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Caring adults enable summer-long experiential learning

By Nancy Hegland

In June, kids say goodbye to the school year and are ready for summer vacation.  For many of them, this doesn't mean a break from learning, but a chance to learn in different settings, with different teachers and mentors, and to direct their own learning to an extent. These lucky ones will learn all summer long, and may not even realize it.

In summer, and with the presence of a caring adult, their learning can change to be more experiential -- focused on experiencing, sharing, processing, generalizing, and applying what they have learned. Research has shown that youth learn best when doing. This is a basic concept in youth development programs.

John Dewey created the Experiential Learning Model in 1938, and it was adapted by D.A.Kolb in 1984. It’s applied across the 4-H youth development program. Learning by Doing is based on three assumptions:
  • People learn best when they are personally involved in the learning experience.
  • Knowledge has to be discovered by the individual if it is to have any significant meaning to them or make a difference in their behavior.
  • A person’s commitment to learning is highest when they are free to set their own learning objectives and are able to actively pursue them within a given framework (Smith, 1980:16)

Youth learn and retain more when action is involved in the teaching.  This can be as easy as asking open-ended questions to spark conversation. In the past week, I have been able to observe this in action – young people mentored in their 4-H project learning by a caring and supportive adult. “Grandma K” is skilled at asking open-ended questions and helps them understand why they are doing each step in the process of completing their project. These youth are having the experience, sharing with her (and making changes if needed), seeing how this pertains to other aspects of their lives, relating what they are learning, and seeing that the skills they’re acquiring can serve them throughout their lives.

If the caring adult weren't there, they might still have learned the skill but not know the reasoning behind it, or appreciate their lifelong value. One of the youth remarked that "Grandma K" helps them to understand what they've done and what they can do better in the future.  As a youth development professional, I know this is the most effective way to teach.

At the end of the summer, kids will have learned new lessons and understand how they will be used throughout their life.  They will also be ready to head back to school and have new learning experiences.

Have you used the experiential learning model in your work? How have you taught it to volunteers and teen teachers?  What are some of the best ways you have seen it implemented into programming?

-- Nancy Hegland, Extension program leader

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  1. Nancy this is a great article and really speaks to our programming in 4-H. I have the great opportunity of seeing this practice through 4-H Camp Counselors. Training them in the spring and then watching them in action and using the skills they learned and teaching other youth is such as wonderful experience. I also see this in other areas such as our 4-H Aquatic Robotics. Young people have learned about Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) then turn around and teach adults and youth about the harm and spread of AIS. Thanks for sharing this article.

  2. Thanks for your comments Brian! Yes, I believe that there many areas of 4-H progamming that capitalize on this model and appreciate you sharing 4-H camping and 4-H Aquatic Robotics. It has been rewarding to see how young people are teaching youth and aduts about AIS. I know how valuable it is to use this model in working with youth.


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