Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 21, Number 2

Memories on the Trail: Families Connecting Their Prior Informal Learning Experiences to The Natural World During Nature Walks

Lucy R. McClain, Ph.D.

Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center
Penn State University

Heather Toomey Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Penn State University
College of Education


This study examined the importance of memories of informal learning experiences as families shared their prior experiences during meaning-making talk during nature walks. The families’ memories came from previous visits to interpretive sites and were used to shape their observations of the natural world during conversations in the outdoors. Using ethnographic data collection and thematic analysis, findings are first presented through one family case study, then across all 16 participant families. Three findings include: (1) for one family, prior informal learning experiences provided an essential learning tool for making meaning together during their hike; (2) across the dataset, when families observed the landscape along the trail, they often connected memories gleaned from previous visits to the nature center, while encounters with natural objects sparked memories originating from other informal learning sites; and, (3) children most often recalled prior visits to the nature center, while parents made connections to other settings. This study revealed that families’ personal memories were salient—months and even years later—as they attempted to make meaning with new experiences on the trail. Our work suggests that informal learning spaces that provide the opportunity to make previous connections to life experiences can have a long-term impact on families’ new understandings about the environment.


meaning making, prior knowledge, prior experience, memory, family learning, environmental education, informal education, outdoor education

Over the past decade, research attention is being placed on the potential of out-of-school learning settings—including naturalistic settings—to provide profound experiences for science learners of all ages (National Research Council, 2009; 2015). Researchers (Falk & Dierking, 2010) find that the majority of the United States’ population learns about science topics through out-of-school settings (such as museums, zoos, science centers, and nature centers), and through media (including the Internet, television, print and online books). Additionally, informal-based learning is often accomplished socially with friends or family members as learning partners (Dierking & Falk, 1994). When surveying 334 adults regarding their memories of being in the outdoors as a child (Waite, 2007), a prominent feature of these memories was the inclusion of a sibling, parent, or grandparent. Furthermore, research has shown that family groups comprise the largest visiting social group to outdoor-based U.S. national parks (Falk & Heimlich, 2009; Forist, 2003), while a similar pattern of high levels of family visitation has been documented in museums, aquariums, and zoos (Falk & Dierking, 2000; Smithsonian Institution, 2004). Given these understandings of where, when, and with whom informal learning occurs, our research was motivated to learn more about the role of prior experiences in interpretive, informal learning settings as being supportive for family group’s future understandings and meaning-making talk about the natural world during outdoor learning.

This analysis, which is part of a larger outdoor-based family learning project (Zimmerman & McClain, 2014), delves deeply into the role of experiences in informal learning settings and how these past experiences influence new meaning-making talk during outdoor activities, such as nature walks. In addition, this article’s analytic focus on family learning in outdoor settings through the verbal recall of prior experiences is an important means for understanding how the most populous social group to informal education spaces (Falk & Dierking, 2000) learns together through their talk. For our study, we sought to better understand the role of families’ memories from prior visits to interpretive sites in supporting new environmental learning and meaning-making talk within the out-of-doors. As such, the findings presented here draw from data collected using ethnographic methods to represent how 16 participant families (54 people) shared personal memories during nature walks in order to make new meaning of the surrounding flora and fauna.

Theoretical Framework

We approach our investigation of the role of memories as a meaning-making tool to support informal learning with a sociocultural view of learning, which acknowledges the influence that the setting, people, and tools within a learning event have on an individual’s understandings of the world (Vygotsky, 1978). We take a holistic view of learning building from the National Research Council’s report (2009), which reviewed the research and evaluation literature on informal science learning. Learning in this view is making meanings or the process by which people make sense of a new experience. Prior knowledge comes to the forefront of that meaning-making experience as a tool to filter and organize the new information (Ignelzi, 2000). At the core of meaning making, an individual creates their own meaning from an event; however, the process of meaning making is often social (Ansbacher, 2002)—meaning making is facilitated through discussions with other people, objects, and tools available to the learner. Interpreting the world and making meaning of new experiences is something we encounter every day, but we each approach new events armed with our own cultural beliefs, values, and knowledge to shape those experiences. This process leads to the formation of unique connections made between different contexts for learning, and therefore personalized meaning with each new experience we encounter.

Informal learning occurs within a “broad array of settings” that provide opportunities for science learning outside of school (National Research Council, 2009, p.1). Learning experiences include visits to museums or zoos, participation in summer camps or clubs, and everyday activities such as gardening, hiking, or fishing (Falk & Dierking, 2000; National Research Council, 2009). While much research in the field of interpretation looks to understand learning within one educational intervention or setting, our research takes a different approach: we examine learning at one environmental center in order to understand the role of episodic memories (Tulving, 1972) gleaned from a variety of other informal learning settings that support families’ meaning-making talk related to the natural world. Given our research goals, the framework employed here draws from previous work in interpretation research related to the role of meaning-making talk, memories, and family learning in informal science education settings to understand how prior experiences shape new family learning opportunities, each of which are described in more detail in the following sections.

