Informal Learning

Learning in Informal Learning Environments

Park: Minetta Green, New York City

Park: Minetta Green, New York City

Learning occurs across the life span as people engage with each other in informal learning environments. These environments include social interactions, physical locations, and media. They include environments such as families, libraries, museums, parks, outdoor spaces, community-based organizations, workplaces, print and broadcast media, and the Internet (Diamond, 1999; Falk & Dierking, 2000). Informal learning environments are powerful sites for learning because they support rich social interactions and allow people to engage their own learning goals and generate their own highly personalized understandings. They support

  • life long learning (e.g., over the life span),
  • life-wide learning (e.g., in a wide range of settings), and
  • life-deep learning (e.g., engaging beliefs and values)
    (National Research Council, 2009).
Museum: National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Museum: National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC


Studying learning in informal settings requires consideration of “relations between individuals and their physical and social environments with particular attention to relations that support learning” (National Research Council, 2009, p. 31). There is a tension between providing knowledge and information and respecting visitor agency to construct meaning (Sandall, 2007).


It is important to consider questions such as:

  • Do visitors make connections to their life experiences and socially construct meanings?
  • What is the match or mismatch between the site’s educational and architectural design intentions and visitor perceptions and experiences?
  • How might we invite visitors to share their understandings?

Read about how visitors to the W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Tacoma, Washington differently interpreted and experienced the floral and tropical displays in “Interpreting Nature: Connecting to Visitor Understandings” in Roots: Botanic Gardens Conservation International Education Review.

Conservatory: Waterlily House, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Conservatory: Waterlily House, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens









Diamond, J. (1999). Practical evaluation guide: Tools for museums and other informal educational settings. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the
making of meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places,
and pursuits. Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Science and Education. Washington, D. C.: The National Academies Press.

Sandell, R. (2007). Museums, prejudice, and the framing of difference. New York: Routledge.

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken studies partnerships that foster connections between schools and community resources, such as museums and outdoor environments. She is particularly interested in a broad definition of learning that considers how people learn, in a wide range of settings and activities, over the life span.
Amy E. Ryken

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