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4 Truths about Hands-On Learning for Middle and High School Students


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Written by Shawna Wingert of Not the Former Things.

One of my favorite memories of our first year homeschooling is building a baking soda and vinegar volcano. My boys were six and nine and had never made one before. They carefully crafted the volcano out of clay. We discussed the basics of chemical reactions and covered the three states of matter. Then we poured in the vinegar.

They were so excited. So was I.  They screamed and clapped. I smiled and patted myself on the back, thinking “This is why I wanted to homeschool them. They learn best through hands-on learning.”

hands-on learning for high school students

Fast forward seven years.

I now have a twelve-year-old and almost fifteen-year-old. While the subject matter has intensified and their interests have changed, the same is still basically true – my children learn best through hands-on learning.

But with middle school and high-school-aged children, it is a lot harder to find ways to incorporate hands-on activities into our days. And, it’s hard to find hands-on activities for middle school and high school. Curriculum for these levels rarely includes it. (Seriously, it’s like a sea of worksheets and textbooks without a science experiment or art project in sight.)

Hands-On Learning for Middle and High School Students

I have tried everything I can think of, determined to include more experiential learning in our homeschool,

Here is what I have learned about a more activity-based approach for older learners.

Hands-On Learning for High School and Middle School

1. Online learning is our friend.

As my boys have matured, their level of engagement with digital media has as well. This has been a tremendous benefit in finding and incorporating activity-based learning into our homeschool.

YouTube has step-by-step demonstrations of science experiments and computer builds. We use Minecraft to create models of historic battles and literary locations, and Mythbusters has been our primary source of science for two years.

When it comes to ideas for activities, online resources cannot be beat.

Hands-On Learning Activities for Middle and High School Students

2. It’s important to think long-term.

The easiest way for me to find hands-on opportunities for my boys has been to consider their long-term aspirations and use them to form school projects. For example, my oldest would like to someday work with computers for a living. So we have incorporated computer builds into his science lessons.

My youngest adores animals and will tell you he wants to be a zoologist someday. As a result, we have way too many pets that he cares for as part of his school day. He has also built models of different habitats for climate-dependent animals (Amazon rainforest snake vs. African desert snake, etc.).

Hands-on learning for high school

3. Bigger kids mean bigger messes.

Gone are the days where we sing the clean-up song and wash out the paint brushes. As my boys have grown, so has the size of their messes. At any given point in time, you will find computer parts piled up in our garage and covering my son’s desk. We have eight different terrariums outside as well, none of which have an actual creature living in them.

We recently tested our water for safety (another hands-on science experiment) which went well. But soon, we were testing all the water sources all over the house. Test tubes and test strips were everywhere by the end of the day.

hands-on learning for middle school

4. It’s totally worth it.

Although it does require more of me in terms of research and time, the benefits of hands-on learning far outweigh the costs.

Our days are smoother; my boys are more engaged and, honestly, experiential learning is just a lot more fun.

Are you including hands-on learning for high school and middle school? What works best in your home?

hands-on learning for high school students

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Author profile

Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned writer, speaker and consultant. She is also a homeschooling mom of two brilliant boys with differences and special needs. Shawna has written four books for parents of special needs – Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos and her latest, Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. She has also been featured in special needs discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, The Huffington Post and Autism Speaks. You can find her online at DifferentByDesignLearning.com. You can follow Shawna and Different By Design Learning on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.

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2 Comments

  1. I love your posts! It’s like no one talks about older kids needs for hands on learning but it’s real. I have a hands on learner that is 15 and really doesn’t get much out of worksheets, textbooks etc. It isn’t always easy to find/create hands on activities but this post gives me motivation to do so. Thanks for sharing and for bringing this to the forefront and letting us out here know it’s ok if your high schooler doesn’t dig textbooks! It helps keep up from caving and buying textbooks they won’t use.

  2. I;m with you! i have a 10 yr old, who is doing 5/6th grade work, and that seems to be the stopping point for ‘fun stuff’ as she calls it. I’m already hunting for middle school activities and shes not there yet, because they are SO hard to find.
    Like you, I’ve started pulling ideas to make interest centric activities that can tie into curriculum.
    there is def am untroved homeschool market for this level of activities for sure.

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