Episodic Memories Shared in Family Conversations to Make Meaning During Informal, Outdoor-based Learning Experiences
All new learning experiences are shaped by learners’ previously constructed understandings of the world (Rennie & Johnston, 2004). Learning is not simply a process of information acquisition; instead, it is a socio-cultural process whereby new information is considered alongside one’s prior knowledge and experiences—often in social groups. Roschelle (1995) aptly illustrates the importance of prior experiences to learning when he asserts that, “Prior knowledge determines what we learn from experience” (p. 38). Correspondingly, when considering the processes of visitors’ learning and meaning-making talk at interpretive sites, prior knowledge is inherently tied into the visitors’ on-site discussions.

Episodic memories are important for out-of-school learning
When prior knowledge is stimulated during a new learning event, it can take the form of memories from previously experienced activities. In this study, we focus on personal memories that are shared with others when the memories are spoken aloud during intergenerational conversations—which are called episodic memories (Tulving, 1972). Our focus on episodic memories contrasts from a focus on the cognitive view of internal memory recall, which does not readily regard the social nature of meaning-making conversations with memory sharing. As has been suggested by interpretation researchers (Knapp, 2006; 2007), Tulving’s long-term memory theory (1972) provides a theoretical basis for analyzing the effects of long-term recollections of informal programs. Since a major goal of interpretive programming is to connect visitors to resources through short-term attention factors, knowledge, and long-term memories of the program (Benton, 2009), Tulving’s memory theory is apt for better understanding informal learning processes and outcomes.

Tulving (1972) describes episodic and semantic memory systems as both being able to receive information, retain various aspects of this information, and transmit particular information to other systems. More specifically, Tulving (2002) connects the episodic memory system with the act of remembering personal experiences and “happenings in particular places at particular times” (p. 3). Regarding interpretive programs, Knapp (2006) suggests that when a learner feels a personal connection to the content, vivid episodic memories are more likely to be formed. The semantic memory system, on the other hand, is related to disciplinary, conceptual knowledge (i.e., knowing), rather than reminiscing about a personal experience. Semantic memories need not recount a specific time or place where that knowledge was developed (Tulving, 2002). Knapp (2007) suggests that well-executed interpretive programs provide experiences that encourage both episodic and semantic memory development. In our research, we focus on episodic memories given their role as meaning-making tools within family conversations.

Family learning in informal settings
While Knapp’s (2007) and Tulving’s research (2002) on episodic memories has helped to inform best practices in the field of interpretation, we adapt their ideas so that episodic memory is aligned to a social view of learning. Memories are important to families in informal settings because families bring their own cultural histories, patterns of dialogue, and interests to each new learning setting (Ellenbogen, Luke, & Dierking, 2004). Previously shared experiences shape the development of new knowledge (Bell & Linn, 2002), and similarly, when family groups visit informal education sites, they connect personally relevant experiences to new concepts they encounter together, while they also rely on one another to explore new ideas.

Researchers argue that learning can be analyzed through visitor’s spoken connections between the previous and current learning experiences (Rennie & Johnston, 2004). Through talk, people connect prior experiences to that of the new experience (Falk & Dierking, 2000; Rennie & Johnston, 2004). More specifically, Rennie and Johnston posit that:

Visitors learn during a museum visit based on their recollection of previous information and experiences evoked by the exhibits, enabling them to construct new understanding, or a different way of thinking or acting. Learning involves making links to, or between, previously separate ideas, or the potential to make new links in the future (2004, p. S7).

Consequently, the verbally shared episodic memories are connections between informal learning sites that serve as evidence for learning. As families discuss and develop shared understandings and construct meaning together (Ash, 2003; Crowley et al., 2001; Ellenbogen et al., 2004), episodic memories facilitate the learning process. Indeed, prior research with families in the outdoors (McClain & Zimmerman, 2014) has observed families using prior experiences as meaning-making tools within conversations pertaining to the natural world. Given the findings of this previous work, our theoretical lens is based on the personal episodic memories shared between family members in order to understand the (a) catalysts for these conversations and (b) roles that parents and children take on during these meaning-making conversations.

