Engaged learning: Starting with hands-on activities

Use hands-on learning activities as a way to introduce participants to your program, new topics or to more in-depth engaged learning.

When developing programs that engage youth in learning, Michigan State University Extension recognizes utilizing hands-on activities as a great starting point. As mentioned in Progressing through engaging learning methods, hands-on activities can be the starting point for more engaged learning and are applicable in situations where time is limited. Put simply, hands-on activities have participants interacting in some way with the lesson and topic. It might be making a small, straw-rocket as an introduction to trajectory or replicating a color wheel with paint to learn about color theory, for example.

Hands-on activities are the starting point for engaged learning. By doing an activity on the topic the actions, movement or resulting products are associated with the lesson. This type of learning fits really well as a starting point, either for new subjects or for youth who have not been part of more engaged learning processes before. It is a way to introduce this new way of learning, as it can be challenging for young people who are used to a “sit and listen” approach.

In addition to the introductory activity in a series, hands-on lessons fit well in settings where the learning time is fairly limited. This might be a recruitment event, programming expositions, open houses or another public settings where youth and participants come and go as they please. Ensuring a fun, interactive activity with something to take home will not just draw people to the table, it will also set the tone for the engaging programming you have to offer.

Take, for example, the 4-H Tech Wizards program—a mentoring program focused on science, technology, engineering and mathmetics (STEM) projects. In this model, focusing on a hands-on activity works when youth are meeting their mentor for the first time. There are some social dynamics to navigate that might prevent further questions and processing, but it still sets the right tone moving forward. Another place it would fit well is promoting the program at public events. The public walking by might only be engaged for a few minutes, but they also get a taste for the quality of programming being used.

Of course, the goal with even the most basic, brief hands-on activities is to start to pull in ideas around experiential learning and youth participation around how the project develops.  Michigan 4-H programs that are initiated by youth alongside volunteers, use this as the model. It may be as simple as asking youth questions while they are engaged in the activity or having them brainstorm what they would do next. Ultimately, in a series of activities, the next modules would implement aspects of the experiential learning process and then progress to youth led programs with adult support—reaching the top of Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation.

Hands-on learning is a fun and interactive way to truly engage youth! Many 4-H curriculums include hands-on learning activities to help in this process. For additional information about how to incorporate hands-on learning in your programming, contact your local MSU Extension office. To learn how to move hands-on activities to the next step in the learning process, read Engaged learning: Thinking about activities.

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