Curriculum Spotlight: Experiential Learning in Preschool-Grade 5

by | May 28, 2024 | Experiential Learning, Homepage News

“The school itself shall be made a genuine form of active community life instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons.”

– John Dewey, The School and Society

What does it take to turn a hands-on experience into a meaningful lesson? Experiential learning includes both the experience and understanding of the experience. That means it not only requires the action or activity but also intentional, guided reflection that helps the student understand and integrate new information. In the context of experiential learning, reflection is more than simply thinking about the experience on a personal level, instead it’s targeted and often includes instruction or framing from the teacher to provide context for the new information gained in the experience.

Willow’s approach to experiential learning follows the psychologist and educational theorist David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, which includes four distinct stages of experiential learning: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.

Different Types of Experiential Learning

There are many different kinds of experiences that can serve as the first part of the experiential learning process. At Willow, you will find students engaged in all of the following throughout the year:

  • Project-based learning (PBL) starts with a question or challenge for students to solve. Students are then guided through a process of learning about the problem at hand, giving them the background they need, before they propose, test, and assess solutions. 
  • Imaginative inquiry, a type of project-based learning, integrates even more play into learning experiences by introducing a PBL challenge through storytelling. Students pretend to be, for example, Children of the Forest or astronauts on the International Space Station to tackle the problem at hand. By connecting learning to stories, we make it easier for children to remember what they learn and encourage creativity.
  • Service learning, is a key part of experiential learning at Willow. By connecting learning experiences to opportunities to make a difference on campus, students not only learn how to problem-solve and contextualize their experiences, they also discover their power to create change.  
  • Our school garden supports experiential learning for many of our classes at Willow. It’s integral to hands-on learning in our science curriculum and is also integrated into our social studies curriculum (for example: kindergarteners learn about bees and the role they play in pollinating our garden and fourth graders use the garden to support their study of the agricultural revolution with experiments and observations). 
  • Hands-on learning, from art, handcrafts, and architecture projects to interactive games, plays, and Montessori-style manipulatives in math and language arts, make lessons memorable, tactile, creative, and relevant to students’ lives.
  • Field trips enrich student learning with real-world experiences and connections, giving context to future learning. 

Willow teachers incorporate learning experiences in big and small ways, from simply working with sand trays to spell to integrating a series of experiences into a year-long project or inquiry.

Curriculum in Action: Classroom Highlights

PRESCHOOL: Preschoolers spend the year learning about earth, air, fire, and water. During winter, they delight in exploring a different form of the water element: snow! Children explore the snow outdoors, paint snow with watercolors, and play with small blocks of ice. Sensory tables brim with snowflakes and other wintry treasures, providing a tactile experience that sparks curiosity. During story time, preschoolers enthusiastically partake in winter-themed dramatic plays.

First graders and middle schoolers work together to tap maple trees on campus.

FIRST GRADE: First graders experience the magic of maple syrup-making at Willow in February. After reading stories about maple sugaring in Indigenous cultures and learning the science of where sap comes from, students teamed up with our Middle School Green Team to identify which maple trees to tap. First graders also wrote letters to the maple trees, asking permission and expressing gratitude. After drilling and tapping, students collect, record, filter, and boil sap all month.

THIRD GRADE: Third graders engage in a year-long service learning project, caring for the birds on campus. Each week, a student’s job is to maintain the bird feeders that sit just outside our classroom window and record the birds that come to feed, learning to identify many different local species. Students also explore endangered bird species, choosing a species to research, then creating both an informational text and crafting their bird out of felt in handcrafts (which they used to retell Aesop’s fable, King of the Birds, at a whole-school Morning Gathering). Students located their endangered bird’s habitat on a world map and graphed the number of endangered species still in existence.

FOURTH GRADE: The fourth grade study of Hunter-Gatherers is brought to life through experiential learning. Students crafted foraging maps for the first graders as they learned about the lifestyles and resources available to Hunter-Gatherers. To gain greater insight into the migratory aspect of their lifestyle, fourth graders tried to pack a backpack with sentimental items. Together, they found both the weight and space remaining for necessities would be an issue.

Fifth graders perform original raps about the Three Ways of Ancient China in their play.

Now, students have split into groups to study shelter, tools, hunting, foraging, cooking, clothing, and art. Each group planned a different experience or project that would teach the other groups about new aspects of the Hunter-Gatherers. These projects include building mini Neolithic shelters, crafting tools such as an ax or bow and arrow, writing a cookbook and cooking over a fire, demonstrating hunting strategies with handmade traps and making a tracking guide, and creating a 3D topographical map of Willow for foraging. Lastly, they will bring their projects together to create a Hunter-Gatherer Museum for the class to tour and engage with each other’s work.

FIFTH GRADE: Fifth graders are using what they’ve learned about ancient civilizations to create original plays to share their knowledge with the Willow community. Students have created three unique and incredible performances this year. Their most recent, “The Three Ways of Ancient China,” brought to life the three primary Chinese philosophies of the time: Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. Students practiced rehearsing lines, writing songs, drawing scenery, developing prop lists, and designing costumes. 

Benefits of Experiential Learning

The benefits of experiential learning are numerous, helping children to focus, building their agency and independence, strengthening planning skills, nurturing collaboration and critical thinking skills, increasing retention of information, and embracing the joy of learning. These memorable experiences are unique to each child and give each student the opportunity to contribute their own reflections and ideas to the class, building community and an appreciation for how different perspectives deepen our understanding. 

Interested in experiential learning for your child? It’s not too late to apply! Start a conversation with our Director of Enrollment Management, Lisa VanderVeen, to see how your child will thrive at Willow.

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