School is a very different place today, and your child probably has a day packed with learning and test preparation designed to pump her full of information and skills needed to succeed in college. This is important, of course, but the hours your child spends in school are likely more teacher-centered than student-centered, as it’s an efficient way to deliver information.

For a truly well rounded education, your child needs more than just lecture. They also need to be put in the driver’s seat to solve problems and grow not just intellectually, but spiritually and emotionally as well. While traditional schools don’t always focus on the whole learner, experiential education is a great way to supplement your child’s learning with hands-on experiences that help him discover hidden strengths and talents, typically in an outdoor setting that encourages physical movement and increased creativity.

Experiential Learning and Attention

Neuroscientists are hard at work studying the effects of screens and technology on the human mind, and what they’ve discovered about learning and attention points to the strengths of experiential learning. For example, retention of material is strongly correlated to undivided attention being paid during the learning process — something in very short supply in this era of smartphones and constant distraction. Attention is influenced by the brain’s production of both dopamine and norepinephrine. The dopamine comes when students are personally invested in what they’re doing, while the norepinephrine is boosted by a bit of pressure, perhaps of competition or a deadline.

Experiential learning helps with both, as students are personally invested in their activity and are often engaged by the heightened challenge of doing something outside their comfort zone. These hands-on activities are also highly novel, which helps students focus and become engaged, training the brain for better attention and emotional regulation.

Experiential learning also helps learners take ownership of a problem and the resulting solutions, which in turn leads to better retention and the formation of long-term memories. What’s more, an emotional connection to the task at hand has also been shown to heighten learning — and students are likely to experience a range of emotions when completing a challenging ropes course or other outdoor learning experience.

Not All Growth Is Cognitive

alternative learning

Your child is constantly measured on her academic progress with a battery of standardized tests, but too often other aspects of growth and development are forgotten because they aren’t so easily measured. Non-cognitive growth is also important, and your child is also hard at work on developing his social and emotional self. Learning to trust others, to assert one’s leadership while working well with a team, and mastering strong emotions like fear are directly addressed in most experiential education activities.

For example, consider a ropes course that a team of students must work through. As they make their way through the challenge, they must communicate clearly and effectively with each other. They’ll also figure out how to work together as a team to use each person’s strengths to their best advantage. When someone feels afraid, others learn to rally around them with empathy and compassion, because the whole group is only successful when they all complete the challenge. This type of activity doesn’t have many parallels in the typical academic setting, so alternative education courses are crucial for helping your child become her best self in all areas of life.

The Art of Collaboration

Just as education has changed, so has the business world. Today’s innovative leaders rely on their employees to collaborate and work together to come up with solutions to new problems, and they expect workers to be flexible in thinking about their roles and in stepping up to help others. Creative group problem solving is expected, but will your child be ready for this workplace challenge?

Experiential learning programs provide an opportunity for students to learn to work together on a task in a way that feels more authentic and a bit more high-stakes than a group report. For example, teens working to navigate through a forest with just a compass will need to pay close attention to their tools and to each other. Unlike a classroom situation in which the class clown is rewarded for being interesting, here any off-task behavior is quickly snuffed out because it’s not helping the group reach their goal — a crucial life lesson for many charismatic but unfocused young people. Learning to play a role as a team member is an important life lesson, and experiential learning teaching collaboration far better than pen-and-paper tasks.

Connecting to the Outdoors

Because most experiential learning programs take place outdoors, they also provide a deep connection to nature. While being outside often simply feels good, there’s also scientific evidence to suggest that time in nature is crucial for giving the brain a rest from multitasking and busy work that is so common in today’s high-tech lifestyles. More time outdoors is also correlated with lower stress and reduced levels of chronic disease — all wonderful bonuses that build a healthy lifestyle for your child when she participates in alternative learning programs in nature.

Experiential learning and alternative educational programs are a proven way to support your child’s development in areas that traditional classes often don’t address. Learn more by visiting our programs page today to help your child get the most complete education possible.