A new study finds that real-world learning experiences, such as an animal-focused summer camp, can significantly improve children’s knowledge in just a few days.

Significantly, this type of real-world learning offers more than just an increase in factual knowledge, say the researchers. It improves how children organize what they know, which is a key component of learning.

The new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, is one of the first to show how quickly knowledge organization changes can occur in children.

“This suggests organization of knowledge doesn’t require years to happen. It can occur with a short, naturalistic learning experience,” said Dr. Layla Unger, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State University (OSU). “It highlights the enriching potential of real-world programs like summer camps. They aren’t just recreation.”

“We didn’t know if it would take months or years for children to accomplish this. Now we have evidence that it can happen in days,” Unger said.

Unger conducted the research with Dr. Anna Fisher, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. They observed 28 children, ages 4 to 9, who attended a four-day summer zoo camp in Pittsburgh.

The zoo camp attendees were compared to a control group of 32 children who participated in a different summer camp in a nearby neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which was not at the zoo and didn’t involve animals.

At the beginning and end of each camp, all children completed two different tests that measured how well they understood the differences between mammals, birds and reptiles.

The zoo camp involved lessons, interactions with preserved and live animals, tours of the zoo, games and craft sessions.

“Most of the themes at the zoo camp were not oriented toward explicitly teaching children biological taxonomic groups,” Unger said. “So the children were not spending every day talking about the differences between mammals, birds and reptiles.”

At the beginning of the camps, children in both groups had similar knowledge about the relationships between mammals, birds and reptiles. But the zoo camp attendees knew significantly more by the end of their four-day camp, while the others did not.

Children who had attended zoo camp showed a 64 percent increase in test scores on one assessment from the beginning to the end of camp, and a 35 percent increase in the other. Not surprisingly, there was no change in test scores among kids in the other camp.

Importantly, this study was not designed to test whether a four-day classroom lesson about animals could produce the same results as the four-day zoo experience, Unger said. But other studies show that a class may not have the same positive effect, partly because it might not engage students as much as the real-world experience.

Source: Ohio State University