Embracing Partnerships with Informal Settings to Enhance Teaching and Learning
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We recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create challenges for accessing and implementing informal learning opportunities for educators and learners. This article provides useful suggestions for engaging with informal learning settings both as the pandemic continues and for when more typical life and educating returns.
On a bright spring morning, Brittanie Moquin, a rural southeastern Ohio preschool teacher, leads her class of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children into the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery in Athens, Ohio. As she helps them hang up their jackets, she excitedly looks around the museum’s interdisciplinary exhibit space. While at the museum, children will learn about historical and modern-day treasure hunting and will engage in interdisciplinary activities to help them understand treasure hunting at sea.
Because of distance and a lack of funding, learning experiences outside her formal classroom can be hard to arrange. She reflects, “Unless the school arranges them, our children often do not get STEM experiences like this.” It is challenging for them because of their rural location and limited budget. Ms. Moquin acknowledges that children need experiences that allow them to get involved in ways that promote talking and movement.
Despite the obstacles, Ms. Moquin actively seeks accessible opportunities that offer interdisciplinary learning by involving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the arts, and more in a real-world context. Thanks to her recognition of the value of these sites and to her school’s commitment to providing these experiences, Ms. Moquin is able to create meaningful out-of-school learning that connects to in-class learning. In fact, when Ms. Moquin approached her principal about the possibility of taking preschoolers to this museum, the principal was immediately supportive of finding funding and arranging busing. The benefits of doing so are clearly recognized by both of them. She heads into the museum with excitement about what they will do there and what she can use in her classroom afterward.
With a commitment to informal learning opportunities like those at the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, children in Ms. Moquin’s class typically have several out-of-school learning experiences each year. Informal settings for learning are places that encourage free-choice activities, are inherently play-based, and emphasize experiential learning. In addition to museums, these places include parks, planetariums, botanical gardens, libraries, theaters, makerspaces, and community organizations and businesses. Visits can occur in person or virtually. Although informal learning experiences are often referred to as field trips, the term field trip does not fully capture the amount of learning that informal learning settings provide.
The challenges of accessing informal learning settings, coupled with decreased funding for such experiences, likely resonate with early childhood educators around the country. This article will provide research-driven, practical advice for how early childhood educators can partner with community-based organizations to utilize an integrated and developmentally appropriate approach to teaching and learning.
What Is the Value of Informal Settings?
The playful experiences young children have in informal settings can help them develop an understanding of STEM-related concepts while also inspiring questions to explore in the formal setting of the classroom. Additionally, the arts and humanities have always been an important part of the early childhood curriculum, making an interdisciplinary approach a natural and meaningful way for early childhood teachers to incorporate activities on a variety of subjects into their teaching. Identifying informal learning organizations that embrace this integrated approach can help to make seamless interdisciplinary connections.
When thinking about STEM-related content, for example, over the course of a person’s lifetime, as much as 95 percent of science learning may actually occur in informal settings (Falk & Dierking 2010). Concerningly, early childhood educators often report feeling unprepared to teach in the STEM content areas, which leads to decreased time dedicated to STEM topics in early childhood classrooms (Nesmith & Cooper 2019; Tao 2019). Informal settings have the potential to deepen teaching and learning in all content areas during the early childhood years. Yet for many educators, accessing informal learning experiences can be difficult. This is especially true for those in rural settings (Hartman, Hines-Bergmeier, & Klein 2017). Because children’s thinking and learning are enriched when they have engaging and content-rich experiences in the early years (Moomaw 2012), these barriers are troubling.
One challenge for both teachers and the staff who provide informal learning experiences is bridging the gap between classroom learning and the informal learning at places such as museums, libraries, and parks (Fallik, Rosenfeld, & Eylon 2013; Russell, Knutson, & Crowley 2013). Even though their frequency may vary, informal learning experiences can be designed to support curricular goals and objectives in more formal settings (Bell et al. 2009; Erdman 2016). To truly achieve effective cross-contextual learning, collaborative partnerships between school and community entities are essential (Bell et al. 2009; Russell, Knutson, & Crowley 2013; Goble, Wright, & Parton 2015).
When Ms. Moquin receives an email describing a new exhibit at the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, she immediately recognizes the value that the experience could provide to her children. She reaches out to the museum for more information, and from there, a conversation ensues to share more about her children, her curriculum, and what they might learn at this museum. Ms. Moquin thinks about the fact that they live about an hour from the state’s capital, which is where most of the big museums are. When she finds an opportunity that is 20 minutes from her school, she knows she wants to take her class. She spends some time talking with the museum’s education director about the activities that are planned because she wants to be sure they will be a good fit for the children in her classroom and their curriculum. She also wants to be able to talk with her children about the content before and after they attend.
