Incorporating Experiential Education into Social-Emotional Learning

Incorporating Experiential Education into Social-Emotional Learning

Experiential Education is a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities. John Dewey, who many consider as being one of main founders of experiential education, wrote in his famous 1938 book  “Experience and Education “ about the need to have experience as central in the educational process in order to engage students in their learning, increase retention, and ensure appropriate implementation of the knowledge and skills being taught.

This philosophical context of experiential education played an important role in the development of Outward Bound – on of the world’s longest running organizations that uses outdoor education to teach resiliency. Kurt Han, the founder of Outward Bound, worked for the British Military as a training developer for new recruits. Kurt realized first hand, that regardless of the quality of the teaching, if the new military recruits were not asked to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills in stressful situations that mirrored actual war, the quality of the using the skills appropriately in actual combat would be diminished. The training or new recruits, he realized, needed to be more experiential and Outward Bound was born.

With the current emphasis on the need for social-emotional learning in school and communities and across all ages, a variety of social-emotional tools and resources have been developed. Many of these programs, tools, and research can be found referenced on the CASEL (Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning) website. As you choose what programs, tools, and resources you may use to engage students in social-emotional learning I think it is important to reflect on Dewy and Kurt Han, and ask yourself, am I teaching these important social-emotion learning concepts and skills in an experiential way? If not, I would question the likelihood of your students to be able to actually use their new knowledge and skills during a stressful or conflictual situation when their social and emotional skills are required. The next question may be, how to I teach and engage students or clients in Social-Emotional Learning experientially? My short and simple answer is through games. Games have the potential to demonstrate participants’ strengths and challenges, provide teachable moments, and potentially mirror real life situation.

Perhaps its best if we go deeper in our history and actually look and one of the first proponent of experiential education – the great teacher and philosopher Plato.

Plato said, “you can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”

The basic premise of using Play or games to promote experiential social emotional learning is to first teach social and emotional skills The second step would be to play a game that could potentially require the use of these new social emotional skills. The third step would then be to reflect and debrief how this new skills of concept were or were not utilized in the game. Lastly, play the same or a different game that requires a similar social-emotional skills set again, reflect / debrief and repeat. In the words of Plato, learn about the participants, notice what changes through the game, what growth has been made, what skills are not be utilized and then determine how to move forward and keep on playing. In the end the goal is to have the participants able to reflect on the WHAT– what did I learn, the SO WHAT - why was this important, and the NOW WHAT - what am I or we going to do with this information?

Here is a great example. A common social-emotional learning objective is for classmates to have  turns to share their ideas  or thoughts and to have other listening when one person is talking. Through pictures or discussion the teacher and class can suggest that being respectful includes allowing your classmates to take turn and listening to one another. Then you could ask the class to play with an “All About You” Thumball. An  “All About You” Thumball is a soft soccer type ball that on each hexagon has an icebreaker type question. The ball is passed around and when someone catches the ball, where their thumb lands they read out-loud and respond to the question. The questions include “The Last Vegetable you Ate”, “A Language You Want to Learn”, and many more. Have the class play the game. Then when a few people start calling out answers to the question even when it’s not their turn, the facilitator could stop the activity temporarily and say something like “I notice when someone calls out, the person with thumball ends up choosing an answer that was called out instead of possibly selecting something their own personal answer.” How can we make sure that everyone gets a chance to come up with their ideas and answers when it’s their turn?” Select a couple of responses and then continue playing the game. At the end of the game engage the group to reflect on the What, So What and Now What. Ideally the group discovers something like the following:

What: Letting others have a turn and listening to others is important

So What: When we call out answers people don’t get a chance to share their own ideas and when we are patient and listen our classmates are more likely going to have a turn to share their ideas or answers

Now What: When its’s someone else’s turn we will keep our own answers and responses in our mind and not shout them out or in the future I will wait until it’s my turn to share my ideas with the class.

The game provided the experiential component to the social-emotional learning lesson

If you need resources for great group games check out my three favourite games and game facilitation books.

Inspired Educator

Inspired Learner

by Jennifer Stanchfield

Tips and Tools for the Experiential Group Facilitator

by Jennifer Stanchfield

Journey Towards the Caring Classroom by Laurie Frank InspiredEducator by J. Stanchfield - Experiential Social-Emotional Learning Activties Tops & Tools for the Art of Experiential Education


Inquiry Adventures is also available has some great Thumballs and other game tools to compliment your social-emotional learning lesson. Inquiry Adventures is also available come and  facilitate a professional development workshop on how to best incorporate games and activities into the social-emotional learning practices of your school or organization.

Have fun and learn lots paying out there.

Sheldon Franken

Owner / Facilitator Inquiry Adventures


Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

£ Back to top