Outside the Classroom:10 Resources for Hands-On Learning


Sometimes new homeschoolers, or first time moms eager to produce smart kids, use the traditional school-room model which focuses on teaching curriculum straight from a workbook. When I was a new homeschool parent I clung tightly to prepackaged materials in fear that my kids would get behind their peers academically, and to avoid being judged by others who thought homeschooling was no education at all.

Quickly I realized that there’s no one-size-fits-all method for teaching children. Studies show that hands-on learning is the best way for kids to learn, and more importantly, retain information. The more experiential the process, the more they remember. I let go of my lists and worksheets and committed to letting learning happen naturally, and to letting it be fun.

My kids and I began exploring the world around us, and went on 1-2 field trips every week. I stopped keeping track once we hit 40 outings in our first year of schooling at home. My kids still reflect fondly on those outings and remember facts about excursions we took over 5 years ago. More importantly, it gave them a love of learning, which inspired us to travel the country for a year in an effort to give them the most expansive hands-on learning possible.

In an effort to inspire you to get outside the traditional classroom environment and explore the world around you, here’s my Top 10 resources for hands on learning. Many of them are free, or low cost, and can be found in your local area.

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Image via Shannon Watt

1. Living History Museums –  

Museums in general have become more user-friendly and interactive, making them a great source for learning. Yet in recent years the rise of living history museums has given families access to a whole new level of learning, by recreating villages or moments in history. By using staff that dress and talk as people would have in the time period being portrayed, children feel immersed in the experience. Going to places like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg feels like you are stepping back in time, which is a fantastic way to learn about it.



Image via Shannon Watt

2. State Parks –

It seems to me that the National Park Service is one of the neatest, yet under utilized resources we have in America. For a small, or often no fee, the NPS has great natural and/or historical parks in every region of the USA. Park Rangers are available for tours, and most visitors' centers I’ve been to have an educational display that gives all the history needed to understand why the place is significant. Their Junior Ranger program is perfect for kids ages 4-12. I encourage you to look up the parks in your area and go visit them with your kids for a great learning experience.


Image via Shannon Watt

3. Botanical Gardens – 

Children are drawn to nature, and what better place to teach them about plants and insects than a botanical garden. Botanical gardens will expose your child to plants from around the world, giving them insight on what it might be like to live in another place. Some gardens have water features, aviaries, or butterfly gardens. Many will have tours or programs geared towards young children. It’s a great way to combine learning and spending time outdoors.

Image via Flickr/hoyasmeg

4. Science Centers – 

Science isn’t so daunting when games are involved, and science centers make learning much more fun. Laying on a bed of nails to learn weight distribution or standing in a wind tunnel to experience tornadoes are just some of the ways science has been brought to life in our home. Hands-on exhibits are sprinkled throughout the center so kids get numerous opportunities to experiment.


Image via Shannon Watt

5. Historical Places & Cities – 

Biographies and history books can be brought to life when children get the chance to visit historical towns where the events actually took place. Something stirs inside of us when we get to stand where great leaders and events occurred, and it stays with us. Whether it’s Gettysburg battlefield or Independence Hall, the special significance of the place will be remembered long after the quiz.


Image via Shannon Watt

6. Wildlife Exhibits – 

Children are drawn to animals from a very young age, and a great way to foster that affection is to take them to aquariums, zoos, or even animal sanctuaries. This is a great way to learn about particular animal groups you are studying, or to pick an animal you want to do deeper research on.  


Image via Shannon Watt

7. State Capitols – 

Whenever possible, I try to visit the state capitol when we visit an area. They are usually among the prettiest buildings in the city, and the history of the architecture and the history of how it was constructed is very interesting. You can usually get a tour of the inside to see the great art work, and learn about the local government – perhaps even meet local legislators. Check your state capitol website for more information.


Image via Shannon Watt

8. Government Buildings –

I’m sure when you think of fun and educational places to take your kids, government buildings aren’t your first thought. However if you asked the kids if they’d like to see $100 million dollars up close, or how money is created, they’d be interested. The Federal Reserve Bank and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing are great examples of government buildings that offer free admission so families can learn more about the creation and circulation of money in our country.


Image via Flickr/Clinton Steeds

9. Observatories – 

Hasn’t everyone looked up in awe at the night stars and at least once thought, ‘I’d love to go there someday'? Whether your child aspires to be an astronaut or not, observatories open to the public have great telescopes for viewing. Many I’ve been to have great museums attached to them as well. It was more impactful for my kids to learn about the phases of the moon and the planets in our galaxy when model scales were hanging from the ceiling, colorful diagrams were displayed and a guide was available to answer all their questions.



Image via Shannon Watt

10. Natural Phenomena – 

Natural wonders are beautiful to witness, but what I love most is how it opens up the wonder in children. Science has never been easier than when I bring them to a crater, a waterfall, a volcano, even a canyon. They are naturally curious and want to know what causes that phenomenon. Make an effort to visit the natural wonders in your part of the world, and watch how much knowledge they absorb, it’s amazing.

These are some of the main ways we bring learning to life in our home. I’m sure you’ve thought of some that aren’t on this list. Please leave them in the comments below as I’m always looking for new opportunities to learn.

I hope this list will inspire you to get out and see more, learn more about the great things in your area.

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Outside the Classroom:10 Resources for Hands-On Learning

Shannon is a mother of 3 teens, who hit 40 and decided that instead of a "mid-life crisis", she wanted an adventure of a lifetime. She convinced her wonderfully open-minded husband to pack up their house, sell most of their possessions, and travel the USA in an RV for a year or two. Besides homeschooling her kids, running their online program, Watts in the World, Shannon loves to explore new places. Nothing is more exciting than waking up in a new city everyday, and discovering what's great abou ... More

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