a home educator to two small children for 3 years. I have had a little of both worlds - home and school, young and old, traditional education and progressive. I have a lot of ideas in my tool belt, and want to share them with you all to attempt to make this transition run as smoothly as possible.
I will be doing at least one experiential learning activity with my children each day. They will stick to a theme for the week. I will post that schedule right here as a I go. This is simply to give you ideas and a lending hand as we continue to manage this school closure/home learning situation. All of these schedules can continue to be used in the home, in the classroom, and out in the world long after this pandemic is behind us.
Interest-Led Mad Science for All Ages
My son has been interested in science for a long time, and recently received a starter/kids chemistry set for his birthday. All he wants to do now is mix colors and random kitchen ingredients and make things "explode". So I decided to base this week's home experiential learning activities on interest-led science experiments and activities.
There are many elements of experiential learning that make it what it is, one of which is personalization. I sat with my children and asked them a couple of simple questions and made a list of their answers - "what do you like?" and "what do you wonder?" This weeks schedule of "mad science" was entirely inspired by my children's answers to these two simple questions. Doing this makes learning exciting, relevant, personal, and it promotes intrinsic motivation to learn.
My young children basically played. They understood the basic concepts behind each activity, but it was mostly just fun, exciting, and inspired a passion for science. High school students can go about this the same way but add student-directed learning experiences to go along with their interests such as designing and conducting their own experiments around the questions that they came up with, or complete student-directed projects about their interests related to "mad science". Check out my open-inquiry and project-based learning tool kits here.
The chemistry kit came with some science experiment ideas, and dancing noodles was one of them. You just add snippets of cooked spaghetti to a beaker. Add baking soda and vinegar. This is an interesting variation of your classic "volcano". My kids know at this point what happens when you combine baking soda with vinegar. So I asked them to make predictions about what might happen to the noodles if placed at the center of the reaction. My kindergartener could predict that the bubbles would cause movement.
We make hard candy every year around the winter holidays. It's always fun and is a great way to talk about evaporation. This is a fun one to do with my students, too, to see what happens if you don't give it enough time to evaporate or give it too much time. We also tried gummy candy this time. We use this hard candy recipe.
DIY Bouncy Balls
This was a fun way to make "toys", which was one of my children's interests, and to introduce polymers to older kids. I used this recipe.
Glow in the Dark "Potions"
This was a fun way to satisfy my kids interest in "potions" while providing a hands-on way to learn about density. I got ingredient ideas from this website, but didn't have my kids follow a recipe. They made observations and predictions and experimented with the various liquids placed in front of them.
My daughter wondered how dress became pink. So we looked into dye's and decided to concoct our own out of plant materials. We used avocado, beets, cabbage, onion skin and coffee grinds to dye white socks. We investigated the parts of the plants that make the color and researched how to keep the color once it's been washed.
Experiential Distance Learning Schedule: Climate Science
This week, my children and I focused on climate and how it works. I do a similar "schedule" with my high school students with added scientific open-inquiry experiments, maker projects, etc. The high school content is more difficult and the expectations are higher. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TPT to peruse high school climate science resources. I'll be adding an inquiry resource on climate drivers this week. Stay-tuned for that. I'm working on creating an experiential learning course on the science of climate change, so check back often for new climate resources.
Update: It's here! My climate drivers inquiry-based learning activity for high school students. Printable and Google Classroom versions.
This was an interesting week to start this theme because in Minnesota we are going through a transition of seasons; winter to spring. It's still pretty chilly here right now, so some solar experiments required a little creativity, but we made it work. Check out our week and try it out with your own children or students!
Monday: DIY Weather Instruments
We made a radiometer, rain gauge, and weather vane. Watch this video for a detailed explanation. With my young kids, I used the radiometer to explain that the sun is a powerful source of energy. That's it. A weather vane is a great way to introduce the significance of wind when it comes to climate. A weather vane shows the direction that the wind is coming from, which can help make predictions about imminent weather conditions.
We made these weather instruments the first day of the week because we wanted to record the weather each day. At the end of the week we graphed our daily records and calculated average precipitation and air temperature. This started dialogue about the difference between weather and climate. The weather will be rainy and cool tomorrow (short-term) whereas the weather this week was typical of Minnesota climate in April (long-term).
