Research Summary

Intergenerational learning at a nature center: families using prior experiences and participation frameworks to understand raptors

Family Learning Processes in Informal Contexts

Environmental Education Research

Families are the most common group visiting informal EE centers. Children’s learning in informal environmental education contexts, therefore, is likely to be affected by their interactions with their families. However, few studies have examined the way that families interact and collectively learn in informal EE contexts. This study examined how families interact and coordinate thinking in conversations and activities at a nature center. The authors specifically sought to address two questions about the processes families use in learning: (1) how do families use prior experiences and knowledge in relating to EE topics, and (2) how do family members interact with each other during conversations about EE topics to enable children in learning?

To understand family interactions and learning in informal EE settings, the authors video-recorded, surveyed, and interviewed participants attending 20 “Meet the Birds of Prey” shows at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Petersburg, Pennsylvania. The show features eagles, hawks, and owls brought out of their cages by trained center volunteers. Audience members get a chance to see these birds up close and ask questions about them. The authors also asked family participants to draw images together of a raptor and its habitat. This allowed the authors to examine the social interactions between family members when working on a collaborative task. Overall, 203 participants were surveyed, and 23 individuals were interviewed. Video recordings of the family members interacting with the show and completing the drawing task were transcribed and analyzed. This analysis was focused on the various techniques used within families for negotiating and developing meaning and ensuring all group members contributed.

Through their analysis, the authors found that prior family experiences, particularly experiences in the outdoors, with media, and at other informal education venues, were important for family learning. Often, one family member would bring up a memory of a prior family experience, such as a visit to a zoo or a sighting of a hawk in their backyard, to engage other family members in learning discussions. This sharing of prior knowledge enabled individual learning to become social learning within the family, which helped families create common ground to work together on their drawings of the raptor.

The authors also found that several families used specific ways of structuring conversations that allowed for disagreements to be addressed, all family members to be valued in conversations, and collaborative ideas to develop. For example, when drawing the raptor, parents often encouraged children to contribute by double-checking children’s reasoning behind why they chose to portray something in the picture, and asking for children’s consent before drawing something new. The authors also found that parents were often concerned with emphasizing family harmony, so much so that they would, in some cases, relinquish their insistence on scientific accuracy in learning. Finally, the authors found that parents structured conversations so that family members were building off each other’s sentences, a process that enabled the creation of collaborative ideas that built on the different family members’ ecological knowledge.

Based on these findings, the authors offer several suggestions for educators, curriculum developers, and researchers seeking to maximize family learning in informal EE settings. First, they suggest that educators can incorporate prompts into EE programs that may elicit families’ prior experiences in outdoor settings, in other EE settings, or with the media or books. Second, the authors suggest that future work may examine how environmental educators can help families engage in the types of conversations that enable students to become active participants in collaborative learning. In conclusion, the authors suggest that understanding the learning processes within families is essential for informal EE, given that families are the most prevalent group in such contexts.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the processes used by families for learning in informal environmental education (EE) contexts is important for maximizing children’s learning. Families often use prior experiences to create common ground to enable collaborative learning to occur. In addition, families can structure their conversations in certain ways to enable children to become valued participants in the learning environment. Informal EE programs may benefit by providing prompts that elicit families’ prior experiences in the outdoors, with media, or with other informal EE environments. Environmental educators may also facilitate children’s learning by suggesting that families engage in discursive patterns of dialogue so that students can participate as contributors of knowledge in the family learning process.