As we dove off a boat with our snorkel gear on, we found ourselves face-to-face with rainbow colored fish, their bright blue, sparkly yellow, striped black scales shining as they swam around us. Below us, spongy coral waved their tentacles; above us, hot sun and blue sky.
As we emerged from our snorkeling adventure and clambered back on the boat, my daughter whispered to me, "Ma, that was amazing. I never knew the ocean was that enchanting."
Now we've read lots of books about marine life together, and I've taken my kids to the aquarium in Singapore, but this was the real thing. They were experiencing the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the ocean firsthand.
In many ways, experience is the best teacher. For certain things -- perhaps the most important things -- experiences are what shape us, change us, and make us who we are.
If we want our kids to understand the natural world and develop a desire to preserve and protect the environment, then we've got to let them experience nature first hand.
If we want our kids to love art and culture, then we've got to let them experience the arts and cultural traditions firsthand through travel, celebrations, cultural outings, performances, and artistic experiences.
If we want our kids to understand issues of social justice, then we've got to get them out in the field doing service, seeing how other people live, and witnessing first-hand the inequities around us.
For all of the above, experience is the best teacher. Experiences will make our kids interesting and humane; experiences will fuel our kids' desire to learn, explore, advocate, and act.
While experiential learning is fantastic, I know that experiential learning, too, has its limitations.
For basic academic skills and content, explicit instruction and book learning are crucial. Skill and drill are necessary. No child masters fractions and decimals by camping and traveling. No child fully understands the structure of an atom or cell just through interesting experiences. For kids to master academic skills and content, they need direct instruction, practice, and review.
BUT a real, true education must combine academic work with experiential learning to give kids not only the skills and knowledge they'll need, but also the desire to do wonderful and purposeful things with their lives.