Modifications: How climate works is a lot more complicated than what a radiometer or weather vane can tell you. I used these instruments to introduce the basic concepts of weather and climate to a 3 and 5-year-old. But high schoolers could grasp more advanced climate concepts such as how the coriolis effect, hadley cells, ferrel and polar cells, etc. influence atmospheric circulation. High school students can still make weather instruments, but should use it as an introduction or supplement to a more advanced activity on climate and the atmosphere. Check out my atmospheric circulation maker-stations on TPT.
Tuesday: Weather Vs. Climate Art Activity
Part of experiential learning is making it personal by identifying student interests and giving the experience personal meaning. My children both love to paint, so I had them use their love of art to demonstrate their understanding of the difference between weather and climate. They both painted a picture of each season and describe the difference between the weather tomorrow, for example, and Minnesota climate.
Modifications: Another important component of experiential learning is that it is self-directed, allowing students choice in process and outcome. I do a lot of self-directed project-based learning with my high school students, and they choose how to demonstrate learning. Allow your older students to CHOOSE how they will demonstrate their understanding of weather vs. climate. Check out my PBL task cards, a collection of end product options. These can be used for any learning experience, not just this one.
Wednesday: Energy Experiments
The Earth's surface is what heats the planet, so different surface materials heat the Earth in different ways - some absorb radiant energy and some reflect it. Albedo is the amount of energy that is reflected. I set up a lab for my kids to test albedo of different surfaces. The purpose was to see which surfaces reflect solar energy and which ones absorb it. My children chose the surface materials, made predictions, did the experiment, and discussed their results. My young kids could grasp that different materials have different temperatures. They also seemed to understand that the sun is responsible for the heat. There were a lot of valuable pieces to this experience other than the science. My kids practiced writing, addition and subtraction, reading a thermometer, problem-solving, writing, graphing, and more.
We then made our own solar ovens using Pringles jars (so many tutorials online), one wrapped in black paper, and the other in red. My son predicted that the marshmallow in the black container would cook faster because of the albedo experiment. My daughter said the red would cook faster "because the marshmallows will taste good". She's three ;)
Modifications: Solar energy is the foundation of climate science. It drives the whole system. The energy budget is a balance between the amount of incoming solar energy to Earth and outgoing energy out into space. If that budget is off, climate shifts. Older students can 1) ask their own questions and design their own experiments in relation to the energy budget, and 2) understand the implications that surface materials have on climate in real-life. Pavement, for example, would absorb more solar energy than would a marsh. How we manipulate the Earth's surface will impact the global climate.
Check out my energy budget unit bundle, which includes an open-inquiry experiment.
Thursday: Ocean Circulation Demo
This was by far my children's' favorite activity this week because they love anything that involves water. A LEGO water park was the byproduct of my thermohaline circulation demo. The ocean plays a large role in the global climate. Salinity and water temperature influence ocean circulation because salty, cold water is denser than fresh, warm water. This demo shows how the density differences put water into motion. This circulating water moves heat around the globe, moderating coastal temperatures. My kids understood that the blue water had salt in it. They also understood that it sank because it was "heavier" than the water that did not have salt in it. They loved to watch the demonstration and it inspired a lot of questions, which is always my end goal!
Modifications: My own children did not understand the bigger picture or how this concept applies to the ocean and climate, and I wouldn't expect them to. They are 3 and 5. But I would expect that high schoolers could grasp these concepts. Have students watch this demo play out in full and then move on to my ocean and climate inquiry stations resource.
Friday: Data Analysis
We did several activities this week that required recording data and figuring out what it all means. We analyzed our weather data that we recorded each day, putting the numbers into graphs and learning how to read them. We also put the results of our albedo and solar oven experiments into graphs. I set the graphs up for them, and had my kindergartener put his numbers into it, with my guidance. They were both able to read the graphs to a certain degree to draw conclusions. For example, they could see from the graph that we had the most precipitation on Monday, or that the dark surface materials were the warmest.
