Hands On, Heads Up, Happy Faces: Experiential Learning for the Win

Experiential learning has become an integral part of many classrooms and libraries as we better understand how brains work. That tactile learning mode is essential for some students and beneficial for all.



Growing up, I was the kid who always had a book in her hand, and those books were always fiction. Nonfiction? Not for me! I had no interest in reading about things that were true—give me all the fantasies, mysteries, and horror stories. I wanted to live a hundred different lives, but never someone else’s real life.

And fiction remained my go-to literary taste until I got a job editing children’s nonfiction books at Nomad Press. And that’s when I discovered what I’d been missing. What were these amazing worlds of biology, astronomy, anatomy, history, cultural exploration, geography? Where had they been all my life? I’d always thought I was just one of those people who naturally veered more towards the imaginary, but it turns out that old adage about there being kids who are born readers and kids who just haven’t found the right book yet was true for adults, too. I just hadn’t found the right nonfiction book.

Turns out, the right nonfiction books for me were written for children.

I think many of us who are, shall we say, of a certain age might find this a familiar story. Kids’ nonfiction books from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the ‘90s weren’t great. Remember? The print was pretty small, there weren’t a lot of pictures, and if your brain wasn’t the kind that could grasp a complex scientific complex by simply reading a paragraph, there weren’t many other opportunities in the book for gaining understanding. No charts, graphs, diagrams, cartoon characters using more accessible language, links to online videos, or a hands-on activity you could do and actually see the science in action.

Those hands-on activities can be the key to learning for some students.

Experiential learning has become an integral part of many classrooms and libraries as we better understand how brains work. That tactile learning mode is essential for some students and beneficial for all. Not only are kids able to access information in an alternative way (crucial for children who might be reading at a different level or who have cognitive challenges when it comes to text), they also have an opportunity to collaborate with peers, practice critical and creative problem solving, and have fun.

Fun? Yes, children’s nonfiction books can be fun, a fact I wish I’d known when I was a kid.

Hands-on activities are also a chance for us to center children in the education process. When a student designs a functional elevator or experiments with chromatography or builds a replica of the Battle of Gettysburg, they are fully engaging with the subject at hand. The book becomes a jumping off point into a larger landscape of learning-through-doing, and the adult in the room is no longer the one doing the teaching. Instead, students find themselves asking the questions, figuring out the answers, checking their own work, collaborating with peers to explore other avenues of discovery, and, in general, having a deeper learning experience than can be found between the pages of the book.

And isn’t that always the goal of nonfiction books? To encourage a habit of learning that lasts long after the final page has turned?

In my newest set of Picture Book Science books, I explore simple machines—pulleys, screws, levers, inclined planes, wedges, and wheels and axles. For someone who wasn’t “into science” for the first 30ish years of my life, writing these science books is all about the joyful process of discovery.

Simple machines are basic, but they’re so much more. They are foundational to our understanding of physics. They are what we use to build our cities, our homes, our factories. They are found in every culture and are an integral part of human history.

I tried to bring all the wonder I feel about simple machines to these picture books through a few different elements. Funny examples of why you’d need a simple machine (like an elephant sitting on your book!). Explorations of early examples of simple machines (the first wheels were potters’ wheels!). Simple demonstrations (clap your hands together and rub—that heat you feel is friction at work!).

And, of course, hands-on activities. These activities are at the end of the books, right before the glossary, but they’re also at the heart of the books. If children do nothing else but build their own pulley or construct their own Archimedes’ screw, I’m happy. The books have done their job.

Every time I visit a classroom, I’m grateful to kids for paying attention through my discussion of being a science writer, of what it’s like to research, write, revise, and write some more. I’m thankful the squirming is at a minimum, hands shoot up with questions, and eyes remain mostly focused. But when we get to the hands-on part of the presentation—wow, do those kids light up! Everyone in the room transforms into an eager scientist on the verge of making a life-changing discovery. And I’m thrilled to be even a small part of that.

Hands-on learning is (ideally) here to stay. We’ve learned enough about education to know it’s an essential tool in the classroom toolbox and valuable to keep even as classroom time is forever at a premium. Children need experiential learning in their lives. They need to feel inspired by their own creations, excited by making their own discoveries. They need to make that link between the science they read about and their own lives.

Because these children are the next generation of scientists, writers, and teachers. And I don’t want them to wait until their thirties to figure out that science is pretty cool. And that science books? Can be fun!

Check out the latest books in the Picture Book Science series, written by Andi Diehn, illustrated by Micah Rauch.

Pulleys Pull Their Weight: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647410902, $13.95
HC: 9781647410872, $20.95

Wedges Make a Point: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647411060, $13.95
HC: 9781647411039, $20.95

Screws Keep Things Secure: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647410940, $13.95
HC: 9781647410919, $20.95

Levers Lessen the Load: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647410988, $13.95
HC: 9781647410957, $20.95

Inclined Planes Ramp It Up: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647411022, $13.95
HC: 9781647410995, $20.95

Wheels Make the World Go Round: Simple Machines for Kids
PB: 9781647411107, $13.95
HC: 9781647411077, $20.95



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