To my way of thinking, there are three kinds of experiences:
First hand experiences: Frogs give great learning. If you build a pond, they will come. They just will. Give them shelter, and they will lay their eggs. Children can see and touch the frogspawn, watch the tadpoles grow, and turn into tiny frogs. Nothing can replace this kind of experience. Frogs are the ultimate learning resource – they are multi-sensory, they help a child conceptualise time, they show the living world in all its glory. All a parent or teacher has to do is share the knowledge, the human words for these things: frogspawn, tadpoles, amphibians … You explain how they grow as the child actually experiences it.
Second hand experiences: These immerse the child, at arm’s length. We just did a triple hit: Imperial War Museum Duxford, Natural History Museum and Science Museum. Pow! Take that! What I love is that so many of these places incorporate (almost) first hand experiences where they can. Watching a hydrogen filled balloon explode is a great way to spark an interest in how rockets work (with a side helping of Newton’s Laws explained in a child friendly way). Wonderful stuff. Especially if you both get chosen as volunteers 🙂
Abstract experiences: I was going to say ‘third hand experiences’, but that sounds a bit rude. And I was brought up to be polite. Abstract experiences is the better term, anyway. They are what the human consciousness is made for. We can create symbolic language and number systems and explain the science of the natural world. This is a powerful feat of abstraction. We can create pieces of art that explain our intuitive, even spiritual reading of the world. This is a powerful feat of imagination. We are amazing creatures and we are right to celebrate it . (We have our downsides as well, but I’m not going to contaminate this friendly post with negativity.)
Knowledge, and its buddy Understanding, live inside all these kinds of experiences. They just come at you in different ways. If you never have that first hand experience, it’s really hard to ‘get’ the abstract ones. Early years practitioners do this stuff. It’s their bread and butter. Teachers do this stuff, using second hand experiences to help children reach the point of abstraction, especially for those who have missed out. You’ve just got to take an abstract concept (metaphor, forces, algebra) and find a concrete example to explain it. Not all the time, that’d be impossible (a.k.a. ‘absolutely wonderful’), but often enough please.
Children can’t go straight to abstract thinking if they don’t have the base of experiences. This is why time spent with family can be such a powerful force. C’mon parents – it’s end of term, it’s our time now. Do everything you possibly can.
Forget knowledge being the base of the pyramid, I vote for experiences instead.