Modifications: As I said above, your students could do climate experiments as well, but should make their own observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. For unlimited self-directed experimentation, check out my scientific inquiry tool kit (includes a printable and Google Classroom Distance Learning Option). Your older students should also design their own method of collecting data and create their own graphs entirely.
Weekly Experiential Learning Schedule: Plan a Trip
I have been a high school project-based educator for 12 years. Trip planning projects (hypothetical) are always a favorite. It is a student-directed, interest-based, multi-disciplinary learning experience, that applies to real-life and offers opportunities to gain important life skills, such as budgeting. I have several free high school trip planning activities in my TpT store and a "Plan a Trip Around the World" student-directed PBL resource in my store for purchase (printable and Google Classroom option).
My family and I were supposed to head to the Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville, Savannah, and Charleston in June. We have to postpone it due to coronavirus, but fully intend on visiting at some point. So I decided that this week's experiential learning theme would be "planning" that trip. We ended up focusing most of our attention on Charleston. If you have young kids, help them choose a destination and do the activities highlighted here. If you have older children, give them the self-directed learning resources and let them go for it. Check out what we did!
Monday: Travel Distance and Cost
The original plan for this trip to the southeast was to fly into Nashville and fly out of Charleston. Turns out that it is a lot of extra driving to fly into Nashville, and my kids struggle with driving. So, their task was to weigh the costs and benefits of different travel scenarios; to choose a fly-in and fly-out scenario that's cost-effective BUT requires the LEAST amount of total driving time. For this activity to be successful for such young kids, I had to have the scenarios ready. Before we started the activity I figured out the total number of hours on the road per scenario as well estimated flight costs. My children, then, determined which was the best case scenario by comparing prices and driving hours. This was a good way for my kindergartener to practice <=>, adding and subtracting, and decision-making.
Modifications: High school students can do the same activity. A high schooler, however, would research their own flight costs, determine possible routes on their own, and consider other variables. For example, if their goal is budget travel, they may suggest not flying at all, and take a road trip instead (in order to save money on flight and on site transportation costs). Then they would look at the cost of gas to see if that route is cost-effective and time efficient. The resources in my store (free and paid) guide this experience.
Tuesday: Lodging and Graphing
This was my children's favorite part of this week. Even though we will be traveling to the Smokies, Asheville, Charleston and Savannah, I decided that we would focus on one destination, Charleston, because my children are 5 and 3. Be realistic! I asked each of them to tell me ONE hotel feature that mattered to them. My son said "pool", my daughter said "hot pool", and I said "cost", "good reviews", and "good location". I hand-sketched a graph (see photo), hopped on Tripadvisor with the kids to scope out hotels, and the kids colored in the graph.
This activity was a great way for my kids to practice organization, decision-making, math skills, and reading graphs. I helped them understand the benefit of organizing information onto a graph. My daughter was so excited by this activity that she presented it to her dad at the end of the day. She is 3 years old.
Modifications: High schoolers, again, could do the same activity, but include more "must-haves". High schoolers can, and should, consider things like whether there is free breakfast, proximity to learning activities, if hotel parking is free, room availability, expense during travel season vs. the off season, how many travelers there will be and how many rooms will be required. Students could also compare lodging options such as Airbnb/VRBO, camping, hostels, motels/hotels, etc.
Wednesday: Plan Itinerary
My kids loved this. We referenced a variety of resources from friends that have visited or lived in Charleston, to Tripadvisor, to travel blogs, and travel guides. They researched what to do in Charleston (looked at pictures and listened to me read background info about each activity) , chose their favorites, and put together an itinerary by drawing photos and writing descriptions of each thing they wanted to do while in Charleston.
Modifications: My young children chose a few places to visit in order to learn a little history and practice drawing and writing. This isn't a real plan. High school students should approach this activity as if they will actually be taking this trip. They should have a solid itinerary scheduled out. They will have to look at activity costs, location, transportation options, etc.
Thursday: History and Culture
This activity isn't technically part of trip planning. It's just to understand the history and culture of the destination. I read "Oh, Charleston!" to my kids to teach them about the history of ragtime music and the Charleston song and dance. My kids learned how to to the dance. Sort of. My daughter likes to cook, so we made an authentic Charleson meal, which included Lady Baltimore cake (named after a book, not the city of its origin), barbecue (which, btw, is not an outdoor meal on the grill, northerners), and cornbread.
