Never Underestimate the Importance of Hands-on Learning

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Newton's Laws of Motion make better sense with a hands-on physics lesson.

Newton’s Laws of Motion make better sense with a hands-on physics lesson.

It’s a pretty safe statement to say that every parent has a desire to see their child do well in school and succeed in life. While the desire is there for many parents, many of the tools to help put that plan into place are not quite that apparent. Don’t lose hope! You can help a child achieve success in life by helping them – and yourself – to accept that not all learning takes place in a classroom.

Trust Me, Parents: It’s Okay to Get Your Hands Dirty

A vast portion of our 4-H youth programming is devoted to trying to help young people better themselves and succeed in their communities. Much of that programming is aimed at enhancing skill sets that enable them to succeed within the classroom. Since classroom time only accounts for approximately one-quarter of child’s daily routine, perhaps we can best help youth to succeed in the classroom by preparing them with skills and experiences that occur outside of the classroom by way of a variety of experiential learning opportunities. Those (dirty) hands-on opportunities are priceless!

Experiential learning opportunities can manifest themselves in a host of variable hands-on projects that can be found inside a local community center, art studio, backyard, or dairy barn. No matter the varied type or location of experiential learning opportunity, the Experiential Learning Center at the University of Colorado – Denver (2015) explains that all experiential learning programs contain elements of the same four criteria. Make sure your hands get dirty by allowing for the following:

  1. There is opportunity for reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.
  2. Youth have opportunities to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results.
  3. Students have opportunities to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially and/or physically.
  4. Designed learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes.

What Makes Experiential Learning Different?

The experiential learning process is perceived to have much more depth than simple didactic learning (Kolb, 1984). The learning from doing theory consists of the integration of three main elements: knowledge, activity, and reflection. While the hands-on component (activity) is critical, it is not experiential without the element of reflection. The reflection allows for analysis and synthesis of knowledge and activity to create new knowledge (Indiana University, 2006). Experiential learning opportunities not only allow an individual to gain a deeper understanding of the concept at hand, but such opportunities allow a young person to transfer their previous learning to new contexts. Simply said, the mastery of new skills in an after-school wood-working project could enable a youth to apply new principles to a future mathematics lesson.

 Value Beyond the Classroom

Motivation is such a fragile and finicky concept to instill in youth. Where textbooks and worksheets may lack, experiential learning acts to motivate students by engaging them in hands-on learning experiences that they are able to see relevance in. With increased relevancy, youth have an increased motivation to learn, perhaps more so than any book learning could ever foster (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010; Moore, 2010). As we work to enhance a child’s educational experience and aim to make them well-rounded individuals, experiential learning opportunities seem to fit the bill when we are looking to supplement classroom knowledge gain. Enabling a young person to “think outside the box” and “on their feet” will surely serve them well as they progress into adulthood. Hey, next time don’t criticize those dirty hands – perhaps that 4-H goat project is worth more than just a blue ribbon.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Indiana University. (2006). Experiential learning notations on Indiana University official transcripts. Retrieved from

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NF: Prentice-Hall.

Moore, D.T. (2010). Forms and isues in experiential learning. In D.M. Qualters (Ed.) New Directions for Teaching and Learning (p 3-13). New York City, NY: Wiley.

University of Colorado – Denver. (2015). Experiential learning center mission. Retrieved from

Written By

Photo of Ginger CunninghamGinger CunninghamCounty Extension Director and Extension Agent, 4-H Youth Development (919) 542-8202 (Office) ginger.cunningham@chathamnc.orgChatham County, North Carolina
Posted on Nov 2, 2015
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