Learning in the Wild: Real-World Experiences Shape Children’s Knowledge
Layla Unger (LUnger@andrew.cmu.edu)
Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Psychology, 5000 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15214 USA
Anna V. Fisher (Fisher49@andrew.cmu.edu)
Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Psychology, 5000 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15214 USA
The organization of knowledge according to relations between
concepts is critically involved in many cognitive processes,
including memory and reasoning. However, the role of
learning in shaping knowledge organization has received little
direct investigation. Therefore, the present study investigated
whether informal learning experiences can drive rapid,
substantial changes in knowledge organization in children by
measuring the effects of a week-long Zoo summer camp versus
a control camp on the degree to which 4- to 9-year-old
children’s knowledge about animals was organized according
to taxonomic relations. Although taxonomic organization did
not differ at pre-test, only Zoo camp children showed increases
in taxonomic organization at post-test. These findings provide
novel evidence that informal, real-life learning experiences can
drive rapid knowledge organization change.
Keywords: Cognitive Development; Semantic Knowledge;
Knowledge is not merely a mentally stored body of
information, but rather an interconnected network of
concepts linked by meaningful relations (e.g., McClelland &
Rogers, 2003). This organization of knowledge according to
meaningful relations between concepts plays a critical role in
many cognitive processes, including memory, reasoning,
learning, and visual attention (Bjorklund & Jacobs, 1985;
Bower, Clark, Lesgold, & Winzenz, 1969; Chi, Feltovich, &
Glaser, 1981; Moores, Laiti, & Chelazzi, 2003; Pinkham,
Kaefer, & Neuman, 2014). Therefore, a key facet of
understanding cognition is understanding the development of
Current conceptual development accounts suggest that
learning experiences drive changes in knowledge
organization, though the posited nature of such learning
processes and the degree to which learning is emphasized in
contrast with early (possibly innate) conceptual biases varies
across accounts (e.g., Carey, 1985; Fisher, 2015; Gelman,
2003; Tenenbaum, Kemp, Griffiths, & Goodman, 2011).
However, the role of learning in organizing knowledge can
only be indirectly inferred from prior research, because no
past studies have directly investigated learning experiences
that may drive knowledge organization changes. This lack of
direct evidence leaves open several key questions about
learning-driven knowledge organization change. First, it is
unknown whether such changes result from the protracted
accumulation of learning experiences over long-term
developmental time-scales (e.g., months and years), or
whether they can result from experiences over relatively brief
developmental time-scales (e.g., days or weeks). Second, the
role of formal education versus day-to-day informal learning
experiences in driving knowledge organization change
remains poorly understood.
Indirect evidence for the contribution of learning
experiences to knowledge organization comes from cognitive
development, expertise, and learning science research.
Within the cognitive development field, the emergence of
knowledge organization has been a focus since the field’s
inception (Inhelder & Piaget, 1964). Specifically, numerous
studies have attempted to characterize the developmental
trajectory of knowledge organization by measuring the
degree to which children of different ages possess knowledge
of different types of relations between concepts. The relations
that have received greatest interest to date include: Similarity
based on shared perceptual features (e.g., shape or color);
taxonomic relations based on membership in the same, stable
category (e.g., mammal); and thematic relations based on co-
occurrence in the environment (e.g., dog and bone) (Blaye,
Bernard-Peyron, Paour, & Bonthoux, 2006; Nguyen, 2007;
Unger, Fisher, Nugent, Ventura, & MacLellan, 2016).
Evidence from some cognitive development studies has
suggested that children apprehend and reason on the basis of
multiple types of relations from an early age (e.g., Gelman &
Coley, 1990; Nguyen, 2007). For example, Nguyen and
colleagues used match-to-sample tasks to demonstrate that
young children can match target items to both taxonomically
and thematically related items versus unrelated items from
age two (Nguyen, 2007; Nguyen & Murphy, 2003). These
findings suggest apprehension of multiple relations from
early childhood, and thus de-emphasize learning-driven
changes in knowledge organization throughout development.
