Budget cuts to Oklahoma public schools have many parents concerned about educational opportunities available to their children. And while that makes it a great time for parents to get more involved in local politics and school funding, parents should be encouraged to know their kids are learning all the time, not just in the classroom.
Jean Hendrickson, director emeritus for Oklahoma A+ Schools at University of Central Oklahoma, is a leading local expert on education. She said parents should always stay alert to how they can connect learning opportunities for their children in all types of settings.
"Here in the Oklahoma City area, there are so many amazing cultural partnerships and organizations standing ready to provide enrichment to our lives through their art forms and institutions," she said. "Teachers deserve the support of the community, and certainly the children deserve to have the enrichment. We cannot allow the shortfalls and short-sightedness of elected officials to handicap our children's right to a full, rich, educational opportunity."
She encouraged parents to be deliberate in pulling educational experiences into regular routines whenever possible. Research shows the value of context in learning, she said, so the more chances children have to connect an experience outside the classroom with something they learn inside the classroom, the more value a lesson has.
"Museums, performances, festivals and things like that truly bring learning to life for our children," Hendrickson said. "Let the kids be the guides in some of these things, especially if they are to places where you, as a parent, know the children are studying in school. They love being able to teach you, the parent, and show you how smart they are. But also be ready to bring surprising new learning to your kids, taking them places they might not ever experience in school but would still be a super way to bond with your kids and teach them something at the same time."
Hendrickson loves to see parents arrange developmentally-appropriate educational outings, but also feels routine outings like grocery store visits can be highly impactful to learning, as well.
"I love seeing parents with their children at the grocery store. Naming the vegetables, letting them touch them, talking to them about how cold the refrigerator section is, describing different colors, textures, etc.," she said. "It keeps the children engaged, deepens their understanding of the world, and shows them that they are valued participants."
Oklahoma is full of educational destinations to give kids insight to all types of things they can't learn in a classroom. Here are some great ideas to check out.
The Discovery Lab is a hit with families because of their events in addition to regular on-site museum attractions. For example, science demonstrations are hosted weekly and feature kid-friendly experiments that impress kids of all ages. Younger museum visitors enjoy events like the Dance & Sing Along (10:30 a.m. the second Monday of the month) where kids are encouraged to dance and test out different instruments.
A Museum Workshop is a do-it-yourself space open for kids to self-discover with a variety of recycled and re-purposed materials. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Learn more and see a complete schedule of upcoming events at www.discoverylab.org.
A lot of the learning to be had at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge can be done without ever getting out of the car. A road trip from Oklahoma City through the refuge property offers plenty of geology lessons. The rugged prairie landscape is bordered by two ranges of granite mountains offering young learners a chance to see terrain they can't experience in Oklahoma City. The landscape offers a history lesson, too. The granite walls offered protection to groups of Native Americans and in the 1800s the U.S. Cavalry decided to build Fort Sill on the edge of the Wichita Mountains because of the protection the surrounding canyons offered. It made perfect sense, then, for conservationists to use the land to protect herds of buffalo and other endangered species.
Drive through the refuge to help your kids learn all about the largest existing North American land mammal, the American bison. There are hundreds of them roaming the property, in addition to elk, prairie dogs and other critters that delight kids. An on-site visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and offers opportunities to learn more about the history of the refuge and the animals housed there.
The creators of this Stillwater children's museum believe kids play to learn, so don't expect to find any stuffy exhibits or hands-off galleries here. Everything offered at this museum is about playing and kids are encouraged to interact throughout the entire facility. Parents love that the WONDERtorium is one large, open space so kids of varying ages and interests can play separately while parents can easily watch. Popular exhibits include a simulated doctor's office, a general store and a crawl-through volcano. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Regularly scheduled events make for even more educational opportunities. Story times and science demonstrations are just a couple of the weekly events offered on-site. Visit www.okwondertorium.org to see a complete schedule of upcoming events.
A one-of-a-kind Oklahoma history lesson awaits at this complex of ancient buildings and artifacts. The village houses the only surviving Land Office from 1893, where young visitors can learn more about how early homesteaders legalized their claims and settled disputes. Another popular structure on-site is the Turkey Creek Schoolhouse. Kids love to get a glimpse at how students before them settled into just one small room for daily lessons. The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
What better way to learn about geology than by going underground for a tour of the largest natural gypsum cave in the world that's open to the public? A guided cavern tour is offered here every hour on the hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily. Young visitors can follow a lit path as they learn all about gypsum and unique rock formations and maybe even see some bats.
While you're there, take advantage of other learning opportunities with a hike through the 200-acre park. Northwest Oklahoma offers different terrain and wildlife than you might see in other regions of the state and there are opportunities for education at every turn.
This barely scratches the surface of ways your children can learn outside the classroom throughout Oklahoma. For more ideas, visit our Exploring Oklahoma with Children page.