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Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still and Listen: The Value of Experiential Learning

When we envision kids learning at school, we may picture diligent students sitting quietly at desks while reading a textbook or completing a worksheet. While that image may be reality for a few minutes, elementary school teachers can verify those moments are few and far between. In schools, experiential learning is much more commonplace.

That’s because educational research has confirmed what those who work with kids have known all along—kids learn as they play! Hands-on, multi-sensory, and experiential activities truly engage kids’ brains, leading to long-term memory.

Experiential learning just makes sense. You wouldn’t ask kids to memorize a step-by-step list for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No way! You’d simply hand over the ingredients and guide them along the way. And you wouldn’t have kids scrutinize a diagram of how to tie their shoes. You’d have them grab their sneakers and give it a try!

Simply put, experiential learning is learning by doing. This learning philosophy doesn’t expect kids to sit still and listen. Rather, it invites kids to take control of their learning and take action—with their hands, bodies, voices, and their minds.

And yet, when it comes to Sunday school or children’s ministry, many leaders and volunteers still operate with stiff, unrealistic expectations for children. We choose lecture or fill-in-the-blanks over experiential activities that get kids playing, talking, and discovering together. In response, disengaged kids respond loud and clear, causing us to realize our vision of rigorous and effective Bible learning is rarely a reality.

So I asked the experts—elementary school teachers—to teach children’s ministry leaders and volunteers techniques for long-term learning. Why are experiential learning and hands-on activities so important? How can we tell when kids aren’t engaged and what can we do to change that? And how can a good curriculum help? Here’s what they said.

Why are experiential learning and hands-on experiences important when teaching children?

Experiential learning helps kids remember more.

Heidi Ellingsworth, an elementary school teacher in Maryland, says, “From my experience, children seem to have a longer retention of concepts when they’ve had a chance to use their hands to learn the concept…through sorting, movement, building, and teamwork. When kids retell what they’ve learned, I can almost see them mentally replaying their experience as they share the information.”

Those teacher observations are scientific! Katie Jones, an elementary school teacher in Colorado, notes how our brains need experiential learning in order to remember things. She explains, “From a neuro-biological standpoint, hands-on activities take advantage of the processes that stimulate multiple neural connections in the brain and promote memory.”

Experiential learning welcomes play.

For kids, play is learning. Amanda Yoder, an elementary school teacher in Pennsylvania, says, “It’s important that educators embrace play when planning lessons. When you think of kids playing, their hands are touching, manipulating, and building and their bodies are moving. So, our lesson plans for kids shouldn’t look any different.”

Experiential learning helps kids understand the world naturally.

Ellingsworth thinks it’s natural to utilize hands-on learning in her classroom. She says, “Children use tactile experiences to understand their world from a very young age.  Watch babies find their thumbs to suck or grab their toes to play with. It makes sense that they continue to use their hands to learn about life around them.”

Jones agrees. She says, “Hands-on learning honors the humanity in children and invites kids to naturally reflect the image of God—one of the purest forms of worship.”

Experiential learning builds relationships.

You’ll find out a lot about kids as you play with them. Conversations sparked as you build towers, create masterpieces, and play games help befriend the kids you lead. Jones notes, “Hands-on learning environments tend to be highly relational. So a lack of relationship can be a strong indicator that students have not yet engaged.” Experiential learning leads to friendships that keep kids wanting to come back and learn more!

Experiential learning fosters real-life discoveries.

Information doesn’t just matter on a page—it matters in our everyday lives. So, incorporating science experiments, nature walks, and everyday objects that convey spiritual truths connects learning to life. Yoder notes, “It’s important to remember that learning’s not all about answers on a page. It’s more about what sticks for the rest of kids’ lives—whether that be life skills, math, reading, or understanding the Bible.”

Experiential learning is just more fun!

What’s more fun for you? Sitting still and listening, or moving, discovering, and exploring? I’m guessing you’d choose the latter. Well, kids agree! Jones says this about experiential learning: “It is just more fun than a basic auditory/visual learning model!”

What are telltale signs that kids aren’t engaged and learning? And what can teachers do about it?

Our expert teachers all shared similar evidence of un-engaged kids. Here are six signs they mentioned, plus practical suggestions for how teachers and children’s ministry volunteers can use experiential learning to re-engage kids.

1. Kids can’t keep hands to themselves. So you can keep their hands busy with tactile activities.

2. Kids daydream. So you can engage their imaginations and guide them back to Bible times to experience Bible truths.

3. Kids answer questions but don’t ask them. So you can choose experiences that naturally get kids thinking and wondering.

4. Kids become distracted by something that’s not part of the lesson. So you can keep lessons moving and active—there’s no time to focus minds elsewhere.

5. Kids are bored. So you can give them something to do! A role to play, a craft to make, or an experiment to try.

6. Kids interrupt and disrupt. So you can create space to ask for kids’ thoughts and ideas and provide options to let kids choose what’s next.

How does curriculum help you facilitate experiential learning?

Effective curriculum—for school or Sunday school—helps teachers think beyond traditional pencil and paperwork and invites kids to roll up their sleeves, jump inside a story, and work together to debrief and recap their discoveries. But not all curriculum is created the same.

Amanda Yoder notes, “Not all curriculum I use provides enough experiential learning activities. I find myself supplementing a lot.” Perhaps you’ve been there, too. You’re willing to volunteer your time and lead children at church, but the resources you’ve been given just don’t seem to engage kids. You may feel stuck because you don’t have the expertise or time to change what you’ve been given.

Perhaps it’s time to look for a curriculum that’s pre-wired with experiential learning.

Experiential learning has been a key part of Group’s R.E.A.L. Learning philosophy for years. This learning philosophy focuses on creating ministry that’s Relational, Experiential, Applicable, and Life-Long. R.E.A.L. is the secret sauce that makes Bible learning stick!

In their book, “Don’t Just Teach…Reach!,” Thom and Joani Schultz point to Jesus’ example as they encourage teachers to build on experiences rather than relying on lectures. Referencing Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13:4-7, they suggest,

“Peter learned more about servanthood—and Jesus—in that one moment than a lifetime of lectures would’ve taught him. What you learn through experience seeps all the way down to your bones. It becomes bedrock in your life.”

Ready to see the difference and try experiential learning with kids you lead? Try this free “Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet” elementary Bible Lesson from Group’s Dig In Curriculum. Note how kids are moving, playing, and discovering each step of the way!

Want more experiential learning details and resources? Check out these 5 Red Flags for Curriculum article as well as more free hands-on activities!  

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