However, this conclusion remains controversial. For
instance, studies using the same paradigm demonstrated that
young children could explain perceptual and thematic, but not
taxonomic matches (Sell, 1992; Tversky, 1985). Similarly,
Blaye et al. (2006) demonstrated that five-year-old children
relied on thematic and perceptual relations to complete an
ostensibly taxonomic organization task, whereas older
children increasingly used true taxonomic knowledge. These
findings suggest that (1) Young children can make decisions
that are consistent with knowledge of a given relation without
actually possessing such knowledge, and (2) Relations
knowledge develops significantly beyond early childhood.
A handful of recent studies provide direct evidence that
knowledge organization indeed evolves gradually across
development (Fisher, Godwin, & Matlen, 2015; Fisher,
Godwin, Matlen, & Unger, 2014; Unger et al., 2016). These
studies were designed to capture gradual knowledge
organization changes by using a paradigm in which children
make graded spatial judgments of the degree to which items
are related (Goldstone, 1994). The results of these studies
reveal that: (1) Overall, children increasingly differentiate
related from unrelated items between ages four and seven,
and (2) The influence of specific relations (i.e., thematic and
taxonomic) on knowledge organization increases gradually
across childhood. In contrast with the perspective suggesting
early apprehension of different types of relations, it has been
argued that this continuous evolution of knowledge
organization implies a key role for learning experiences that
transpire throughout childhood. However, these studies
provide no direct insight into learning-driven knowledge
organization change itself, including whether learning
experiences must accumulate over months and years, and
whether they must take place in formal education settings.
Further indirect evidence for the effects of learning on
knowledge organization comes from expertise studies, which
show that expertise in a specialized domain is associated not
merely with knowledge of more concepts than novices
possess, but the organization of concepts according to
relations that are meaningful in the domain (e.g., Chi et al.,
1981; Gobbo & Chi, 1986; Medin, Lynch, Coley, & Atran,
1997). However, this research does not illuminate whether
knowledge organization changes can transpire without
extensive learning experiences. Moreover, some researchers
have argued that the effects of learning that produce expertize
in the formalized knowledge domains studied to date are
qualitatively different from the effects of learning in
everyday domains (Gelman, 2003). Therefore, the role of
everyday learning experiences on driving the acquisition of
relations knowledge remains open for debate.
Finally, several learning science studies have measured the
effects of brief learning experiences such as educational field
trips on knowledge in everyday domains such as animals
(e.g., DeWitt & Storksdieck, 2008; Farmer, Knapp, &
Benton, 2007; Prokop, Tuncer, & Kvasničák, 2007).
However, these studies almost exclusively measured
children’s knowledge of individual concepts (e.g., "Kangaroo
rats have giant feet", Gottfried, 1980, p. 172). Accordingly,
this research does not illuminate whether such informal and
relatively brief learning experiences can organize children’s
knowledge according to meaningful relations.
The present study aimed to bridge prior cognitive
development, expertise, and learning sciences research by
measuring the influence of real-world learning experiences
on knowledge organization. To capture the effects of learning
that appear in prior research to transpire over months or years
(Fisher et al., 2015; Fisher et al., 2014; Unger et al., 2016),
we measured the effects of a concentrated, immersive
experience in a domain. Specifically, we measured the
effects of a week-long, zoo-based summer camp versus a
control, school-affiliated summer camp on 4- to 9-year old
children’s knowledge of biological taxonomic relations for a
set of animals. We focused on the animal domain because it
is familiar to children from an early age, and appears to
undergo significant organizational changes with
development (Unger et al., 2016). Therefore, this venue
provides an ideal opportunity to investigate real-world
experience-driven changes in knowledge organization.
Zoo Camp. Zoo camp consisted of lessons, interactions with
animals, zoo tours, games, and crafts. Activities for each day
were designed around a specific theme, such as “creatures of
the night”. Each year, the zoo camp organizers choose
different themes for each age group. The themes for the age
groups spanning our sample (4-5, 6-7, and 8-9 years of age)
over the two summers during which testing took place are
listed in Table 1. The majority of themes were not designed
to teach biological taxonomic relations, with the exception of
themes for children in the 8-9 age group in Year 2 and one
instance of a “Reptiles” theme for children in the 4-5 age
group in Year 2. These exceptions did not influence our
results (see Results). To illustrate how themes shaped camp
activities, the activities chosen for the “Extreme Families”
theme were as follows. Children took part in two lessons: One
about “Extreme Parents” that do or do not protect their
offspring (e.g., chickens versus sharks), and another about
benefits to animals that live in family groups (e.g., elephant).