Research Questions

Based on our review of the literature and associated theoretical framework, our research was guided by three questions:

  1. What was the variety of prior informal learning experiences that one family connected to the natural world in order to make meaning during their nature walk?
  2. What personal, episodic memories from prior informal, interpretive learning settings, such as designed spaces and programs for science learning, were brought up in families’ conversations during a nature walk as a means of connecting to the natural world? What sparked families to share these episodic memories during the nature walk?
  3. What was the social dimension of sharing episodic memories from prior informal learning experiences during the nature trail experience for parents and children?

Setting and Participants

This research project took place in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States at an environmental center affiliated with a large research university. Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center (SCEC) has a year-round staff that conducts community-based programs and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses for the university. The property of SCEC, where this study took place, includes an indoor exhibit room with environmental-themed displays and live amphibians and reptiles; an outdoor Raptor Center with over 20 non-releasable birds of prey on display; and many kilometers of hiking trails. The hiking trails are set within a mixed hardwood forest with a wetland and multiple streams.

We recruited 16 families, consisting of 54 individuals, to participate in our study. All families included at least one child between the ages of 3 and 15. Six families participated with one child, and ten families participated with multiple children; one grandmother and one aunt also participated. Parental occupations ranged from academic positions to stay-at-home parenting to service and restaurant jobs. Children attended public, private, and home-based schools. 

Twelve different SCEC-hosted nature walks, which were led by seasonal interns (as trail guides) and ranging from 45 minutes to two hours in length, were included in our data; some families were grouped together. Eight of the 16 families participated in these group hikes with multiple families, while the remaining eight families participated in individual hikes where they were the only participating families. All of the consented families were similar in that they were moderately familiar with science, had a strong interest in the natural world, and all enjoyed being outside together, as described during their post-hike interviews with the researchers.


In our study, we leveraged ethnographic data collection and analysis methods in order to collect naturally occurring conversations. This type of naturalistic observation technique is used to provide researchers with a view into the meaning-making strategies families use in situ (e.g., Allen, 2002; Ash, 2003). In our study, episodes were selected for analysis when families spontaneously discussed previous informal learning experiences in order to make sense of the natural surroundings. Interpretation research methodologies have traditionally included post-program interviews and pre- and post-test surveys in order to elucidate the episodic memories of program participants (e.g., Knapp, 2006; Waite, 2007); however, we were not assessing any particular program, nor were we explicitly asking the learners to share memories from previous interpretive programs. Instead, we analyzed if, how, and when family groups connected previous learning experiences to the out-of-doors in an unprompted manner.

Data Collection
The research team acted as participant-observers during the study with one researcher hiking alongside the families and the second researcher following the families at a distance with the video camera during the hike. A child from each of the 16 consented families wore a wireless microphone. In the event that the consented families encountered non-consented families during a hike, the researchers only videotaped the consented families and their resulting conversations. Audio from the microphones was wirelessly streamed into the video cameras and was subsequently monitored by the videographer to ensure sound clarity of the dialogue (Allen, 2002). In addition, field notes and photographs of the families’ actions were taken by the research team to supplement the primary video data source.

Data Preparation
The families’ video recordings were compressed for transcription. During transcription, the researchers retained the actual speech used by the family members, including “um,” and slang terms, such as “cuz” and “yeah.” We examined the families’ conversations to better understand what types of episodic memories from informal learning settings were explicitly connected to the setting of the nature trail. Our work focused on the conversational processes (as a proxy for thinking) on the trail rather than on the learning outcomes in order to identify the types of prior informal learning experiences that were most salient, or enduring, for families. Additionally, we were not analyzing for scientific accuracy into the families’ comments; instead, we were interested in what nature trail encounters sparked them to connect a memory from a previous informal learning experience. On the transcripts, overlapped (interrupted) talk between two individuals was marked with double slashes [//] for both speakers. Bold font indicates our application of our analysis to the transcripts with regard to our coding schemes.

Data Analysis
The first author led the coding and analysis efforts for this research study. When coding transcripts, conversational episodes (rather than individual utterances) related to episodic memories were the unit of analysis from which themes were developed (detailed in following sections). For example, when a family member brought up a prior experience that was subsequently discussed between the family members, that specific memory was only coded once. Additionally, memories expressed were analyzed within their full conversational context, rather than as isolated elements. To understand the social dynamics around the sharing of memories, it was noted what prompted the sharing of a memory and who recalled a previous experience; therefore, further coding for adult-prompted conversations and child-prompted conversations occurred.

Code Frameworks
Our overall coding and analysis work had two foci: (1) one case study family and their connections between previous learning experiences from a variety of informal science settings with observations made on the nature trail and (2) all 16 participant families and their episodic, or experiential-based memories from interpretive sites used to connect and make meaning with flora and fauna seen during the nature walk.

