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Break through spring doldrums: Hands-on learning

Hilary Gan is a professional SAT tutor and a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona.

Learning through direct experience of a topic deepens understanding and engagement among children.

mother helping daughter with homework

Photo credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/360/Getty Images

Spring is the time of year when most individuals, including parents and teachers, would rather venture outdoors than plow through curriculum or endure the preparation for standardized tests. While it’s essential for children to continue working hard to get through the year’s courses to grow their young minds, it may also mean that the entertaining parts of education are minimized. A simple method to help children academically and to retain their interest in learning is to reinforce concepts with hands-on projects.

Experiential education methods revolve around the idea that learning through direct experience of a topic deepens understanding and engagement among children. Hands-on learning is easiest to implement for young children and simple concepts, but with strong planning, older kids and advanced subjects can benefit from this approach as well.

An essential step in experiential learning is to enable students to pose their own questions about a topic. Learning correct information is important, but individuals will, almost universally, be more involved if they are answering their own questions with correct information rather than attempting to learn the answers as fact. In general, asking questions is a process that begins with background knowledge. Start a book club with your child, or start by selecting a book your child has read or a concept she’s struggling with and identify confusing or interesting parts. Then start generating as many questions as possible. The questions don’t need to be of the highest quality or have answers readily available. After your child has a long list of questions, she can sort them, combine them to create stronger questions, and then hone them to one or two that are open-ended and most appealing. (For a detailed version of this method, check out this Harvard Education Letter, or the book Make Just One Change by Rothstein and Santana).

If your child is feeling trapped indoors, do not be afraid to take the learning outside. Visit a park and do some science journaling; write down observations and questions, or sketch diagrams of plants, landscapes and animals. These are wonderful introductions to a concept. Launch bottle rockets and perform calculations to determine how high they went. Identify abstract concepts like symmetry in the real world. Visit a historical monument and devote time to asking a guide or interpreter about previously studied concepts. Children may realize that there was much more to the story than their textbooks explained.

Finally, creating a physical object or method related to schoolwork can be a great way for kids to implement what they’ve learned, and it can help them remember the concept long-term. Mapping projects (2-D or 3-D), engineering and mechanical projects, creative writing, visual artwork, video projects, coding a program, or scientific experiments that respond to questions they’ve generated are all proven methods for deepening children’s understanding. The definition of “dependent variable” will likely be more memorable if individuals create and define one via trial and error. Creating a painting or program to point to, show others, and be proud of will also be a major investment in learning a subject.

For more tips and strategies to help your student succeed in school, visit www.varsitytutors.com.

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