Note: The cooking part of this week's activities extended into the weekend. We were not able to put together a full meal in an afternoon.
Modifications: My high school students have done a similar thing. I work at a school that has a travel program, so sometimes these trips actually happen. We always study the history and culture of the place before we go on any school trip. Because it's project-based learning with my students, they are required to produce an innovative final product to demonstrate learning and share their new skills and knowledge with a public and relevant audience. So they might make a meal with authentic dishes from their destination and then format those recipes into a cookbook, host a dinner party, or produce video tutorials to add to Youtube. So many options!
Friday: Demonstrate Learning
At this point I had my kids compile everything they learned from the week into a "trip planner". I I put together a blank book with blank construction. They compiled their plans into the book, glued in photos, wrote captions, etc.
Modifications: There are so many interesting ways for kids to demonstrate learning that go beyond poster boards. My students create trip proposals and present their idea to the school board for approval. Hypothetical trip plans have been compiled into brochures, blog posts, websites, and more. Check my post on final product ideas: 100 End Product Ideas to Demonstrate Learning.
Experiential Learning Activity Schedule: Simple Machines
We focused on simple machines our first week. We did this because my oldest child loves building, particularly with LEGOS. This week of activities on engineering included math, science, reading, writing, technology, art, and more. Look below for details and photos of our experiences.
Tuesday: Maker Project
Maker projects start by identifying everyday problems, frustrations, or obstacles and designing a solution to that problem. My children wanted LEGO cleanup to be faster, so we each designed our own product that would solve that problem. Kids their age require a significant degree of structure and guidance. This kind of project promotes problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and more.
Modifications: This exact project could be done by high school students, they just require less hand-holding. They identify problems, design solutions, build their products, test their products, make changes, try again, and so on until they have a functional solution to their defined problem. I have a Maker Project Tool Kit geared toward high school students in my TPT store, and recently added a digital version to be used with Google Apps.
Wednesday: LEGO Math
I love this one. It has little to do with machines, but but children's love for LEGOS and building is really what inspired this week's theme. I set out a white board and had my children do numbers-related activities using LEGOS. My daughter did some color matching and categorizing by size, shape, etc. My kindergartener did adding, subtracting, less than/more than, etc.
Modifications: Older students could do fractions, algebra, angles, etc.
Thursday: Stop-Motion Animation Using Simple Machines
I love this one because it combines so many concepts and skills in one activity. The idea is to make a moving stop-motion set using LEGOS and simple machines. My child created a storyboard, wrote the story, drew the illustrations, created the set using his LEGO pieces, and created a stop-motion animation. I was by his side to answer and ask questions throughout the process.
Modifications: My child's final product was what you would expect of a five-year-old and where they are at developmentally. I could easily assign the same project to a high school student, but the expectations would obviously be different. I would expect narration and sound in their final product. I would ask that their stories be more elaborate with all of the essential parts of a story, plot twists, character development, etc. They can also be given more independence than a 5-year-old. As for younger students, my toddler enjoyed observing and assisting.
Friday: Marshmallow STEM Challenge
The challenge was to get a marshmallow from the floor into a bucket using only simple machines to get it there. STEM challenges encourage mistakes, which helps kids build so many skills. You can see in the video that it didn't work the first time...or the second, third, or fourth time. When their efforts aren't successful, I ask them what they believe to be the problem and how they might fix it. They'd try something new or make an adjustment, and try it again. We went on like this until they accomplished their goal; getting the marshmallow into the bucket using simple machines.
Modifications: My toddler loved this activity. She isn't old enough to truly wrap her mind around simple machines, but her tagging along, and even observing, allowed her to work on gross motor-skills, problem-solving, teamwork, and more. Older kids could do the exact same challenge, but work more independently. You could add to the challenge by asking that they combine at least three simple machines, and make the goal more challenging, such as getting the marshmallow from the floor to the table or up a staircase.
I have a STEM challenge rubric in my store that is included in a self-directed learning rubric bundle for high school students. Check that out for unlimited STEM Challenge assessments.