Coding the case study analysis of one family
We first developed a case study to provide an overall picture of the variety of informal learning settings that influence families’ understandings of the world around them as evidenced by the conversations where those settings were referenced (McClain & Zimmerman, 2014). The Long family was selected from the 16 families in the overall study because of the frequency and diversity of prior informal learning experiences they discussed during their nature walk.

The Long family participated in a two-hour long nature walk at the environmental center. The family consisted of Allison (mother), Matt (9 years old, 3rd grade) and Kyle (6 years old, kindergarten) (names throughout are pseudonyms). At the time of the study, Allison was a pharmacist and her husband was a police officer. Matt and Kyle had extensive experience with the study’s environmental center: the boys had attended the Center’s summer camps, and their elementary school classes had participated in field trips to the Center. While the Long family frequently visited the Center, they were not heavy trail users for nature walks.

Case study code framework
Four broad categories of prior experiences emerged from the transcript data and were finalized based on previously defined settings for informal science learning (McClain & Zimmerman, 2014; NRC, 2009):

  1. everyday experiences (e.g., gardening, activities within the families’ home)
  2. programs for science learning (e.g., Boy/Girl Scouts, summer camp programs)
  3. designed spaces (e.g., museums, aquariums, nature centers)
  4. science media (e.g., Internet, science-based television shows, books)

These four coding categories were used to analyze the Long family’s conversations during their nature walk. As a result, this first, broader level of coding provided an overall sense of the diversity of resources that families tapped into and connected with during their nature walks; the application of this coding scheme across all 16 consented families is reported in a previous study (McClain & Zimmerman, 2014). Here, we use this coding framework to motivate a more detailed analysis into the role of out-of-school settings as episodic memories within meaning-making talk as described in the second level of analysis below.

Analyzing across the dataset of 16 families
The second level of analysis included all 16 families in order to focus specifically on memories gleaned from the informal learning sites related to the field of interpretation and how these sites emerged in the families’ learning conversations as meaning-making tools and points of reference. During this deeper stage of analysis, the families’ conversations were coded with a specific focus on two of the categories from the case study’s coding scheme that related specifically to settings pertaining to the field of interpretation: programs for science learning and designed spaces.

Code framework across all families
Once we identified (a) programs for science learning and (b) designed spaces as the two learning settings that could also be considered to be interpretation-led sites, we further divided these two categories to include five subcategories as shown in Table 1.

Next, a second pass was made of the dataset from all 16 families after it was coded to better understand the value of out-of-school settings to new learning. Using a thematic analytic approach, each of the coded categories was iteratively read to develop themes related to sharing memories, family learning, and the role of interpretive sites on new informal learning experiences. The research team looked for confirming and disconfirming evidence, as well as for themes that were particular to individual families and were pervasive throughout our dataset.

Methodological Strengths and Weaknesses
Our goal for this study was to understand the kinds of experiences that were expressed aloud as personal memories, which were relevant to learners’ meaning making during trail walks. As such, we employ conversational analysis (Allen, 2002; Ash, 2003) to understand how prior experiences mediate new learning about the natural world. Consequently, this study advances the interpretation research field’s understanding of families’ meaning-making processes with our approach to examining how families learn together as they recall prior informal learning experiences. While our work portrays the richness of family learning conversations as they occurred in situ, it is not our intention to generalize our findings to all families who attend interpretive-led learning sites. Rather, we (a) demonstrate how ethnographic research methods can be applied to the interpretation research field and (b) advance learning theory with regard to the role of prior experiences in shaping new science-related understandings among family groups.

A limitation in studies of this kind is people’s awareness of the researchers’ cameras. While we acknowledge that the presence of the researchers and video cameras may have influenced the families’ behavior, we posit that the public setting of the environmental center (and the presence of other visitors) also affected families’ actions. The families had no pretense of privacy. Additionally, the families frequently engaged with “normal” family behavior throughout their hikes, such as temper tantrums, requesting snacks, or stopping for breaks.

In relation to interpretive information influences on the families’ conversations, there was very little to sway the families’ conversation topics. For example, at SCEC, there are five or fewer interpretive signs along the nature trails; additionally, these signs are out-of-date as they refer to a lake that has since been drained due to dam erosion. The researchers as participant observers only engaged in conversation with the family members if they were addressed directly by the family and did not take the lead on topics of conversation, nor did they ask probing questions to steer the conversation one way or another. We contend that the families’ conversations during the nature walks were correspondingly unprompted by the research team.


