By Raphael Bonhomme
When I was in elementary school, the things that really stuck with me were the things that happened on the Oregon Trail. Well, not actually on the trail, but on that early interactive computer game. It allowed me to imagine myself in the shoes — or boots — of someone who might have traveled by horse and wagon along the famously rugged route from Missouri to Oregon 150 years before me. And I was completely immersed. What items would I take with me on my journey? What would I do if someone in my party got sick? How would I handle running out of food? These were problems I could relate to, and I absorbed so much history as I “traveled” along the trail.
That was the beginning of my experiential learning journey. Now that I’m a teacher, I use it all the time. The kids in my classes might imagine how Martin Luther King Jr. felt addressing the crowd at the March on Washington, saying his words out loud. They might taste the apple they just cut into quarters during our lesson on fractions. Or feel the gritty “pollen” — colored sand — they sprinkle on their paper flowers to learn about pollination. We do a lot of acting in my class as well; kids have pretended to be everyone from a luchador during Hispanic Heritage Month to Abraham Lincoln at the battle of Fort Stevens. We’ve also created “tableaus” with the kids posing as if frozen in a moment of history, showing the moment Lincoln was nearly shot, or the time Hercules Posey escaped enslavement from George Washington.
Whatever route you take, the keys to experiential learning are to make it engaging, make it active, and give kids opportunities to share with other learners.
There are so many different ways to involve kids in this kind of experience: My school, School Within School in Washington, D.C., is influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach, acknowledging the whole child learning with all the senses. We are also an art-focused school, so visual and tactile learning is a big part of our culture. I use Story Paths, where children create their own narratives with scenes, characters and settings they make up themselves. More generally, I use project-based learning, role playing and simulation.
Whatever route you take, the keys to experiential learning are to make it engaging, make it active, and give kids opportunities to share with other learners and reflect on their work. This kind of learning works because it taps into more than one type of intelligence; it builds stronger comprehension because it’s happening on multiple levels. Students feel empowered and connected to their own work.
Some of the ways I’ve used experiential learning in my classrooms are shown below, but there are so many ways to use this approach. AFT’s Share My Lesson has lots of examples (go to https://sharemylesson.com and search “experiential learning”). Or check out your local arts organizations; I learned so much from the Kennedy Center and Phillips Collection arts education programs. I always encourage colleagues to get creative; this approach doesn’t just make the learning more fun, it makes the teaching more fun, too.
PROJECT ONE: How does your city work?
In this project, third-grade students delved into the inner workings of our city’s Advisory Neighborhood Councils, which are small, elected groups that inform the city government’s work. Through interactive discussions and activities, students collaboratively generated innovative ideas for proposals to be presented to the City Council. The highlight of the project was a special visit from D.C. City Councilmember Christina Henderson.
D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson brought this lesson to life.
Inspired by her insights, the students pondered the responsibilities of councilmembers and envisioned themselves in such a role. The classroom transformed into a mock city, with the school principal as the mayor. Engaging in lively brainstorming sessions, the students formulated proposals, including suggestions like introducing more after-school clubs and even a zip line. Along the way, they learned the importance of compromise, as well as the valuable lesson that not all ideas lead to success. Nonetheless, the experience fostered a sense of determination as they aimed to have at least one proposal accepted, embodying the real-world dynamics of decision-making.
PROJECT TWO: A Big Bang with Homemade Fireworks
During Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, our third-grade students embarked on a captivating journey to uncover the origins of fireworks, tracing back to ancient China’s pursuit of an elixir for immortality. Drawing inspiration from this accidental discovery, the students engaged in a hands-on adventure to create their own vibrant fireworks and rockets using straws and paper. Fueled by imagination and creativity, they transformed into budding scientists and engineers, experimenting with diverse straw sizes, paper types, designs, hues and patterns.
Who can shoot these paper “fireworks” the farthest?
