By Meg Gravil and Katherine Reynolds

Collaboration among formal and informal educators yields rich, standards-focused early learning.

MC1605_GravilChildren’s experiences outside formal classroom settings significantly affect all their development domains and their social functioning and achievement in school (Malone, 2008; Eshach, 2007). A substantial body of research shows the power of hands-on learning experiences across multiple settings and timeframes (National Research Council, 2012, 2015). Field trips offer one way that educators can provide a rich environment of multisensory experiences for young children. However, these experiential learning opportunities often don’t live up to their full scholastic potential.

Field trips cannot be stand-alone experiences for children, say researchers, who add that teachers must strive to make explicit connections between formal learning standards and informal learning objectives (Behrendt & Franklin, 2014). Collaboration between formal and informal educators working with their own learning objectives results in compelling learning opportunities for students. Highlighting the connections between those learning contexts is key to the transfer of learning. One method of highlighting those connections is to create a “crosswalk” of learning objectives.

Connections to curricula

A crosswalk — also referred to as a content map — is “a systematic procedure for generating and representing cross-comparison data” (Audet & Jordan, 2005, p. 8). Educators frequently use this content analysis to compare new standards to existing standards and to compare standards to assessments and/or curricula. Crosswalks allow for comparison of specific activities with standards. Crosswalks are useful for explaining standards and can illuminate significant gaps in standards so they can be addressed (AIR, 2005). Crosswalks also have been developed to underscore the importance of informal learning programs in meeting formal education standards (Jefferson County Public Schools, 2012; Life Adventure Center, 2014).

The Kentucky Children’s Garden

Evaluators worked with staff at the Kentucky Children’s Garden (KCG) at the University of Kentucky Arboretum to create crosswalks as part of a comprehensive evaluation of the garden. KCG is a seasonal outdoor learning environment designed for children ages two through 10.

Envisioned on the premise that children today have limited contact with the natural environment, KCG provides hands-on opportunities for children to explore plants, water, and the cycles of life. Program staff offer educational enrichment activities during regular operating hours. Activities include the Pollinator game, in which children learn that plants could not produce seeds without pollination, and Animal Tracks, which calls for children to match tracks embedded around the property with photos of animals that might make those tracks. Staff and volunteers also manage multiple stations during field trips for young children from area schools, such as the Food Web game, which helps children learn about producers, consumers, and decomposers in the environment. Evaluators created crosswalks to show the relationship between KCG activities during regular operating hours and field trips with the Kentucky Early Childhood Standards for birth to 3, and 3- and 4-year-olds and the Next Generation Science Standards (K-2). 

Kentucky Early Childhood Standards

The Kentucky Early Childhood Standards (KECS) outline children’s capabilities from birth through four years old. KECS is organized into two sections of developmental domains specific to children age birth to three years and children age three to four years. These two domains comprise standards espousing typical development and essential skills and knowledge children should obtain between birth and age four. The standards are further organized into benchmarks, a developmental continuum, and example behaviors.

Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2013, shifted curricular goals from content memorization to a focus on understanding content and the process of science learning. Kentucky was one of 26 states involved in developing the standards and formally adopted them. The science standards have three domains of performance expectations, foundation boxes, and connection boxes.

Creating the crosswalks

Evaluators examined each of the Kentucky Early Childhood Standards in order to determine alignment with the many elements and corresponding objectives of the KCG. The KCG has cultural landscape, natural landscape, entry, and multi-purpose zones, each of which includes different elements, themes, and corresponding activities. The KCG Master Plan includes activities/experiences and educational objectives for each of the 20 elements in the four different zones. Planners honed program’s educational objectives through observations during regular hours and field trips to determine how various visitors engaged with the different elements of the KCG.

Tables 1 and 2 exhibit crosswalks between KCG and the early childhood standards.

MC_Gravil_1605_Table_1MC_Gravil_1605_Table_2MC_Gravil_1605_Table_3An additional crosswalk aligns the early childhood standard for three- and four-year-olds with field trips to the KCG for these children. Field trips included children rotating through several different stations, each with a unique activity and objective. For example, the butterfly station included a docent-facilitated discussion with children regarding the life cycle of a butterfly while children walked through a depiction of the various stages of metamorphosis. Children then learned a song and finger play about the process of pollination. Table 3 is the crosswalk of field trip activities and standards for three- and four-year-olds.

Another crosswalk was created to show how the informal science learning at KCG matches with the Next Generation Science Standards. KCG activities aligned primarily with the student performance expectations for the kindergarten and 2nd-grade standards. For example, NGSS 2nd-grade Life Science Standard 2-4 — Make observations of plant and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats — aligned with several KCG activities. The KCG includes many different habitats within the various elements, including butterfly garden, woods, sink hole/spring, ponds and wetlands, and prairies. Each element encourages children to actively engage with the environment through exploring and navigating various terrains. These and other activities enable children to mimic behaviors of organisms that reside in each environment and provide opportunities to spot and observe wildlife. Table 4 is the crosswalk of KCG activities and NGSS K-2.


MC_Gravil_1605_Table_5The KCG is a field trip destination for children in kindergarten through 2nd grade. Evaluators observed multiple field trips and reviewed educational objectives for each field trip station to construct the additional crosswalk in Table 5. One illustration of alignment is the KCG station Seeds Travel with 2nd-grade NGSS 2-2 — Develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants. Children at this station learned and enacted ways in which animals are inadvertent pollinators. Children tactilely examined various seeds while discussing with a docent the various ways in which they travel.


Takeaways for informal and formal educators

Creating crosswalks between the opportunities afforded by an informal learning environment with standards adhered to in formal education settings is one strategy to enable the transition of children’s knowledge acquisition between the two environments. Providing crosswalks to coordinators of informal learning environments can ensure that students’ out-of-classroom experiences correspond with classroom learning. Formal and informal educators alike must acknowledge the educative value, as opposed to the entertainment value, of informal learning programs to reap the unique opportunities afforded by them (Bevin et al., 2010). The KCG crosswalks gave staff a unique tool to market their programming and illustrate the academic relevance offered by a trip to the site.


American Institutes for Research (AIR). (2005). A process guide for establishing state adult education content standards. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Audet, R.H. & Jordan, L.K. (2005). Integrating inquiry across the curriculum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Behrendt, M. & Franklin, T. (2014). A review of research on school field trips and their value in education. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 9, 235-245.

Bevin, B., Dillon, J., Hein, G.E., Macdonald, M., Michalchik, V., Miller, D. . . . Yoon. S. (2010). Making science matter: Collaborations between informal science education organizations and schools. A CAISE Inquiry Report. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.

Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal, nonformal, and informal education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16, 171-190.

Jefferson County Public Schools. (2012). School at the zoo 2011-12, evaluation report. Louisville, KY: Author.

Kentucky Department of Education. (2013). Building a strong foundation for school success: The Kentucky Early Childhood Standards. Frankfort, KY: Author.

Life Adventure Center. (2014). Programs of Life Adventure Center in accordance with Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Versailles, KY: Author.

Malone, K. (2008). Every experience matters: An evidence-based research report on the role of learning outside the classroom for children’s who development from birth to 18 years. Report commissioned by Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) for UK Department of Children, School and Families. Wollongong, Australia: FACE.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2015). Identifying and supporting productive STEM programs in out-of-school settings. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Next Generation Science Standards Lead States (NGSS). (2013). The Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

MEG GRAVIL ( is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling, University of Kentucky. KATHERINE REYNOLDS is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation, Boston College, Boston, Mass.