The findings of this article begin with the Long family case study followed by an analysis of the entire 16 participant families. Three main findings arose from our two analyses:

  1. An extensive repertoire of previously experienced informal learning activities contributed to the Long family’s personal meaning making about the local environment during their nature walk.
  2. Families tended to connect their observations of a certain area along the trail to a prior visit to SCEC while specific natural objects they encountered on the trail were often related to an object they may have seen in another location outside of SCEC.
  3. Children displayed their SCEC-based expertise by most often recalling a memory from a SCEC learning event, while parents were more likely to make connections across settings by referencing memories from informal learning sites outside of SCEC.

In the following sections, we present conversational examples from the dataset in order to contextualize our findings.

Long Family Case Study
Throughout the nature walk, the Long family referred to a variety of prior experiences they had shared outside of SCEC as a family. In addition to connecting with previous informal learning experiences other than SCEC as demonstrated by the examples in Table 2, Matt frequently made references to his prior visits to the center either as a summer camper or a casual visitor.

While we were not analyzing for accuracy into Matt’s comments, we focused our analysis on (a) the trail-based encounters that sparked him to connect a previous experience to the immediate activity and (b) the setting from which the episodic memories originated. In one example, the hiking group came across an area on the outskirts of SCEC and Matt noticed the landscape had shifted since he had last been there:

Matt: Oh yeah! This is where the bushes used to be all standing...really tall.

Seasonal intern guide: It’s probably like that because, um, things aren’t in bloom yet.

Matt: Yeah, during camp when we were here, we found a treasure chest there//

Seasonal intern guide: //really?//

Matt: //with all these notes, but one time when I tried to get there, there was a swarm of...wasps, so I got stung a bunch.

Matt cites his experience at the SCEC summer camp as being the basis for noticing a difference in the landscape where “the bushes used to be all standing…really tall.” He then uses the reference to camp as a jumping off point to tell the seasonal intern guide about an experience he had at camp where he and his camp group ran into a swarm of wasps. This previous wasp experience was a salient memory for Matt and he actively connected that memory to the current hike in order to make sense of the change in the local flora.

Through the wasp example and the excerpts displayed in Table 2, our case study analysis demonstrates how previous learning experiences from a myriad of settings lent themselves to the meaning-making activity the Longs engaged with during their nature walk. As the Longs encountered new information along the trail, they relied on a diverse array of previous informal learning experiences in order to make their current environmental learning more personal. Our claim about the role of episodic memories to support the Long’s meaning-making talk on the trails coincides with what Ellenbogen (2002) has observed with indoor museum-going families:

Their social interactions are interconnected to a complex shared system of past experiences, beliefs, and values. Family members are accustomed to interacting and learning together, and they are equipped with an extensive array of personal and cooperative learning strategies that facilitate the museum learning experience. (p. 83)

Likewise, the Long family’s extensive repertoire of experiences in both designed and everyday informal learning settings allowed them to work together to make meaning together as they encountered new environmental phenomena throughout the nature walk.

Families Connected Prior Interpretation-led, Informal Learning Experiences to the Nature Walk
Building from the case study analysis, we next examined the talk from the 16 families in our dataset to investigate how prior experiences originating from interpretive, informal learning settings connected to new learning on the SCEC nature trails (see Table 1). In Figure 1, the explicit verbal references to previously visited interpretive sites and programs are displayed. From the 16 families, 76 conversational episodes included references to prior informal learning experiences. Of these 76 conversations, episodic memories of previous visits to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, where this study took place, ranked as most salient during the families’ nature walks (61 references). Mentions of other community programs and visits to different informal learning centers were connected to the nature walk experience in about a quarter (15 references) of these conversations (see Figure 1).

Prevalence of episodic memories
Many family members in our study recalled personal experiences that explicitly mentioned a previous visit to an informal learning setting (i.e., episodic memories). These episodic memories were shared in one to two sentences primarily, and secondarily, in longer stories that were co-told by multiple family members. Table 3 provides exemplars of the episodic memories shared during the families’ nature walks.

These episodic memories were frequently brought up between parents and children during their nature walk. Sometimes, these recalls reminded other family members of a previous visit to SCEC, like in Luke’s comment, or from an experience at a different informal function, such as Melanie’s connection with the grasshopper. Other times, family members, particularly children who had attended summer camp, shared their memories from a certain part of SCEC with the group as Sam did with his family.

Observations of the landscape sparked memories of previous visits to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and observations of natural objects sparked memories of other informal learning sites
When we looked more deeply at the dialogue surrounding these prior experiences, we noted that observations of certain areas of the landscape during the nature walks most often resulted in sharing a memory from previous visits to SCEC, while encounters with specific plants, animals, or other natural objects during the hikes were more often connected with informal learning settings other than SCEC.