Accessing Informal Learning Settings
As highlighted earlier, significant barriers like funding and distance make accessing informal learning sites challenging for educators of young children (Hartman & Hines-Bergmeier 2015). Several practices can help mitigate these obstacles.
Research Opportunities Near Your Setting
At first glance, some places, such as an environmental agency, may not seem appropriate for young children. However, with a phone call or email, teachers may discover that the organization offers educational programming for young children or that a scientist on staff is willing to show the children some of the agency’s work and answer questions. Taking time to inquire about nontraditional, informal learning sites is worth the payout in the potential learning returns. For example, Ms. Moquin regularly invites community organizations to partner with her. As she has shared, “We have a few local resources that have been wonderful. It’s amazing how many community members are willing to come to our school if I just ask them.”
Ask for Help with Costs
Informal learning sites may have grant funding to help pay for transportation and admission costs. If an educator or administrator inquires, these sites may be able to find funding for children to attend their programs. Additionally, early childhood educators may find funding through local nonprofits (like Kiwanis and Rotary clubs) and businesses that enjoy providing monetary support for the education of young children in their region. Importantly, places like parks, libraries, local businesses, and government agencies (like courthouses) typically have no costs associated with visiting them. If transportation can be arranged (by bus or by foot), these sites offer very affordable and meaningful experiences.
Bring Informal Learning to Early Childhood Settings
Many informal learning organizations are happy to “go on the road” to bring experiences to early childhood settings. If taking children to a science museum for an interactive insect exhibit is not possible, ask an entomologist to visit your school or program to take the children on a walk to learn about the insects they find. Growing plants is a common activity in many early childhood classrooms but visiting a greenhouse may not be possible. Instead, educators can invite a master gardener to talk to children (in person or virtually) about planting seeds, composting, and harvesting plants to eat. These kinds of activities provide rich content that teachers can build upon. Although there may still be a cost associated with these experiences, they are typically more affordable than an onsite visit.
In addition, more and more virtual options have become available. During the COVID-19 pandemic, outside visitors were prohibited in most schools and, at the same time, field trips were suspended. In response, many informal learning organizations worked overtime to continue providing educational programming. Visit informal organizations’ websites and social media pages for information about upcoming events and activities. Accessing virtual informal learning experiences has never been easier, and the content has never been better.
For example, the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery partnered with another local organization, Community Food Initiatives, to create “STEAM Packs for Students” that could be delivered to schools or delivered to homes for children doing virtual learning. Other informal learning organizations created virtual experiences such as library read alouds or “Meet the Author” events. These have been essential during the pandemic, and they also provide an accessible and sustainable delivery model during non-pandemic times.
Evaluating Developmental Appropriateness
Careful planning is essential to be sure that the experience is positive for all stakeholders (Tunks & Allison 2020). Important questions to ask include
- How long will children be expected to sit and listen? Will there be opportunities for active engagement?
- What activities are planned? What materials will children use during activities? Are there specific gross or fine motor skill expectations or potential hazards (including allergens)?
- Is the facility accessible for children with disabilities?
Keys to Effective Partnerships
Informal learning practitioners work hard to design and deliver positive learning experiences for young children, and they are eager to collaborate with teachers (Russell, Knutson, & Crowley 2013; Erdman 2016). Several practices may assist in developing and sustaining effective partnerships.
Teachers should communicate clear curricular needs. Informal learning practitioners are intent to make connections to classroom content, but they need to know ahead of time what a teacher’s goals and needs are. A planning conversation also provides an opportunity to explore approaches that effectively interweave multiple content areas for an interdisciplinary experience.
For example, the exhibit visited by Ms. Moquin’s class was themed around treasure hunting (from historical treasure hunting to modern-day cache-seeking). In preparation for the visit, museum staff and Ms. Moquin discussed possible activities to accompany the exhibit’s components. She shared that all children love the idea of searching for treasure, and she wanted them to use their imaginations while also incorporating science content. In response to this, the museum staff designed a saltwater activity so that children could mix and taste their own “ocean” water and then use it to explore buoyancy. Then, after witnessing children’s engagement during the activity, Ms. Moquin decided to continue the learning by setting up a sink-or-float experiment with a variety of materials in her classroom. With planning and collaborative discussions, educators at the informal learning site and in the early childhood program can effectively create cross-contextual learning experiences.
Teachers should be ready to get involved while they are at an informal event. Active engagement with the informal learning content will encourage children’s full participation and will help teachers recognize cross-contextual learning opportunities. For example, the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery regularly makes singing part of its educational programming. If a teacher joins in singing songs with museum staff, not only are children likely to be thrilled to see their teacher singing along, but the teacher is more likely to be able to sing the songs in the future.
