Experiential learning from athletics, arts and cultural activities helps to create well-rounded and successful students
Education has historically been structured by making a sharp distinction between formal curriculum and everything else that happens in school but not in classrooms, such as sports, clubs and musical ensembles, says Christopher Domenic Federico, assistant head of upper school and assistant head of academics at Bayview Glen School, a university preparatory day school with two campuses in Toronto.
“While we might have acknowledged that these activities were worthwhile in some way, we would not have included them as part of the core teaching and learning function of the school,” he says. “This sentiment was perhaps best reflected in the term we used to describe these types of outside-the-classroom activities: ‘extracurricular’ …because they were perceived as both exclusive of and additional to what we regarded as the ‘real’ curriculum.
“What we know now, however, is that these activities are far from extras,” he says.
Many private schools believe true experiential learning goes well beyond the classroom and both enriches and complements a formal curriculum.
“They allow students to immerse themselves in meaningful activities about which they are truly passionate – so, not extracurricular, but ‘co-curricular’,” Federico says.
Private schools offer a wealth of outside-the-classroom activities and programs, in which students are encouraged to bring forward ideas that they are passionate about. That, in turn, helps to create new programs or clubs at the school. Many private schools also have active mentorship programs that include alumni to help prepare students for post-secondary education and beyond.
At St. Michael’s College School, an independent Catholic school for young men in Toronto, on the first day of school, Grade 7 and Grade 9 students are taken to Outdoor and Experiential Education Camps in Haliburton, Ont. There they take part in a variety of activities that promote personal growth and bonding opportunities with their peers, student leaders and teachers. According to David Lee, the school’s vice-principal, community and learning partnerships that are often tied to courses connect students to professionals in a variety of areas, including law, architecture and engineering.
“The aim is to provide real-world and authentic learning experiences,” he says. St. Michael’s offers more than 60 clubs and activities and 56 athletic teams. “We provide a number of leadership and mentorship opportunities within the school. Older students can serve as leaders at our camps, prefects and ambassadors for our prospective students. Younger students can receive mentorship and eventually provide it themselves. Older students are connected to alumni who can support their growth and development as they transition to post-secondary education and their careers.
“From the very beginning, even before they begin in September, students are told to get involved,” Lee says. “A holistic education is our priority as it offers the best potential for growth.”
John Walsh, Lee’s colleague and head of community and learning partnerships at St. Michael’s, says student participation and successes are shared via video announcements, on television monitors around the school, on the school website and in publications, which incentivizes other students when they see peers being successful.
Every year at Lakefield College School, in Lakefield, Ont., northeast of Toronto, students are required to participate in a minimum of one athletic and one artistic (or cultural) co-curricular program. And with more than 60 competitive and recreational sports, arts and culture programs, there are plenty of options to choose from. Lakefield implemented a new modular schedule that was designed so that students have the time and flexibility to seek out new learning experiences.
“Experiences within these programs are often transformative for students, leaving them with the confidence and skills they will carry for life such as teamwork, effective communication, leadership, and critical thinking,” says Anne-Marie Kee, head of school and foundation at Lakefield College School, which is a co-ed boarding and day school. “We encourage our students to be leaders who care, connect, and contribute – in their classes, amongst their peers, in the local community, and beyond.”
According to Gaynor Samuel, executive director of admissions at Shawnigan Lake School, on Shawnigan Lake on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, these types of activities encourage young people “to look outside of the box.”
“We want to take them outside of their comfort zone and, more often than not, they select a sport or a fine art that they’ve actually never had experience with in the past,” she says. “From the hockey player who has a lead role in the school musical to the ballet dancer who plays rugby … this is what Shawnigan is about.”
Samuel says that the dorm experience at Shawnigan Lake, which accommodates 55 to 60 boys or girls of varying ages from countries all over the world, is important as well. There they have a “big brother” or “big sister” when they come in as a new student, which helps to foster positive initial impressions and prepare them for university and beyond.
“Then they develop that confidence that is nurtured in them and is instilled by their coaches, instructors, or teachers, that then equip them with a confidence that is going to take them to the next level,” she says. “And in this way we are future-proofing our students.”
Nigel Mayes, assistant head of co-curricular programs, agrees. “We’re creating areas that kids can be so passionate about, not only in terms of their own growth but also the success of the whole, the success of the group.”
At Holy Name of Mary College School, an independent Catholic school for girls in Mississauga, Ont., flex time is built into part of the day to allow for a variety of activities. Motion Monday focuses on mental and physical health and well-being. There’s the TAP (Teacher Advisor Programme), in which students work on personal development goals in a mentorship program. Innovation Time is designated time to develop a year-long passion project.
Carrie Hughes-Grant, head of school at Holy Name of Mary, says the majority of students from Grade 5 through to Grade 12 are actively involved in the school’s co-curricular programming.
“It is the centre of our strategic plan and the centre of our day,” she says.
“We aim to develop the whole girl so she can discover her best self and bring this person along every day for the learning. Everything is a learning opportunity. We want her to be ready for beyond the walls of HNMCS, beyond her post-secondary plans and right into the working world so that she can become a leader of the next generation. What has been really neat to experience is that our students who have been so actively involved in this programming go off to university and continue to take on leadership roles in student-led clubs and teams, intramurals and program-specific councils.”
Core competencies that private school students emerge with are independence and resiliency. That’s certainly the case at Brentwood College School, a co-ed boarding school in Mill Bay, B.C., says Clayton Johnston, director of admissions. Being at a boarding school, away from parents and family, and comfort zones, demands grit, he says.
“We have heard countless stories of graduates who, in their first year at university, feel light years ahead of students that have left home for the first time,” he says. “They see themselves as well-suited and ready to handle the rigours of university life.”
At Bayview Glen, clubs and co-curricular activities are also valuable ways for students to become involved in social activism. The school has several student-led organizations that engage in advocacy and education, in such areas as the environment, rights for women and girls, the LGBTQ+ community and anti-racism.
Lakefield College School also has a THRIVE program, which is based on physical well-being, positive psychology and lifelong habits, as well as Leadership, Character, Values initiatives, which provide opportunities at every grade level to develop the student confidence and behaviours, habits and practices needed for personal and community well-being.
It’s all about encouraging students to be their best overall selves, say Nancy Richards, head of school, and Chantal Gionet, head of academics and innovation, at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School in Oakville, Ont.
“We create an environment where students learn to take risks, learn from mistakes, and embrace rigorous and authentic learning opportunities,” Richards says. “This care and attention to developing the whole person, in turn, allows students to build their confidence, find their passions, achieve excellence in whatever path they choose.”
St. Mildred’s strives to develop what it calls 21st-century skills – communication, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, character and citizenship.
“These competencies encompass compassion, empathy, socioemotional learning, entrepreneurialism, an innovative mindset,” Gionet says. “Through all of these learning opportunities, our students develop key attributes such as grit, resilience, integrity, empathy, curiosity and humility, which equip them for life long after their school days.”
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