Observations of the landscape
Commonly, observations of the overall landscape or certain areas along the nature trails were connected with episodic memories recalling previous observations or visits to that space. For example, Elizabeth (11 years old) and her parents came across an area along the trail that had changed since the lake at SCEC had been drained due to infrastructure issues with the dam:

Elizabeth: This all used to be a marsh, this used to be like a little wetland. So that painted turtles and all those little animals used to live in there. But now, they don’t because it all dried up.

Coming across a familiar section of the trail sparked Elizabeth’s recall of what the landscape had previously looked like, eliciting a memory connected with that same place along the nature trail and comparing her prior observations to her current view of the area.

Observations of specific natural objects
During their nature walks, the families encountered a variety of natural objects, such as plants, animals, rocks, and insects. While observing one of these items, it was more common for the resulting conversations to make an episodic memory connection to an informal learning experience outside of SCEC. In one instance, Chelsea is hiking with her two sons, Alec (10 years old) and Bennie (7 years old), when they encounter a walnut from a black walnut tree. Coming across this object sparks Chelsea to make a connection with an informal learning setting outside of SCEC:

Chelsea: Black walnut! Is that what that kid was showing at your art class, Bennie?

Bennie: No, it was an avocado.

When this family came upon a natural object along the hiking trail, the mom, Chelsea, identified it as being a walnut from a black walnut tree. She then attempted to make a connection between this object and an art program her son, Bennie, had previously attended. Bennie disagreed saying that it had been an avocado and not a black walnut shared by a peer in his art class, yet Chelsea used this experience in order to make a personal connection between the natural object found on the hiking trail and her family’s previous learning experiences. Sharing memories from previous visits to interpretive, informal learning sites was a common occurrence for both parents and children as they helped forge connections between prior experiences and the current setting of the wooded trail.

Parent-child conversations and references to prior informal learning experiences
Our analysis focusing on who prompted a conversation that pertained to a prior interpretive, informal learning experience revealed that children were more likely to recall a memory as compared to the adults (Figure 2).

A common pattern among our participant families was the tendency for children to share an episodic memory from their previous experiences attending the SCEC’s summer camp, and often, parents prompted their children to share those memories. The parental prompting was interpreted to indicate that the children had previously shared that memory with the parent and the parents were encouraging the children to reconnect with the physical setting of the nature trail. In the science education literature about learning in indoor designed spaces (Kisiel et al., 2012; Zimmerman, Reeve & Bell 2010), families have been shown to make connections to other museum experiences. We found a similar pattern in our work with our participant families with regards to prior experiences at SCEC and making connections to the current nature walk at SCEC; however, we noted that it was the children that most often recalled these prior experiences to SCEC more so than the adults.

Children as SCEC-based experts
For the children in our study who had attended the SCEC summer camp, their episodic memories from camp were quite salient during the nature walks. During one nature walk, Justin (7 years old) identified the trail they were on with the same trail he had hiked with his camp group the week before, as he explained to his mother, Rene:

Justin: This is the path we were on. Remember, this is the path we were on—on Tuesday. Mommy, this is the path we were on when we were with [counselor’s name].

Rene: Oh yeah? Did he take you on a little journey?
Justin: Yeah.

In this example, Justin remembers and recognizes the trail he is walking on with his family and relates it to his previous hiking experience from summer camp. While most conversations about SCEC’s summer camp were sparked by the children in the family groups, the parents sometimes asked their children to describe what types of experiences they’ve had during the camp at SCEC. Within the same family from the scenario above, Justin’s younger sister, Kris (5 years old), had also attended the summer camp and their mother helped to facilitate Kris’s memory recollection from camp by asking her specific questions about the nature walk trail:

Rene: When you guys were hiking out here did you see any animals in the woods?

Kris: Um, those little like—they’re called newts—they’re kinda like lizards, like cousins of lizards. They’re newts.
Rene: How did you find them? Did you look under rocks?
Kris: Um, no.

Rene: How did you spot them?

Kris: On the ground!

Here, Rene asked her daughter, Kris, to explain what she had experienced during summer camp by asking her what animals she saw. When Kris responded that that her camp group found newts, Rene asked Kris to recall how they found the newts. This type of parent-facilitated conversation where a parent prompts a child to share a memory has been similarly observed in museum settings (Crowley et al., 2001; Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Palmquist & Crowley, 2007), where parents act as learning partners with their children. In our study, we found that parents specifically prompted their children to share out-of-school experiences; having these episodic memories from camp leveraged the children’s role in facilitating the family’s learning experiences during their nature walk so that the learning was not just adult-to-child, but was more evenly distributed between the parents and children in the family groups.