Establish Shared Goals
Effective partnerships function best when involved parties hold similar goals about the nature of their work together. To develop shared goals with an informal learning educator, consider collaborating with the same learning setting several times over the year, and visits can be a mix of occurring at the early childhood setting, at the informal learning site, and virtual. For example, visiting the same park multiple times could encourage a park naturalist to develop programming related to bird behaviors. In the fall, children could discuss reasons for migration and migratory bird patterns; winter offers the opportunity to create bird feeders to allow for observation of bird identification and behaviors; and spring may prompt an exploration of nest making techniques and caring for nestlings. Many of these activities offer opportunities for cross-contextual activities, such as creating bird feeders for observation at the early childhood setting. If partners commit to working together for multiple events and have developed a shared purpose, effective collaboration is more likely to occur.
Persistence and Perseverance
Persistence in the face of challenges is often necessary, and successful collaboration is unlikely without persistence. Early childhood educators may feel bogged down by curricular expectations, which can leave them questioning if they can sacrifice precious instructional time for an informal learning experience. Yet, if teachers view informal learning experiences as opportunities to support children’s learning, they are likely to find it worth their time and effort to plan and find funding for these experiences. Persevering in overcoming these types of obstacles often results in rich and productive collaborative partnerships that benefit children’s learning.
By lunchtime, Ms. Moquin and her children are on the bus heading from the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery to a local park for the afternoon. As they ride, she can hear children chattering about their time at the museum. Reflecting on their treasure hunting experiences, she thinks about cross-contextual activities she can do in her classroom that will connect to what they just learned. She plans to experiment more with mixtures at the sensory table, read books that connect to what they learned at the museum, and incorporate cardboard boxes to create a giant ship in the dramatic play center.
Check out these articles for more information about informal learning for young children.
- “Museum Babies: Linking Families, Culture, and Community,” by Carla B. Goble, Sarah Wright, & Dawn Parton, featured in Young Children, July 2015
- “Creating Meaningful Partnerships with Museums,” by Sarah Erdman, featured in Young Children, March 2016
- “‘There’s a Hole in the Tree!’: Kindergartners Learning in an Urban Park,” by Melissa Fine, featured in Young Children, November 2018
- “Our Trip Down to the Bay: A Model of Experiential Learning,” by Karyn W. Tunks & Elizabeth Allison, featured in Young Children, September 2020
Bell, P., B.V. Lewenstein, A.W. Shouse, & M.A. Feder. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Erdman, S. 2016. “Creating Meaningful Partnerships with Museums.” Young Children 71 (1): 14–21.
Falk, J., & L. Dierking. 2010. “The 95 Percent Solution.” American Scientist 98 (6): 486–493.
Fallik, O., S. Rosenfeld, & B-S. Eylon. 2013. “School and Out-of-School Science: A Model for Bridging the Gap.” Studies in Science Education 49 (1): 69–91.
Goble, C.B., S. Wright, & D. Parton. 2015. “Museum Babies: Linking Families, Culture, and Community.” Young Children 70 (3): 40–47.
Hartman, S., & J. Hines-Bergmeier. 2015. “Building Connections: Strategies to Address Rurality and Accessibility Challenges.” Journal of Museum Education 40 (3): 288–303.
Hartman, S.L., J. Hines-Bergmeier, & R. Klein. 2017. “Informal STEM Learning: The State of Research, Access, and Equity in Rural Early Childhood Settings.” Journal of Science Education and Civic Engagement 9: 32–39.
Moomaw, S. 2012. “STEM Begins in the Early Years.” School Science & Mathematics 112 (2): 57–58.
Nesmith, S.M., & S. Cooper. 2019. “Engineering Process as a Focus: STEM Professional Development with Elementary STEM-Focused Professional Development Schools.” School Science and Mathematics 119 (8): 487–498.
Russell, J.L., K. Knutson, & K. Crowley. 2013. “Informal Learning Organizations as Part of an Educational Ecology: Lessons from Collaboration Across the Formal-Informal Divide.” Journal of Educational Change 14 (3): 259–281.
Tao, Y. 2019. “Kindergarten Teachers’ Attitudes Toward and Confidence for Integrated STEM Education.” Journal for STEM Education Research 2: 154–171.
Tunks, K.W., & E. Allison. 2020. “Our Trip Down to the Bay: A Model of Experiential Learning.” Young Children 75 (4): 6–12.
Photograph: Courtesy of the author
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Sara L. Hartman, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood and elementary education in the Department of Teacher Education at Ohio University. She is a cofounder of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery and currently serves as copresident of its board in Athens, Ohio. [email protected]
Jennifer Hines-Bergmeier, PhD, cofounded Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery and currently serves as copresident of its board in Athens, Ohio. She is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio University and, in addition to her medicinal chemistry research, has over 20 years of experience in hands-on museum educational programming and exhibit design. [email protected]