Children visited in person, completed crafts and played
games related to a subset of animals described in lessons.
Control Camp. The Control Camp was a school-affiliated
summer camp that did not provide immersive experiences
Table 1: Curriculum themes for each age group.
Aquatic Animal Diets
Savanna Animal Patterns
How Animals Learn
with animals. At camp, children engaged in outdoor play,
dance, crafts, games, and cooking. Additionally, children
went on a field trip each week (e.g., to a baseball game), but
did not visit the Zoo during this study.
Participants were 4 to 9-year-old children enrolled in the Zoo
or the Control Camp located in the same Northeastern US
city. The initial sample included 33 Zoo Camp (19 females)
and 32 Control Camp (17 females) children. Of this sample,
data from six Zoo Camp children and one Control Camp child
were not included in analyses of performance on one of the
two outcome measures due to a camera malfunction (see the
Scoring section below). Although random assignment to a
camp was not possible, children enrolled in the two camps
performed equivalently on measures of taxonomic
knowledge at pre-test (see Results), and were approximately
matched for age (Zoo Camp: Mage=6.89 years, SD=1.43;
Control Camp: Mage=6.23 years, SD=1.21; t(57)=1.9, p=.06).
The study was a quasi-experiment in which children recruited
from Zoo and Control camps participated in both Pre- and
Post-Test sessions at the beginning and end of a week of
camp. To ensure sufficient number of participants in the Zoo
camp condition, data in this condition were collected in the
summer of 2015 (Year 1) and 2016 (Year 2), and collapsed
across years for analysis.
The animal stimuli were selected from the zoo camp
curricula, such that knowledge in a given age group was
assessed for animals about which Zoo Camp children in that
age group learned. Accordingly, we developed a separate
stimulus set for each age group in each year. Each set
consisted of 15 animals, with an equal number of items in
each of three biological taxonomic categories: Mammals,
birds, and reptiles. To represent the animal stimuli, we used
line drawings chosen to minimize perceptual similarity
between animals in the same taxonomic category (see
examples in Figure 1A-B).
Materials and Procedures
Participants completed pre- and post-test sessions on Monday
and Friday morning of the same week that took place during
a “before care” period prior to the start of camp activities. In
both Years 1 and 2, these sessions included a Spatial
Arrangement Method (SpAM) task (Goldstone, 1994), and in
Year 2, children additionally completed a Match-to-Sample
task (Figure 1). These tasks have complementary advantages:
The match-to-sample task provides a straightforward
assessment of taxonomic reasoning that is well-established in
developmental research (e.g., Fisher, 2011; Smiley & Brown,
1979; Waxman & Namy, 1997), whereas SpAM yields a
more graded measure of taxonomic relations knowledge and
the degree to which it changes with training. A recent
longitudinal study (Fisher et al., 2014) provided evidence that
the two measures converge on the same underlying construct.
SpAM Task. Participants were seated at a game board
consisting of a 10x10 grid, and were told that they were going
to play a game in which their job was to help a fictional
character, Zibbo, organize his favorite animals on the board
(Figure 1-A). The experimenter then showed participants a
stimulus sheet that depicted all 15 animal stimuli selected for
the child’s age group, named each animal, and removed the
sheet from view. Next, the experimenter told the participant
that they would organize the animals using cards that each
depicted an animal on the game board, such that “animals that
are the same kind of animal go close together, and different
kinds of animals go farther apart”. The experimenter placed
one of the 15 animal cards on a central game board square,
then named and presented each of the remaining cards for the
participant one-by-one. Cards were presented in a pre-
determined, pseudo-random order in which no more than two
animals from the same taxonomic group appeared
consecutively. Participants were allowed to move cards that
they had placed earlier in the task. Finally, the experimenter
photographed the board to record the locations of the cards.
