Experiential education is something that many of us in the non-formal education field figure we are doing on a daily basis. We help people learn through doing, play-acting, and touching things. But is that really all there is to it? I have worked as a teacher-naturalist at a 152-acre nature preserve in northern Utah for almost eight years. We see almost 11,000 students each year for school field trips and summer camps. I have had ample opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t in helping children connect and understand the natural environment.
Still, I have days when the classes unravel. You’ve been there. Once on the trail, the children are so busy talking and laughing with their friends, that they fail to notice anything you’d hoped to show them. They can’t seem to pull it together no matter how many times I say, “If you can hear me, make antlers!” I feel like my presence is obscuring their field trip rather than guiding it. They leave in a big noisy clot, and I head back to re-set the program, wondering what just happened.
On those days, I try to remember the little boy who chewed on cottonwood trees. It happened about five years ago on a mild day in early winter. Typically, the day’s program would have involved donning snowshoes before hitting the trail looking animal tracks and scat. But we had no snow, so we opted for a longer trail walk, looking for tracks, antler rubs, beaver chews and whatever else we could find.
As I led the third-graders down the trail, I heard their teacher speak in a hissing-like whisper to one student: “Get back on the trial!” I turned and walked backward for a while. Seeing nothing amiss, I turned around and kept walking. Again, the teacher warned the youngster to get back on the trail. And again I turned to see no one doing anything but looking for tracks.
But the struggle continued. About the third or fourth time I turned around, I saw the student standing just off-trail with the low, skinny bough of a cottonwood tree clenched in his front teeth. It hit me immediately what he was doing. Before the teacher could say anything, I asked, “Are you trying to see what it’s like to be a beaver?” He dropped the branch from his mouth and nodded.
Early in our walk, we had passed an old beaver dam and remnants of the chewed trees. I had spoken with the children about the beavers’ preference for the cottonwood’s sweet, soft layers and then moved on. We had examined many other “animal autographs” since then, but this youngster was still thinking about those beavers. He was processing the information, messing with it, trying it out.
“What’s it taste like?” I asked him. “Is it hard to chew?” He said it wasn’t all that sweet, and it wasn’t very easy to bite. Pretty soon, others in his class were trying their teeth on trees, and we looked for more signs of beaver activity, trying to figure out which were more recent.
I think of this young boy every time one of my field trips doesn’t go as planned. I try to remember that real experiential education has steps, and you need all of them in order for it to work:
- Preparation for the topic
- Real experience
- Time and space to process the experience
- Figuring out what comes next in the realm of this exploration
In the case of this particular field trip, we’d prepared together indoors during the introduction for the program, and then headed out onto our trail walk. For the boy, the real experience was seeing the fruits of a beaver’s labors. The rest of the walk was serving as his time and space for processing that experience. What came next was that he engaged the curiosity of the rest of his classmates, and I followed along, giving them ample space to experience and process in the amount of time we had left.
The entire trail-walk experience lasted less than 40 minutes. So, experiential education doesn’t need a full day. You can do it in a single lesson’s time as long as you remember the steps. Realizing that one of those steps is time and space to process the real experience you are giving people helps you look at those rambunctious and seemingly disinterested groups differently. The processing step is often messy, noisy and chaotic. The social interaction is part of the process.
Maybe the first thing you said or showed them is the experience they are still working with, regardless of the fact that you have moved on to the next activity already. When my groups seem like they are unraveling, I remind myself to slow down, try to figure out what it is that has captured their attention, and embrace the chaos.