When I was a first year university student at McMaster University, I applied for a job in the Experiential Education office. I had never heard of the department at my university, and didn’t know much about the concepts it employed. But lucky for me, I still got the job.
On my first day, I received a crash course in experiential learning and became excited about the theory behind it. Unfortunately for me, I spent the rest of my summer studying a learning process I never actually applied. I sat at a desk all day and wrote reports on the topic, without ever actually getting my hands dirty, literally.
Simply defined, experiential education is to learn by doing, or experiencing new things. For example, a student learning about different birds and their songs will go beyond the YouTube video, and adventure out in nature where they can hear and experience the different sounds of the forest, including the many unique birds in their natural habitat.
When I become a mother my knowledge of experiential learning returned to me. Becoming a mother was a completely different learning process, but also one that was entirely experiential. No amount of reading books and studying films could have prepared me for the whirlwind of motherhood. It was the concept of experiential education, put completely in practise.
Once I was past my own experiential learning with my kids, I started to realize how valuable it would be to give them a childhood full of practical experiences. Most of us do learn best by simply doing, a concept that is lost in modern education.
This past week I took my two daughters, Penny and Georgia, to a local farm in Elora. Riverbound Farms was hosting a family day, where families could drop in and “handle” their baby ducks and chicks. I knew this would be the perfect chance for them to gain hands-on experience with some baby farm animals. This would be going way behind the “pat the chick” farm book we had at home.
When we arrived we found families sitting on patches of grass with baby ducks and chicks cradled in their arms. It was the sweetest sight I have seen, but nothing prepared me for watching my own children handle the soft baby chicks and ducks.
We managed to scoop up a few of the feathery creatures, and I (tentatively) passed one to each of my daughters. My oldest gently cupped her hands, and stroked the soft feathers of the yellow duck. The baby duck was comfortable in my four-year-old’s arms, and snuggled under Penny’s blonde hair nest. My younger daughter wasn’t quite so gentle, but she also “stroked” the ducks feathers, and laughed in excitement when their little feet attempted to escape her clutches.
I had an experience of my own, at 26, I held my first baby duck and chick. It took everything not to scoop one up and put them in my pocket. I fell instantly in love with the soft feathers and baby blue eyes of one particular duck. My husband and children were ready to go home, and I was still standing, by myself, with a baby duckling in my arms.
It made me realize the power of experiential learning, in practise. To have my daughters touch baby farm animal; nothing compares to the live experience. Seeing the sweet little feet of a baby chick is adorable, but knowing the feeling of the soft prick of their feet in your hands is an entirely different ball game.
Similarly, today my daughters and I had an experiential lesson in our kitchen. After being sick for the last week, I was just ready to get my hands dirty and eat some delicious homemade treats. My oldest excitedly ran into the kitchen as I grabbed mixing bowls, measuring spoons, flour and oil. A sure sign that something fun and exciting was about to happen.
We measured and mixed the flour, salt, oil and water, and combined. I dusted some flour on the table and started kneading the dough, while my daughters’ pudgy hands helped me along the way.
In the end we had soft, pliable dough. I gave each of my daughters a ball to play with, while I cooked some homemade tortillas. My daughters enjoyed rolling their dough, spreading it with their fingers, making different shapes and pretending to “bake” treats.
Afterwards we ate the soft homemade tortillas with a spoonful of Nutella spread on them, the best reward for our hard work in the kitchen. My daughters, ages 2 and 4, can now say that their hands have made tortillas. It’s an experience that I am glad that they have, because it empowers them to continue making homemade food in the kitchen.
I’m thankful for my education in experiential learning as a student many years ago. Sitting behind a desk, I fell in love with a new way of learning, one that I didn’t get to experience until I had my own children. To Penelope and Georgia, experiential learning isn’t a theory; it’s a daily experience that they’ve encountered from toddlerhood and beyond.
What are some practical and empowering experiences and memories you’ve made with your children?