As the students tested their rockets’ performance, they employed rulers to measure flight distances, and in moments of challenge, they collaborated with peers to brainstorm ingenious solutions. The classroom buzzed with excitement as a friendly competition unfolded, determining whose rocket soared the farthest. This immersive experience not only deepened their understanding of the science behind fireworks but also facilitated cultural appreciation by exploring traditions from different backgrounds. Through interactive exploration and friendly competition, the students not only expanded their knowledge but also cultivated an enduring love for hands-on learning and the thrill of discovery.
PROJECT THREE: What’s your business?
Pretend it’s 1969, one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Out of anger, pain and frustration, many urban youth took to the streets, leaving homes and businesses in shambles. This was not an exception in Washington D.C. Many students learn about Dr. King, but not about the aftermath of his death.
The Mehari Sequar Gallery in the H Street N.E. business district was a hit on our walking field trip.
In this simulation, Mayor Walter E. Washington decided to revitalize the once booming H Street NE corridor. He decided to get Washingtonians to build new businesses and make this area better than it previously was. That’s where my third graders stepped in. I asked them: What types of businesses existed in 1969? What type of business would you want to own? How would you advertise it? What kinds of customers would you want to attract? What prices would you set for your products or services? What are some expenses you would have running that type of business? These are some of the questions that animated our students as they learned about history and their own school community of the late 1960s.
Each student worked with a partner to build a business and design a Canva presentation explaining their business and why they should be considered one of H Street’s top 10 businesses.
Simulation — a technique where students imagine themselves in a situation different from their everyday reality — was a big part of this project: With it, kids were asked to put themselves in another place and time, in this case thinking deeply about everyday life in a world where barbershops might specialize in newly popular hairstyles; record stores sold music on vinyl (not digital devices); and merchants ran appliance shops, bookstores and more. Each student worked with a partner to build a business and eventually design a Canva presentation explaining their business, the goods or services they sold, their target audience and why they should be considered one of H Street’s top 10 businesses. They presented their projects to multiple grade levels, parents and even external visitors. On a walking field trip of actual shops on H Street, business owners chatted about their experiences at a bagel bakery, a doggie day care, an art gallery and more. We even met an alumnus of our school who was instrumental in the revival of this once-dilapidated business district.
PROJECT FOUR: Constellations and Connections
When our school celebrated the winter solstice, my class dived into learning about the night sky and discovered that many Native American people believe their ancestors live as stars above us. I shared the work of artist Wendy Redstar, a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe who combined images of star quilts and family members, each telling their own stories. We’d been working with students to unpack their identities and connections with their families, so this project took on extra meaning when the kids created their own star quilts to honor their families.
Collages helped connect students to math concepts, family and culture.
I tied in our math lessons about geometrical shapes and had students cut various quadrilaterals to create their own stars and patterns representing their families. Some children chose family members who had passed on, and others told of special moments with family as we had a whole-grade brunch in pajamas. The event brought out a lot of emotional attachments as we shared our work, making this a lesson students will remember for a long time.
PROJECT FIVE: Growing and Learning
We are lucky to have a school garden and a kitchen where students can learn not just about growing tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other fruits and veggies, but also about how to cook them; they also learn the associated lessons that go with gardening and kitchen activities — math, science, reading and social studies. The kids really enjoyed learning about the three sisters (corn, beans and squash, the main crops grown by the Indigenous people in North America), and we even made a delicious squash soup. When students can see, feel, smell and cook the ingredients they are eating they are more connected to the very healthy product.
Students learn by cooking with the food they grow in their school garden. Photo courtesy of FoodPrints.
Outside of the garden and kitchen, the learning did not stop: Students made their own collage versions of land with the three sisters vegetables and made various multiplication equations to match them. It is amazing to have a partner for this project: FRESHFARM FoodPrints, a community organization associated with our local farmers markets, helps guide the work and provides a lot of resources. Here’s a short video where I describe another FoodPrints idea. But even something as simple as a classroom garden like the one I keep — just a few houseplants on the windowsill — helps students become “botanists” with an understanding of plant care, scientific classification and more.
About the Author
Raphael Bonhomme is a third grade teacher at School Within School at Goding Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Washington Teachers’ Union. He is working with other AFT members to create professional development courses on civics education that focus on experiential learning, including role playing and simulation to engage students.
The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o