Hands-On: Experiential Learning at Heritage Sites

The idea of experiential learning (the process of learning through doing) is being heavily promoted in education systems right now. Hands on activities, active involvement in learning exercises, and anything other than listening to people talk are all types of experiential learning. 

Living history sites are excellent examples of heritage organizations which utilize experiential learning.  Visitors to living history sites are often engaged in what life was like at a certain time period.  This might include learning a period dance, learning a song, baking bread the ‘old-fashioned way’, helping harvest a heritage garden, spinning wool, or numerous other activities. Living history sites are designed to immerse people in the past and often do so through experiential learning.

How can (and do) heritage organizations other than living history sites engage visitors in types of experiential learning? Art institutions often provide classes which introduce visitors to a particular art form – be it pottery, drawing, or painting.  An example of this is the Whitney Museum of American Art‘s drop in drawing class, which situates participants in a gallery and provides drawing instruction.

An increasing number of museums are also offering experiential learning based educational programs.  At times these programs take on a feel of a living history and allow visitors to learn a historical skill or participate in a period celebration (eg. Christmas in the 1800s).  Museums also utilize educational reproductions to allow hands on experience with collection material. The Norwegian-American Museum‘s curator for a day program is an example of a museum program which fully dedicates itself to experiential learning.

Some archives have also moved to providing a more experiential based outreach programs for schools.  These programs often focus on introducing students to the value of historical photographs and documents.  For example, students can be sent on a source ‘scavenger hunt’ where they search through reproductions of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other material to find particular information. 


Do you have memories of a particularly good (or bad) experiential learning program at a heritage site?

Photo credit: Olds College

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