Parents connect with informal learning settings outside of SCEC.
Connecting memories across settings, or from a previous informal learning site other than SCEC, to the current setting of the nature trail was more common among the adults in our study. In one example of a parent making a connection with a prior experience from another informal learning setting, Claire, a mother, and her daughter, Lilly (6), were walking over the boardwalk and stopped to observe the plants along the creek bed. Claire asked her daughter to remember back to another hike they had previously experienced at a different Nature Center:

Claire: You know what they [the plant’s leaves] remind me of?

Lilly: What?

Mom: Cabbage. I wonder if they’re...what’s that kind of cabbage that we saw at [Nature Center]? Last summer?

Lilly: I don’t—I forget.

Mom: Skunk cabbage?

Lilly: Yeah.

Mom: Do you remember that?

Lilly: Yeah, yeah! I wanna go back!

Here, Claire reminds her daughter about a different location where they had seen the same species of vegetation they were currently observing. Claire prompts her daughter to remember the name of the cabbage they had previously seen at a different nature center and reminds her that it was skunk cabbage. Similar to the interaction between Claire and her daughter, parent-child interactions in museum spaces have observed and documented parents providing analogical connections, or links between the current activity and something similar, in order to support their child’s thinking about the topic (Crowley et al., 2001). Whether or not parents are more apt to “see” connections between the nature trail and other learning settings in comparison to their children is worth further exploration.


Connecting prior experiences to the current context for learning is a well-known area of study for researchers examining family learning groups in informal spaces (e.g., Allen, 2002; Ellenbogen et al., 2004). We contribute to this line of work through our examination of the recalling and sharing of personal memories among family members during outdoor-based nature walks. The focus on episodic memories provided a unique avenue for analyzing the role of conversation-based personal connections between learners’ personal meaning and new content, through the recall of familiar concepts. As such, our research contributes three new implications for the field of informal science learning and interpretation research:

  1. Sharing episodic memories from prior informal learning experiences was prevalent in family conversations as a means for making personal connections with the natural world during their nature walks;
  2. Certain observations and encounters experienced during the nature walk often determined the source of a shared memory;
  3. Children took lead roles during the family’s nature walks through their sharing of personal, episodic memories of prior informal learning experiences from SCEC.

Episodic Memories are Important Meaning-Making Tools During Family Conversations
In our study that looked at in situ family conversations during nature walks, specific references to previous informal learning experiences emerged in the families’ dialogue as episodic memories (Tulving, 1972). Tulving argues that episodic memories “allow people to consciously re-experience past experiences” (2002, p. 6). During their nature walks, the families involved in our study most often projected vivid memories from previous informal learning experiences to the outdoor space they were walking through. When applying this to practice, making room for learners of all ages at informal learning settings to make personal connections and meaning with the resources, while also giving them an opportunity to develop new memories are important considerations for interpretive sites. Bamberger & Tal (2006) alluded to this notion when they researched 750 school children from 29 classrooms during science learning fieldtrips. They found that the level of choice that informal institutions offered to learners impacted the types of connections learners made between prior experiences and the new science and environmental content. Programs involving high levels of freedom and choice resulted in stronger connections to everyday life amongst the learners while constrained programs resulted in naturalist-led programs that connected strongly to school. We posit that our families’ visits to SCEC were similar to the high-choice, high-freedom experiences found in the Bamberger and Tal study, which explains the families’ frequent connections to prior informal learning experiences as a meaning-making strategy in conversation with one another.

Understanding how one family made meaning together during a nature walk
The Long family is just one family, yet across the globe, millions of families actively seek out informal learning venues like the environmental center that was central to this research study. Evidently, Allison, Matt, and Kyle had all experienced and retained information from their prior visits to this environmental center, but also from their visits to other informal science learning settings, like museums, Boy Scouts, and everyday family activities. The Long family, particularly Matt, had many past events that they could draw from when helping each other to learn about or make meaning with their surroundings during a novel outdoor learning experience. Museum researchers suggest that, “learning involves making links to, or between, previously separate ideas, or the potential to make new links in the future” (Rennie & Johnston, 2004, p. S7). In alignment with this notion, the Long family’s partaking in a variety of activities in both designed and everyday informal learning settings allowed them to more easily make meaning together by linking such previous ideas and experiences to new encounters during their nature hike. Given that learning depends on social interactions and the conversations that shape conceptual understandings (Roschelle, 1995), we suggest that providing learning spaces with family groups in mind is important for those who design interpretive experiences.

