Immersion learning is often affiliated with learning a new language. You learn how to speak the language by living among those who are native speakers. This is how infants learn to speak. But, immersion learning also occurs in other settings.
We learn to cook by cooking.
We learn to drive by driving.
And, so on.
In fact, this is a way of life for unschoolers. We assume that a child will learn by doing. However, we don’t always live a lifestyle conducive to this. It’s easy to learn about animals and plants through farming. But, what if you don’t farm?
What if you live in an apartment in a small city?
Then, we need to be more intentional about setting up these types of experiences so our children benefit. I had to do a lot of this since we don’t farm (although we do engage in a lot of DIY urban homestead stuff). Nor do we road school or world school (I wish!). Here are some tips for how to set up immersion learning experiences, particularly for teens.
How to Set Up Immersion Learning Experiences
The availability of these experiences will, of course, depend on where you live. But, I hope these ideas stimulate your thinking about what’s possible. Many of these ideas are only suitable for teenagers because of labor laws and insurance issues. Most of them do not require your participation except for setting them up or researching them.
If you live near a city, check into their education programs. Some even have special programs specifically for homeschoolers. For example, check out the family and teen opportunities at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. These programs include internships, a fabrication lab, hands-on classes, learning labs and junior science cafes. These types of experiences provide a way for kids to immerse themselves in science beyond field trips. They work on projects with other students and use real equipment to create.
The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Brookfield Zoo, and many others in the Chicago area also offer immersion learning experiences. Students get opportunities to work alongside scientists, dig deep into museum collections, use cutting edge technology to create projects, present to the public, and teach others. If these museums offer such opportunities for teens, your local museums might, too. If they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to propose something that is mutually beneficial. Maybe your teen can help organize a collection while the curator teaches him more about the history behind the items.
Local Businesses and Veterinarians
A short veterinarian apprenticeship
My oldest daughter thought she might like to be a veterinarian. I thought that the best way for her to get an accurate idea of what veterinarians do would be to apprentice with one. So, I contacted an independent feline vet and arranged for my daughter to spend a week shadowing her. She got to witness a cat surgery and sit in on consults. My daughter loves cats and she learned a lot during that week. That immersion learning experience convinced her that a love for animals doesn’t necessarily mean you should become a veterinarian.
Setting up immersion learning experiences with local businesses
You can do this with virtually any independently owned business. What does your teen want to learn about? If it’s a food-related interest, that might be harder, but not impossible. Health codes usually won’t allow non-employees to work at bakeries or restaurants, but sometimes you can get a backstage tour. What about graphic design, computer repair, banking (again, maybe a tour), or other more hidden types of careers? What businesses in your area might be open to allowing your teen to shadow them for a week or two?
Be sure to talk to the manager or owner and tell them two things. One, highlight the skills or interest your teen already has. Talk about their maturity and their desire to explore possible careers. Next, propose a short time period, such as a week, so that it’s clear you’re asking for minimal commitment on their part. They might say no. But, they also might say yes. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.
Field Work/University Research Assistant
What if you live in a college town? Maybe you could reach out to one of the professors who just happens to be working on something of interest to your teen. Go to the university website and look up the academic departments. Usually, the majors and faculty members are listed there. For example, here is the Department of Biological Sciences page at Dominican University. It lists research, faculty, and department majors. Check out the research projects. Read about the faculty. Sometimes, opportunities are only open to university students. But, by talking directly with the faculty, you may be able to secure a week or two of an immersion learning experience for your teen. It never hurts to ask, just follow the recommendations from what I said when approaching businesses. No one wants to babysit your teen. They want to know how your teen’s involvement could benefit them or how it will encourage your teen to choose that career.
Travel/Missions as Immersion Learning Experiences
Many churches offer mission trips to those involved in their youth ministry, sometimes even to middle school students. Take advantage of those. Don’t be afraid to ask other family members to support your child’s opportunity. They will likely never get the chance to visit another country with a safe group of friends again. I have had the privilege of supporting a few of my friends’ children on such trips. The stories they tell!
One thing I will say about missions trips outside of your church family is to make sure you thoroughly vet the leadership and ask hard questions. Not all organizations offer the same experience. Some embrace very legalistic views on Christianity and border on abusive behavior in their training camps. Do your research and read criticisms when you do internet searches of organizations. Practice discernment and wisdom. Many, many teens have life-changing, awesome experiences, especially when they go with their church youth group friends. But, if they sign up for a program independent of their church family, be careful.
Forest Preserves or Other Nature Centers
I know that not everyone lives near natural areas open to the public. But, if you do, I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of outdoor play and how nature inspires new interests. Nature is the ultimate immersion learning experience. There’s no better way to learn science, art, and sometimes even math and literature concepts than out in nature. But, the woods are not the only natural playground. What about swamps, wetlands, rivers, oceans, lakes, mountains, deserts, open wild grasslands, and tropical areas? These, too, have many secrets to discover. It’s worth exploring what plants and animals make these places their homes.
Nature study and unstructured play come to mind for younger children, but what about our teens? Field work, the essence of scientific study, becomes the new “nature study.” Learning about famous scientists and their field work inspires new ways to see God’s creation and study it. Ask the naturalist at your local preserve or nature center (or even university extension office) if they offer opportunities for teens to do field work.
Volunteer/Service Work/Teaching Immersion Learning Experiences
Sometimes volunteering or teaching overlaps with some of the immersion learning experiences already discussed. For example, usually young people do some teaching on missions trips. And, museum opportunities or business apprenticeships are often unpaid volunteer positions. However, there are other volunteer opportunities. What about volunteering at a crisis pregnancy clinic or at a nursing home? Tutoring ESL students? Serving lunch at a homeless shelter? Maintaining gardens at a public park? Feeding and caring for animals at a rescue shelter? These experiences nurture compassion and selflessness in our teens.
In fact, I feel that service in your homeschool should be a priority. Most places love volunteers, but some have a minimum age requirement. So, when you call, ask about that and also ask specific questions about the exact volunteer duties, too. We don’t want to put our teens in uncomfortable situations.
Craft Fairs and Other Real World Projects
The last suggestion I have really emphasizes young people doing real things in the real world. If they make quilts, stuffed animals, wooden swords, carved spoons, or other handmade items (even digitally illustrated mugs qualify!), find a local craft fair through the newspaper or online and sign up. There’s usually a fee, but the experience of selling to real customers at a real event is priceless. Another way they can sell their items is through an Etsy shop. They can learn how to set up their own Etsy shop and operate an online business. What could be better? Or, get them involved in 4-H so they can participate in the state fair in a meaningful way. Maybe they are interested in computer-based projects. Help them set up a website and sell their products on Creative Marketplace.
Immersion learning experiences provide rich opportunities for our children to learn more about the world, the people in it, and mostly, about themselves. Be sure to incorporate these whenever possible even if you aren’t fully unschooling. The benefits will last a lifetime.