What Makes for High-Quality Out-of-Classroom Experiences?

Kids in ClassroomPreparing students for entering the workforce in the next decade or two is a daunting task, especially because no one knows what the career landscape will look like. What we do know is that students will need to have the four Cs of 21st century skills: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication. These skills may be learned in part in the classroom, but the traditional directed-instruction model doesn’t offer much opportunity to connect learning to students’ lives and the rest of the world. Project- and inquiry-based learning models provide broader opportunities, but standards and testing can still limit the opportunities for students to experience multiple modalities of learning and grow their confidence and skills.

The Rise of Making and After-School Programs

As schools place increasing emphasis on connecting learning to real-world experiences, there has been a rise in the design and implementation of makerspaces and making, as well as creative STEM activities and projects. Because not all of this fits into the regular school day, lunchtime clubs and after-school programs are helping to give students more time for exploration and learning outside of traditional academic subjects. But what should those clubs and after-school programs focus on? And what constitutes a high-quality out-of-classroom learning experience?

Key Features of High-Quality Out-of-Classroom Experiences

Designing an out-of-classroom learning experience is about more than just the space, although the space is important too. It needs to be where kids want to be and where there is learning and fun in close to equal measure. It also needs to prove its value to stakeholders like administrators and parents. This may seem like a tall order, but there are a few key things you can incorporate to help make it possible:

  1. Dedicated Staff: Often teachers, instructors, and librarians are wearing so many hats that they can’t do justice to everything they are tasked with. Making out-of-classroom experiences the priority and giving those instructors the tools and resources they need, such as time for planning and decent pay, means they can deliver higher-quality experiences.
  2. Clear Program Goals: It’s easier to create programming and measure success when the goals and intended outcomes are clear, measurable, and documented so they can be shared with everyone.
  3. Engaging Programming and Activities: These need to align with the program goals first while being fun and educational for the students. Program planning isn’t an easy process, but having clear goals helps determine the direction to go and helps hone your content, deliverables, and expectations.
  4. Stakeholder Buy-In: If administrators can’t see the value of the out-of-classroom experience, they are less likely to invest resources in it. It is important to show them the data up front about why those experiences matter and to follow up by demonstrating how the program makes a difference.
  5. Parent Involvement: This is critical to the success of students, so encourage parents to play an active, supportive role in their child’s learning. Keep them engaged by inviting them to an open house where they can see their child’s work, try some activities themselves, and understand how their child has grown over time.

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What Does High-Quality Programming Look Like?

Now let’s get into what engaging and educational programming can look like. For some students who are struggling in reading and math, there needs to be some structured academic work or tutoring. But what kid wants to do that in their clubs or after-school programs if others aren’t? It can be tricky to strike a balance between fun and work, but it’s crucial to your students’ success. This is where getting creative with programs and activities can help.

We all know about the boat building challenge: You build a boat, put it in a tub of water, and keep adding weight to it to see how much it can hold. Now let’s add some math and reading to it. Have the students look up what a ship in the 18th century had to take on as cargo to cross from Europe to America. See if they can find what the weight of some of the items would have been and add them up to see how much weight the ship would have been carrying. Have various items like washers, coins, and corks and tell them what each item represents. Talk about buoyancy and displacement and then challenge them to build a boat that can carry everything that would be needed on an Atlantic crossing. When their boats are ready, see what happens with turbulent waters or very little wind.

This activity incorporates reading and comprehension, social studies, and STEM skills, while also giving kids something fun to do. It also encourages critical thinking, creativity, and, if the students work in teams, communication and collaboration skills.

Incorporating Family Engagement

Because family engagement is critical to student success, you should try to incorporate an element of engagement in all your programming. In the boat example above, as well as many other activities, you can have students document their process and experience using digital cameras and print their photos to create portfolios. Be sure they document when something fails, how it is reiterated, and when it succeeds. When parents and caregivers come to pick up their child or attend parent-teacher conferences, let the students show them what they did and talk about what they learned. This encourages family engagement and creates an environment where “failures” are looked at as learning opportunities.


Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag is the Learning Content Manager at Demco. She has a master’s in library and information studies with a focus on child and youth services. For over 10 years, she has worked in informal education, developing and running programs in museums, libraries, and community centers.