Two girls playing by the river, holding frogs.

Why Learning by Doing is Important: An Interview about Experiential Learning

As parents, we all know how hard it is to keep a child from playing with something messy! Food, mud, marker pens, grass – all these things are irresistible to our kids. And while it’s tempting to tell them off for scribbling all over their clothes, or dragging muddy footprints all over the house, there’s actually a very good reason for kids’ adventurous hands-on approach to everything: it’s how they learn.

In fact, child development experts across the world are increasingly finding that experiential learning – otherwise known as ‘learning-by-doing’ – is one of the most essential and effective ways that our kids pick up important life skills.

So how does it work? Dr. Barbie Clark is a researcher and experienced trained child therapist, with a PHD in child and adolescent development, while cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. Ashok Jansari worked with Surf excel on the Kids Today Project , looking into what childhood is like today and how it affects our kids. Below, these two child development experts explain everything you need to know about the benefits of active learning for kids, and why experiential learning through play is so important.  

What is experiential learning theory?

Much focus is placed nowadays on formal learning environments, but experiential learning is something all kids do naturally through the process of play. As Dr. Barbie Clark explains, “What children do through the process of play is work out, or play out – that’s actually a term that is used – all the experiences they have had, good or bad… Developmentally, children are naturally going to be playing. But they’re not just playing; they are doing something very, very important…

They’re learning a huge amount.” “Lying at the heart of much healthy child development is this sense of experiential play. And what we might think of as being frivolous or meaningless actually has a very strong purpose indeed.” 

What skills do kids pick up by learning by doing?

So both our experts agree that play and activity based learning is important; in fact, it can even offer kids a chance to develop skills that might not feature on the school curriculum. Dr. Ashok Jansari says: “Executive functions is a broad term for quite a few different skills and abilities, such as being flexible, making decisions, planning, being creative, being autonomous. I would say that play is actually vital for the development of these high level skills.”

While here in India kids can start kindergarten as young as three, Dr. Clark points out that there are huge benefits for kids who are allowed to spend this time learning through play instead: In the Netherlands, children aren’t sent to school until they’re around 6 or 7. And in Norway and most of the other Scandinavian countries, not until they’re 7 years old – now what do they do during that time? As their parents are in work, they are going to nursery school, but what do they do? They play. “And guess what? Those children in Scandinavia when they’re tested in terms of numeracy and literacy at age 11 do much better than kids learning formally at 4 or 5…

They’re learning to improve sociability, they’re learning to practice skills, and they’re also learning – very importantly – to develop cognitively… Through play, they actually become more intelligent.”  

What kind of play is best for experiential active learning?

“The child needs to play with other children,” Dr. Jansari explains. It’s also important that your child is given the freedom to play however they like: “Children need to try things out – and it’s that experimentation that is going to allow them to test their limits, learn things, get things wrong, try them again, become creative, become adaptive, and that’s allowing these skills to develop further.” 

What challenges face the experiential learning movement?

Both Dr. Jansari and Dr. Clark agree that anxiety about helping our kids do well later on in life can sometimes stand in the way of healthy development. I think the traditional view has been that classroom learning has been very important, to help children get a better education, go to university, get a better job, buy a house – and no one’s denying the importance of a standard education.” Dr. Jansari explains. “But I think that part of that model involves the idea that playing isn’t important, and that it’s only a rest from the important stuff, which happens in the classroom.” Dr. Clark agrees: “We can be forcing them so much to be working that we’re forgetting that we should be allowing them to be children.” 

What can parents do to help their kids with active learning?

Parents can help their kids simply by giving them just a little more freedom to play; it’s a case of changing your mindset, rather than putting in more effort. As Dr. Jansari explains, “When a parent sees their child coming in from an hour out playing with other children in the neighbourhood that that’s not a bad thing. “What that’s done is given them physical exercise and also exercised their executive functions.

Therefore in terms of giving your child a good head start for the future, and allowing that child to be happy, I think letting the child go out and play and maybe getting a bit dirty is actually a very good thing.”

Do kids have enough time to play? What’s your little one’s favourite game? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box below!

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