Feature

Outward Bound

The 5280 field guide to taking your child’s learning outside of the classroom—and into the world. 

August 2015

—Jan Von Holleben / Trunk Archive

The next time you’re hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, keep your eyes on the trail because along just about any path you take, there are objects you can use in “teachable moments” for your family. 

Take, for example, Mentha arvensis. More commonly known as wild mint, this plant grows abundantly in the park, has easy-to-spot clusters of lilac-colored blooms along its main stem, and is even tastier than the store-bought variety your kid recognizes. The next time you come across one of these fragrant plants, pick a few leaves, pop them into your mouth, and ask him to try one—and prepare yourself for the ensuing meltdown. 

Now, take a deep breath because your child’s response is not an overreaction. Quite the opposite: Something from his evolutionary core tells him, “STOP! Don’t eat that green thing!” (It’s as if Fear and Disgust from Pixar’s summer blockbuster Inside Out have teamed up to keep your little one safe.)

But that potentially life-saving reaction also means your child is often wary of new experiences. Before you get frustrated, turn his reaction to your advantage. Kids want to see, learn, and do by mirroring you. Explain what the plant is, grab some more leaves, drop them into your water bottle, and take a sip. After he sees you’ve survived—again—maybe he’ll try some too. And just like that, you have mastered “experiential learning.” 

The idea dates back to at least 350 B.C., when Aristotle wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aside from pontificating, he was describing a biological process. A child’s experiences create connections among 100 billion brain cells that continue to build a framework for thinking, says Christine Cerbana, project director of Colorado Parenting Matters at Colorado State University. “Experiential learning is not an alternative approach, but rather the most fundamental way children learn,” she says. “Parents are the first and most important teachers.”

So how do you fit experiential learning in with school, soccer practice, piano lessons, and all the other wonderful things that keep us perpetually booked? “The word ‘playdate’ didn’t exist before this past generation because kids just went outside and played with their friends in the neighborhood,” says Scott Sampson, vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and author of How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. “We need to think about the connection with nature akin to literacy. We make time to read to our kids and have them read on their own because we recognize that literacy is a key skill. Getting kids outside and engaged with the world firsthand is equally critical to their long-term health. We need to make it a priority.”

So get out there. Or stay in. Just spend some time giving your kids new experiences. We’ll give you a head start: Here are 18 ways you can integrate experiential lessons into your children’s daily lives in Colorado. Climb a mountain. Grow—and eat!—some veggies. Devour a new book. Become a mini-entrepreneur. Your kids will be having so much fun, they’ll never know they’re learning the whole time.


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