Last week after an interactive cooking lesson, I stood back and looked at the classroom. It was full of kids with kale in their teeth, honey on their hands, and shredded carrots that had somehow made it under their desks and in every nook and cranny of the classroom. I let out a little laugh because the kids were absolutely beaming and had ear-to-ear smiles. It was quite comical to me that we had managed to make such a mess in just 30 minutes; we were so busy learning and having fun that we didn’t notice until the very end!
No matter where a lesson takes us, I want the students that I serve with to know that it’s okay to sometimes make a mess of things — that’s how we learn! As the saying goes, “experience is the best teacher.” Some days this means that you add too much salt to the mashed potatoes or you spill potting soil on the carpet, but it always means that you made meaningful memories. This is part of what makes hands-on learning so valuable: students are allowed to color outside of the lines and explore concepts in a way that engages multiple senses and learning styles. Not every student fully benefits from written or spoken material; by simply explaining a concept out loud, you neglect a large portion of the classroom and their preferred learning styles. With experiential education, however, you allow each student to process information in their preferred style. That can be by singing a song about the six parts of a plant, by drawing a diagram of photosynthesis, tasting rainbow carrots, reading a recipe, watching a video of a cranberry bog, or building a worm habitat with their own two hands.
By allowing students to make messes or mistakes, you also encourage them to strengthen their problem-solving skills. If we make a mistake, how do we fix it? Instead of stopping the lesson and treating mistakes as a negative thing, we can let the lesson take another course and continue to explore a topic. This means that every moment can be a learning moment. If we spill a bag of lentils, we now have an opportunity to make observations about them that we might not have had before. Are they smooth? Small? Round? What part of a plant are they? How many can you count? Instead of focusing on the negative, we get an opportunity to solve a problem and use it as another launching pad for learning.
While I always create lesson plans and pick specific standards to meet, I often find that the unexpected events or questions are the ones that lead to the most meaningful classroom discussions. Students continue to surprise and amaze me with their insightful questions and observations. Hands-on learning encourages them to think about a topic in different contexts, which often sparks questions for them.
These questions and sense of curiosity can also make students feel like their voice matters and they can be leaders in their educational journey. One of my favorite lessons started as a simple question, posed to a group of students who were about to start a garden: What do you want to learn this year? They were each given sticky notes and could post their questions on the board. Many students asked about insects and wanted to know what else lived in the garden, so on a rainy day where we couldn’t plant outside, I brought in a bucket full of worms. I’ve never seen a more animated response to “Today we’re going to learn about…” than with this lesson. There were squeals of “Ew!” and several students shouted “Yessss!” and there were even a few joyful fists pumping in the air. We had such a fun day holding the worms and learning about what they do for our soil…and we certainly made a mess! Students were allowed to lead their own learning by asking questions and got to explore a topic in a very real, squirmy, slimy, goofy context.
Even after all the desks have been wiped up and hands have been washed, the concept still sticks.
So why not let your students get their hands a little dirty? By celebrating curiosity and allowing kids to explore a subject in real life, you’re giving them tools they need to succeed and memories that will last long after a lesson ends. My favorite thing about hands-on learning is that even after all the desks have been wiped up and hands have been washed, the concept still sticks. It’s an added bonus that the kale-speckled smiles don’t fade quickly either!