Enhancing Environmental Education through Shared Family Memories

McClain, L. R., & Zimmerman, H. T. (2016). Memories on the Trail: Families Connecting Their Prior Informal Learning Experiences to The Natural World During Nature Walks. Journal Of Interpretation Research, 21, 21 - 42.

In today's world, people can learn about science in a variety of informal settings, such as museums, afterschool programs, and outdoor spaces. However, the factors contributing to long-term learning in these informal settings are vast, complicated, and not widely understood. This study's researchers set out to examine some of those factors by considering how memories, conversations, and social interactions among family members influence learning during an informal nature walk.

Previous research suggests that, if educators prompt students to remember, thinking about past experiences can enhance learning. This happens because memories can influence how an individual derives meaning from an experience. Called “meaning-making,” this study's researchers applied the process to a broader social unit, focusing on how families make meaning from a nature-walk experience through conversations about past informal learning experiences.

The researchers collected data at the Shaver's Creek Environmental Center (SCEC). They followed 16 families, which included 54 individuals of varied ages. Families participated in short, guided hikes during which researchers listened for conversations about memories of informal learning experiences. The researchers recorded those conversations and analyzed them to see how memories may have influenced learning on the trail.

To analyze the data, researchers categorized the type of places that families discussed when recalling past informal learning experiences. Categories included everyday experiences, such as gardening; organized programs for science learning, like Boy Scouts; designed spaces, such as museums or aquariums; and science media. The researchers then traced pathways that connected those memories to the nature walk.

The results suggested that families were able to derive more meaning from objects and concepts on the nature walk when they related the objects and experiences to a memory. One study participant, for example, connected an observed plant to one he had seen in his backyard. Children were likely to connect the nature walk to past learning experiences during the SCEC camp.

Overall, this study's results confirm that family discussions of memories, and connecting those memories to present experiences, can enhance learning in informal educational settings. By tracing the connection between memories and meaning-making in informal settings, this study highlights the importance of connecting with past experiences in environmental education. This emphasizes the value of memories in making meaning on the trail, even if those memories are from months or years past.

The Bottom Line

<p>Informal learning experiences are most effective when they build on one another. When participants draw on the past to make meaning of their current experience, especially in a social context or setting, they learn and retain more. If environmental educators help participants draw upon their memories to enhance meaning-making in informal settings, educational programs can be more powerful catalysts of long-term environmental learning.</p>