Classroom lessons linger when students get their hands dirty

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"Experiential learning" is a new name for an old concept: providing hands-on learning opportunities that connect classroom work to outside-the-classroom activities. Experiential learning makes lessons more real and relevant; and educators know from experience, that makes information stick.

"Doing something—rather than just hearing or reading about it—makes it that much more memorable," says Nellie Walcoff, Director of Communications at the Providence Country Day School. The 10-acre, forested Nature Lab at the East Providence independent school is an perfect example of the integration of experience with classroom work. "We use the Nature Lab across a range of disciplines, from science and environmental studies, to art," says Ms. Walcoff. "For example, one class is creating a bird book, documenting the species found on campus."

While many schools, both public and private, provide for some amount of experiential learning, private schools are not as locked into a rigid curriculum schedule, allowing for more room to create experiential learning opportunities.

PCD's Nature Lab is just one of many examples of experiential learning incorporated into the curriculums of local schools. Friends Academy, in Dartmouth, has a prolific garden that you can read about in this issue. The Pennfield School in Portsmouth is able to incorporate the adjacent greenways of the Aquidneck Island Land Trust into their PK-8 curriculum. St. George's School in Middletown offers an ongoing semester-at-sea program aboard their boat "Geronimo," where students undertake specific research projects while learning about life at sea—and keeping up with their regular lessons.

One characteristic that schools with well-developed experiential learning programs tend to share is smaller class sizes, which make it easier for teachers to customize and follow up on these learning opportunities, when they present themselves. An additional, less-obvious benefit is the personal growth of the student, beyond academics. According to Ms. Walcoff, you see more students stepping up into leadership roles. "A small community with experiential learning opportunities makes leadership roles available to a wider range of students," she says.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.