Learning through experiences: A royal example


Today the weather is miserable, but earlier this week we spent a gloriously sunny and warm afternoon on a little outing to Camber Castle. With winter approaching, I’m desperate to soak up as much of the autumn sun as possible. But apart from that, there are a number of ways that in which I believe that excursions like these are great for Penguin’s learning (and this probably applies to many other kids too, maybe most?).

Learning through experiences

I’m not the first one to point out that passive learning, where you’re taught something by being told about it, or told to read something about it, is rarely the most efficient way to achieve a great understanding of whatever you’re meant to be learning about. Simply put, you’ll learn things better and more easily if the learning is combined with a positive experience. For example, it’s quite amazing how much people can learn in connection with going on a holiday abroad: A new language, the history of a country and the customs of a different culture, calculating currency, etc. Things they may never have had the motivation to learn otherwise.

So experiences can build motivation, and they also offer a framework for learning, something to relate to and build on. These things are helpful components for all learners, and even more important when learning new things doesn’t come easily, as in our case.

Visiting Camber Castle can act as a framework and/or something to relate to in several different areas:

  • History – This was built almost 500 years ago, when Henry VIII was king. Who was he? Why was this castle built, why in this spot, and how? What was life like back then? Etc.
  • Geology – When Camber Castle was built it was by the sea. Now you can’t even see the sea from this spot. What happened, and why?
  • Biology – Camber Castle is set in what is now Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, so offers a great chance for learning about different birds, plants, flowers etc. On our visit this week, we had a close look (and smell, and taste!) at the very prickly gorse bushes, some of which were still in flower!


Making it enjoyable

However, when we go to visit a new place, I rarely have a set plan for specific things to learn at that point. That first visit (to anywhere) usually consists mainly of Penguin getting acquainted with the place, running around, exploring and soaking it up. We talk to him about the place, what we’re seeing etc, and steer him around the site, but to a large extent we follow his lead. That way, he retains a sense of control and the outing becomes a positive experience, which is always the main aim. If it’s a negative and stressful experience he won’t be open to taking things in, no learning is likely to happen, and it won’t serve as a good thing to relate to and build more learning around afterwards.

Being a parent of a child on the spectrum has taught me to be more prepared for things not going to plan, than I’m likely to have been with a neurotypical child. These are some of the things we do to increase the odds of making our outings as enjoyable as possible:

  • Food, for keeping the balance: Sadly it took me a good while to learn that quite a few of Penguin’s meltdowns could have been avoided if we’d just made sure to keep his energy levels up. Of course, anyone can get a bit cranky if they’re hungry, but when you’re dealing with a person who doesn’t necessarily pick up on his own body’s signals (about hunger, pain etc.) it becomes a little bit more complicated. And even if he did feel hunger he’d find it very difficult to communicate his needs to us. Also, with a neurotypical child you could have a discussion about wether they would like something to eat (or drink) and if so, what. With Penguin it’s often unclear, and the old “he’ll eat if he’s hungry” doesn’t always apply to kids on the spectrum. They may rather starve than eat something which isn’t what they want (and this is more than being fussy or picky). So, we need to stay a step ahead and prevent low energy levels, so we make sure that we’ve eaten before going out (unless eating out is part of what we’ve got planned) and we bring a few snacks with us. For our afternoon outing to Camber Castle we brought a green apple, ginger nut biscuits, müsli bars and Polos. I’m aware that these are quite sugar rich, and that options with less sugar would be preferable in many ways. But for now these are things that are working well for us, and they have some very useful qualities other than just maintaining energy levels, in that they can help “balancing” by providing strong sensory stimuli: Chewing has a generally calming effect, and when it’s on something crunchy it also provides proprioceptive input, which is further calming and organising. Strong flavours (tangy apple, mint Polos, spicy ginger nut biscuits) alert the senses. This might seem like it would counteract the calming effect of chewing and crunching, but I would say it’s working in parallell, on different levels. The strong flavours give a disorganised and perhaps over-loaded sensory system something “bright” to focus on. This helps in screening off distracting sensory input, and so has a sharpening/alerting effect which at the same time isn’t “un-calming”.
  • Preparations: We’ll always try to make sure that Penguin knows where we’re going, roughly how long it’ll take to get there, what we’ll be doing there etc. We may show him a flyer about the place, photos from an earlier visit if we’ve been before, look at their website together, or maybe find a video of it online. I might also draw up a rough visual schedule. This is however an area where I’ll admit we’ve still got great scope for improvements (such as enabling Penguin to take a more active part in the planning, through use of AAC etc.)
  • Realistic expectations & taking it easy: Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with HOW EXCITING this outing is going to be and HOW MUCH we’re going to do there. And then we (adults) get disappointed and frustrated when our child just doesn’t seem that bothered about all the exciting things, or doesn’t want to explore the part that we thought would be the most amazing of all at this place we’re visiting. We have to remind ourselves that the child might have a better experience from doing less than we’d planned. Try to accept that and enjoy having a good time together, even if it’s different to what we’d envisaged. At Camber Castle the other day, Penguin was quite tired. He had woken up a too early that morning, and if this outing had been a more substantial one, we’d most likely have rescheduled it for another day. But as it was we went ahead, but took it very easily, adjusting to Penguin’s pace, and sitting down for a rest and a snack break when needed. He fell asleep on the way home and then went straight to bed for a good couple of hours, but the actual outing went well. (Giving plenty of time to relax and rebound afterwards is another important thing, by the way.)
  • Clothes: Penguin is very reluctant to keep clothes on if they get wet, so if a drink is spilled his top will quickly come off, etc. And he has no sense of embarrassment about not being dressed. So we still bring spare clothes, as being forced to keep a wet piece of clothing on could otherwise ruin the whole day.
  • Documentation: When we’re out and about, we take a lot of photos and sometimes videos, and also (when suitable) like to bring something home with us. These things help in focusing attention at the time, as well as serving as support for the memory and continued learning afterwards. On our outing to Camber Castle, we found a stream where some ducks were splashing about, and we filmed them. This was very timely as we were just about to start making a little book about ducks in our “A-Z of animals” study unit (which I’ll write more about in another post). We also brought a few autumn leaves home with us. And here are some more photos from around the castle, including a close-up of one of those wonderfully tactile walls 🙂

To finish off, here’s a little nugget of further reading (from the wonderful Bill Nason at Autism Discussion Page) about how doing, thinking and feeling are three components that work well together, to enhance learning and understanding:

Spectrum Sunday

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