Outdoor Experiential Learning Activity Schedule
Monday: Animal Inquiry and Mini-Photography Project
My kids learned about types of animals such as amphibians, mammals, birds, etc. by doing an inquiry project. They learned the basics from National Geographic Kids. Then I set them up with photos of different types of animals. Their challenge was to place each photo under the animal category that they believe fits the animal's description. Inquiry requires questions, questions, and more questions - from the students AND the instructor. You don't tell students the answer. You ask them questions that lead them toward making their own discoveries. For example, my child placed dolphins under the "fish" category for obvious reasons. Rather than tell him that a dolphin is a mammal, I asked him why he believes it's a fish, I asked him what might be different about the dolphin than a clown fish, and so on. He was able to identify that the dolphin didn't have gills, that they don't lay eggs, etc.
The second part of this activity was to head outside and take photos of the different animals types in their natural habitats and create a gallery.
Modifications: I do the same activity with my high school students, but rather than categorize animal types, they group organisms photos by relationships. They create cladograms with the photos provided. As for the photography project, I have a high school version of this, where students do a photography scavenger hunt outdoors of higher level ecology concepts such as sexual dimorphism, symbiotic relationships, k-species, etc. Check out this FREE resource.
My son's teacher asked parents specifically to focus on storytelling. This is a great way to work on reading comprehension and writing while allowing kids to get creative and learn in an interesting and fun way. All I did was have my children piggyback off the inquiry activity from the day before. They each wrote a storyboard/comic that included at least one character from each animal type. My 5-yr-old did the illustrations and the writing, and my 3-year-old helped him write the plotline.
Modifications: Older students could do the exact same project, but their expectations would be modified. You could ask that they write a poetry book, a children's book, a magazine, etc. The options are limitless. They could make physical books, but I really like FlipSnack because they can share their final product link with friends and family and/or an authentic audience. They could also create animations using a variety of free online programs.
Wednesday: Numbers in Nature
There are a lot of really cool ways to incorporate numbers in nature. We did a few activities that were age and skill level appropriate, one of which was to head outside for a nature walk and fill a bucket with nature items such as pine cones, leaves, etc. Then my kids counted the points on the leaves, measured the length of sticks, identified different geometrical shapes, etc.
I also had my children read a book called "Lifetime" by Lola M. Schaefer. I had my five-year-old create his own version by numbering pages 1-10 and drawing that number of ONE animal type on each page. For example, page 2 had two dolphin drawings, page 3 had three spider drawings, etc.
Modifications: I used to do a similar numbers in nature scavenger hunt activity with my older students, but they were out to test the validity of Fibonacci's numbers. The claim is that Fibonacci's numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13....etc.) are found in nature, so they would count the number of petals on flowers, points on leaves, rings on tree stumps, etc. Another option is measure the angles of nature items.
Thursday: Citizen Science
I'm a huge fan of citizen science. It's an awesome way to learn science concepts while giving learners a sense of accomplishment and importance. Citizen science projects use data that citizens collect and report, such as loon sightings. We went for a walk around a local lake and tried to spot loons through sight and sound. We were able to spot one. We can then head to the Common Loon Citizen Science Project to report our location. We also created a backyard bird life list, filled our bird feeders, and count birds as we see them.
Modifications: Some great citizen science projects can be found on iNaturalist, for all ages. That is my favorite citizen science site. Older students can add their own inquiry science experiments to their citizen science projects. Click here for an open-inquiry science tool kit. Older students can also create their own citizen science projects through several sites. iNaturalist is one of those. You can also head to my archives, click on "outdoor learning" and head to my post of favorite citizen science projects.
Friday: Make Your Own Compass and Get Lost!
We made our own compass by cutting a small disc from a wine cork, drawing N/S/E/W on the the cork, rubbing a sewing needle against a magnet, sliding the needle through cork parallel with N/S, dropping the contraption in a bowl of water, and letting it guide us! I literally walked 8-10 blocks directly south and my children followed their homemade compass north to get home. I kept it simple to start.
Modifications: Older students could really get creative with this. They could create a backyard or local park scavenger hunt for younger siblings. They would hide "treasures" around the yard or park, create a treasure map of the area, and have younger students use the compass to find the hidden treasures.
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.