Tool 11: Expanding Your Project Framework and Making Learning Experiential

Researchers have written that school teaching environments are characterized by complexity, a fast pace and unpredictability (Clark and Peterson, 1986). Nonformal teaching and learning settings are no different. Those working in the nonformal setting need to consider many things to help ensure that good learning and development take place, and key among these considerations is a commitment to providing experiential learning. With your project goals and objectives in hand, supported by your knowledge of the research on human development and your respective content area, you’re in a good position to move ahead and develop a comprehensive curriculum framework that will work for the nonformal educational setting. This tool will help you consider your need for curriculum themes or units, a scope and sequence, and educational activities that are based in the experiential learning model.

Identifying Curriculum Themes or Units

To help organize your curriculum, think about the kinds of themes or units that apply to the goals and objectives you’ve identified. For a curriculum to reflect a meaningful experiential learning design, identify themes or units that are based on the interests, needs and characteristics of the learners, rather than simply on the content or subject matter (Horton et al., 1999).

An example of themes designed for children aged 5 to 12 can be found in Wild Over Work! A Helper’s Guide to Workforce Preparation Activities for Grades K-6:

  • Work Around Me - where children explore how they and the people around them work to "get the job done."
  • Work in My Community - where children learn about the people and jobs needed to make their communities function.
  • Work Around the World - where children learn about the similarities, differences and connections they have with work around the world.
  • Work in My Future - where children begin to explore career options and what they can do now to prepare for the future.

These themes (or units) emerged from the Wild Over Work! (WOW) goals (see Creating Goals and Objectives for a listing of the WOW! goals) and helped the design team working on this curriculum move ahead with developing learning activities related to each theme (and reflective of the project goals). The WOW! Activities, Curriculum Goals and Workforce Preparation Skills chart provides a nice representation of how the curriculum goals are reflected in the learning activities in each of the WOW! units. The chart also shows how the curriculum design team worked to ensure that the curriculum connected to SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) workforce preparations skills, competencies and foundation skills. If you identify goals or skills from significant organizations or agencies that you want to reflect or connect to within your curriculum, consider including a similar chart in your material.

Designing a Scope and Sequence

Some curriculum materials, like Wild Over Work, provide learning activities for a particular age group, while other curriculum projects provide learning activities across an age span.  For these projects, it’s helpful to develop a project scope and sequence. A scope and sequence chart illustrates the content of the curriculum by indicating the scope (content themes, units or major topics) on the horizontal axis and the sequence of the curriculum (the age groups of the target audience) along the vertical axis. The curriculum developer can then indicate on the chart the specific topics and learning activities that will take place for each age group under each theme or unit.

Creating Opportunities for Experiential Learning

Horton et al. (1999) discuss learning environments in which learners "are allowed to take responsibility for their own learning by applying skills that allow them to comprehend, appreciate and apply relevant content" (p. 4). Creating these kinds of environments and experiences within a developmentally appropriate framework is the goal of MSUE curricula.

To help "see" this approach, it’s helpful to look at the National 4-H Juried Curriculum Collection criteria for addressing experiential learning methodology:

  1. The instructional approach of the materials is experiential education. Through vital practice, young people actively learn, then share their experiences, reflect on its importance, connect it to real world examples, and apply the resulting knowledge to other situations.
    • Units, chapters or sections should be characterized by a "theme" that reflects both the content and the particular life skill set through which the content will be addressed.
    • Content should be organized along an experiential path. In its simplest form, a single experience is followed by reflection and then application.
    • A simple five-step cycle is also common. Content flows sequentially from one experiential mode to the next: experience; share; process; generalize and apply, all in the course of a single meeting or lesson.
    • The experiential path may also be more complex, continuing through several weeks of learning before the cycle is completed. The unit might be organized into independent areas of interest, with content flowing back and forth between experience and reflection until all content within an area is addressed. Content could then be collectively generalized and applied in an integrated fashion.
    • More depth of learning can often be achieved by approaching content with a series of experience and reflection steps that build on each other until the necessary experiential base has been established. The generalization mode may include the introduction of content necessary to bridge from individual experiences to the underlying principles. The apply mode should provide the actual use of targeted life skills in a different situation.
  2. Opportunities are included for involving volunteers and youth as partners in planning, implementing and evaluating the learning process. Ways are evident for the leader or teacher to intervene in the learning process; focusing, supporting, providing feedback, debriefing.
  3. Materials are user friendly, and identify the intended delivery mode(s) for the curriculum (for example, delivery modes or educational settings: organized clubs, special interest activities and short-term programs, day camps, overnight camping programs, individual study/mentoring/family learning programs, school age child care education programs, instructional TV and video, distance education, parent training, adult and teen volunteer training, staff development).

For additional information on creating and evaluating experiential learning activities, consult the following publications:

  • Developing Experientially Based 4-H Curriculum Materials, by Robert L. Horton, Suzanne Hutchinson, Susan J. Barkman, Krisanna Machtmes and Hannah Myers. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 1999.
  • Evaluating 4-H Curriculum Through the Design Process: Pilot Testing and Collecting Data for the National 4-H Jury Review Process, by Susan J. Barkman, Krisanna Machtmes, Hannah Myers, Robert L. Horton and Suzanne Hutchinson. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 1999.


  • Clark, C., & Peterson, P. (1986). Teacher thought processes. In M. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching. New York: Macmillan.
  • Ferrari, T.M. (1997). Wild over work: A helper’s guide for workforce preparation activities in grades K-6. Minneapolis, MN: 4-H Cooperative Curriculum System.
  • Horton., R.L., Hutchinson, S., Barkman, S.J., Machtmes, K., & Myers, H. (1999). Developing experientially based 4-H curriculum materials. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.
  • Pace, K., Howell, C., Kronenberg, M., & Reiter, M. (1999). Communications toolkit: Fun skill-building activities to do with kids. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Extension.
  • Posner, G. & Rudnitsky (1994). Course design: A guide to curriculum development for teachers. New York: Longman.

Last Updated: July 29, 2009; Last Reviewed: April, 2009
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