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Connecting Urban Families With Environmental Science

Connected Science Learning January-March 2018 (Volume 1, Issue 5)

By Marion Goldstein, Elizabeth Pierson, Jamie Kynn, and Lisa Famularo

Connecting Urban Families With Environmental Science

The PLUM LANDING Explore Outdoors Toolkit is a new set of free, public media resources designed to help informal educators and parents infuse science learning into outdoor recreation.



Few people think of urban areas as ideal places to learn about nature. The tall buildings, dense concrete, and heavy traffic found in these locations cause most people to believe they need to leave the city to experience the natural world. The PLUM LANDING Explore Outdoors Toolkit is a new set of free, public media resources designed to help informal educators and parents infuse science learning into outdoor recreation. Developed by trusted media producer WGBH in partnership with researchers at Education Development Center (EDC), the Toolkit aims to get children (ages 6–9) from low-income, urban communities outside so they can explore the environment around them while debunking the myth that nature is something that only exists beyond city limits. In an activity called Fly It and Spy It, for example, families throw a Frisbee and closely observe what may live in the space where it falls. In City Heat Island, children measure and compare temperatures across artificial and natural surfaces (such as concrete vs. grass) to better understand why the abundance of artificial surfaces in cities often make them warmer than surrounding areas.

Families look for small animals in an urban park.

A 2015 grant from the National Science Foundation funded a three-year project in which developers at WGBH, researchers at EDC, and partner informal education programs throughout the United States worked together to iteratively create, test, and refine the Toolkit to support the needs of informal educators and the communities they serve. The Toolkit was piloted in after-school programs for children, family programs facilitated by educators, and programs in which families do activities on their own. Research showed that the Toolkit can be implemented successfully in all of these settings and can foster science learning by promoting children’s engagement with science content and use of practices aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A city street can be a great place for a science investigation.

The Toolkit consists of hands-on and digital resources to engage youth in carefully designed, fun, physically active outdoor science explorations. Activities, which are accessible via the online Toolkit, can be extended through the use of videos, handouts, and an app, which all encourage youth and families to explore nature in their own urban neighborhoods. The Toolkit was designed to support educators at all experience levels, be easily adapted to meet local needs, and be engaging for diverse youth. Below are some of the lessons we learned while developing and testing the materials.

  • Science learning can happen in unexpected urban spaces: Small urban spaces offer fertile ground for exploring diverse science topics. Programs involved in our research successfully used Toolkit activities in a wide variety of landscapes, including sidewalks, public parks, a school playground, and a city beach, to explore diverse science topics related to water, weather, animals, and plants.
  • You don’t need to be a science expert to promote science learning: Basic activities such as observing a patch of grass, tallying trees and cars, and comparing how water flows on different surfaces can offer valuable lessons in environmental science. Research found that educators at all experience levels were able to successfully integrate these types of science activities into their regular outdoor programming, and parents reported that the Toolkit gave them ideas for engaging their children in exploring, observing, talking about, and appreciating nature and natural phenomena.
  • Science learning can be physically active and fun: Thoughtful, physically active games and activities such as mimicking animal movements, timed scavenger hunts, and predator/prey races can engage minds and bodies while still achieving instructional goals. When those activities inspire children to generate testable questions and search for answers, it becomes clear that fun can happen in the service of science.
Children mimic animal movements during an active and fun science activity.
  • You don’t need expensive equipment to promote science: Everyday items such as bubbles, socks, and petroleum jelly can be transformed into vital scientific tools when used in creative ways. The Toolkit was designed for programs with limited budgets and minimal storage space. In the context of carefully designed activities that make use of everyday objects, children learned targeted concepts, used NGSS-aligned science skills, and were able to relate what they learned to their everyday lives and immediate surroundings.
  • Classroom teachers can help connect science learning across multiple parts of children’s lives: Sending home activities that involve parents as active facilitators can bridge learning that happens at school with experiences that support continued learning at home. When take-home activities (available in English and Spanish) were used in our study, they successfully supported at-home teaching and learning by preparing caregivers to answer children’s “how and why” questions, supporting their efforts to get children to spend more time outside, and inspiring children to conduct science-related experiments.

A child observes and documents images of flowers in a neighborhood garden.


Marion Goldstein ( is research scientist at the Education Development Center in New York, New York. Elizabeth Pierson ( is a research associate at Education Development Center in New York, New York. Jamie Kynn ( is a research associate at Education Development Center in New York, New York. Lisa Famularo ( is cofounder and partner at Research Matters in Kennebunk, Maine.

Informal Education

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