Happenings Along the Nature Trail Determined Source of Memory
Prior work has shown that, in general, memories support learning. For example, after interviewing 36 individuals six months after they attended an interpretive program at a national historic park, Knapp (2006) concluded that personal experiences and familiarity with a place predominate long-term memories more than any other aspect of the program. Our work extends Knapp’s research on long-term memories by identifying a pattern related to the application of the memories as learning tools. From our analysis, we found that observations of the landscape were linked with onsite memory recall, or referencing memories from the current learning setting (in this case, SCEC). Observations of specific natural objects, such as plants and animals, most often led to a family member sharing an offsite memory recall, or sharing a memory about seeing a similar object in a different location (i.e., not SCEC). Having personal familiarity with an outdoor space would certainly trigger vivid memories of previous experiences within that setting; however, we found that encounters with natural phenomena such as leaves, seeds, and animals tended to spark memories that originated in learning spaces outside of SCEC. Perhaps because these natural objects are pervasive beyond the property of SCEC, it is easier to connect them with memories gleaned from alternative learning sites. Future research investigating this episodic recall pattern offers a fruitful area of inquiry.

Our work suggests that interpretation-led, informal learning spaces and programs have a long-term impact on families’ learning via supporting social meaning-making talk about the natural world. Through the conversations we analyzed, we found that families’ personal memories were salient months and years later as families encountered new objects and experiences on the trail. Knapp suggests that, “for most interpreters, a successful outcome should be seen long after the program has ended” (2007, p. 9). Even though we cannot make claims about the success of any one particular program, we found that salient episodic memories from previous visits to SCEC and to other informal learning sites were successful connecting points for further learning. Given these findings, our work reinforces Bamberger and Tal’s (2006) recommendations for youth-based programs in that family-focused programs should also include flexibility for making connections to previous life experiences. Including purposeful opportunities for audiences to make links to prior learning activities either through verbal prompts by interpreters or text on non-personal interpretive exhibits can also provide pathways to foster meaning-making dialogue between family members and peers.

Children Most Often Contributed to Families’ Episodic Memory Recall
A significant contribution of our study revealed that children in the participating families were the primary memory-sharers during the nature walks. In particular, those children who attended SCEC’s summer camp in previous years were apt to share their camp experiences during the nature walks. Because of their experiences during camp, the children acted as experts of the trail, in their own way. For example, the children who had attended SCEC’s summer camp identified certain plants for their parents and siblings. The children also discussed anomalies to the landscape and recounted activities they had been part of on the nature trail. Related research examining youth during summer camps (Riedinger & McGinnis, 2016) has suggested that the “freedom” of learning in the outdoors is an important contributor to empowering children. When we observed the families hiking on the trails at SCEC, the children’s references to camp were often used to bolster their observations related to nature, thereby supporting their role as the experts during the family hikes.

Episodic memories were often used by the children in our study to display their individual expertise on the local environment and associated plants and animals. In museum settings, children have also been documented as being experts on specific topics of interest (Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Palmquist & Crowley, 2007); in our study setting of a nature trail, we found children had both content expertise, as well as place expertise. Additionally, Palmquist and Crowley’s (2007) video-based study of 42 families visiting a dinosaur exhibit at a natural history museum, revealed that, among other outcomes, children who were “dinosaur experts” most often led the conversations during their visit to the museum, while the children who were “dinosaur novices” talked less than their parents. While our study was not designed to explore domain or content-specific knowledge, such as dinosaurs, we did notice a pattern similar to that of Palmquist and Crowley’s where the summer camp children were most often the conversation catalysts through their sharing of camp memories.

Our research demonstrates that children carry memories of informal learning experiences and use them as points of comparison in future learning experiences. The episodic memories served the role in family conservation as evidence to the children’s claims about the world around them. Waite (2007) argues that children remember specific outdoor learning events when the activities are authentic, social, and multi-sensory. With this in mind, encouraging family collaboration during outdoor-based, interpretive programs can provide children with opportunities to demonstrate their science-related expertise, while also co-constructing new knowledge with family members.


Our study demonstrated that visits to informal learning settings can provide experiences for family groups that promote the development of rich episodic memories, which can be tools for learning in new informal settings. Because family groups are the most common social group to visit informal, interpretive learning sites, it behooves interpreters to better understand the role of memories in families’ learning processes as they design programs for parents and children.

Additionally, we provided an example of how video-based methodologies can capture learners’ conversations during visits to informal spaces to better understand how families learn. Analyzing visitors’ conversations and gestures in an informal learning setting offer rich, nuanced insights into learning processes in ways that surveys, interviews, and pre- and post-test methods cannot provide. As such, we suggest that further ethnographic work in the field of interpretation research is needed to explore the learning practices and processes used by people as they engage in informal learning settings. We argue that in order for interpretation researchers to forward their understandings of how people learn in outdoor sites, naturalistic observations and dialogical analysis of visitors during programs should be leveraged more fully.


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