Match-to-Sample Task. The animal stimuli for a given age
group were arranged into six triads that each consisted of a
Target, a Taxonomic Match that belonged to the same
taxonomic category as the Target and a Lure that belonged to
a different category (Figure 1-B). Of the six triads, two had
mammal Targets, two had bird Targets, and two had reptile
Targets. Triads were designed to eliminate non-taxonomic
cues to Taxonomic Matches, such as visual similarity or
shared habitat. For example, a triad might consist of a type of
flightless bird such as penguin as the Target, a bird capable
of flight such as owl as the Taxonomic Match, and a non-bird
such as polar bear as the Lure.
For each triad, the experimenter asked participants to
choose whether the Taxonomic Match or the Lure was “same
kind of animal” as the Target. The experimenter pointed to
and labeled the animals while providing these instructions
(e.g., “Which one is the same kind of animal as the penguin,
the owl or the polar bear?).
Of the Zoo Camp sample, children in both Year 1 and Year 2
(N=27) completed the SpAM task, whereas only children in
Year 2 (N=16) completed the Match-to-Sample task. All 32
children in the Control Camp sample were tested during Year
Figure 1: Schematic depiction of the SpAM task
(A) and the match-to-sample task (B).
2, and completed both tasks (although one participant’s
SpAM data were excluded due to camera malfunction).
SpAM Task. The photographs taken following each
arrangement trial were scored by treating the 10x10 board as
a coordinate plane, identifying the coordinates of each card,
and calculating the Euclidean distance between the
coordinates. The range of possible distances was 1 (adjacent
cards) to 12.73 (cards on diagonally opposite corners of the
board). These distances are taken as a measure of the degree
to which participants judge a given pair of animals to be the
“same kind of animal”, where shorter distances indicate
stronger judgments that the pair are of the same kind.
We used these distance data to calculate a Difference Score
for each participant at both Pre- and Post-test that captured
the degree to which participants placed taxonomically related
animals closer together than unrelated animals by subtracting
distances between pairs of animals from the same taxonomic
category from distances between taxonomically unrelated
pairs. Accordingly, larger Difference Scores reflected
stronger judgments that taxonomically related versus
unrelated animals were of the “same kind”.
Match-to-Sample Task. We calculated an Accuracy score
for each participant in which we calculated the proportion of
times they chose the Taxonomic Match.
We first assessed whether participants in both camps
performed comparably on the two measures of taxonomic
relations knowledge at Pre-Test. Note that the range of
Difference Scores on the SpAM task at Pre-Test was -.65 to
5.25 (chance=0), and of Accuracy scores on the Match-to-
Sample task was .17 to .83 (chance=.5). The results of
independent samples t-tests indicated that there was no
significant difference at Pre-Test between the performance of
participants in the two camps on either measure (SpAM:
Mzoo=.80, Mcontrol=.61, t(56)=.57, p=.57; Match-to-Sample:
Mzoo=.54, Mcontrol=.58, t(46)=.69, p=.49). Performance at Pre-
Test on the SpAM task was above chance in both camps (both
ts>2.86, both ps<.01), whereas performance on the Match-to-
Sample task was above chance in the Control Camp only
(Zoo: t(15)=.94, p=.362, Control: t(31)=2.61, p=.014).
Effects of Zoo versus Control Camp
These analyses measured the effects of Zoo Camp versus
Control Camp on changes from Pre- to Post-Test in
taxonomically organized knowledge: I.e., the degree to which
participants’ SpAM Difference Scores indicated that they
made “same kind” judgments based on taxonomic relations,
and the degree to which participants chose the Taxonomic
Match on the Match-to-Sample Task.
For each measure, we assessed whether Zoo camp
participants manifested greater improvements from Pre- to
Post-Test than participants in the Control camp using two
analyses. First, we used paired t-tests to compare Pre- versus
Post-Test Difference and Accuracy Scores for participants in
each camp separately, and found that whereas Zoo camp
participants performed significantly better across both
measures at Post- than Pre-test (SpAM: Mpre=.80, Mpost=1.30,
t(26)=3.01, p=.006, Cohen’s d=.34; Match-to-Sample:
Mpre=.54, Mpost=.73, t(15)=3.74, p=.002, Cohen’s d=1.02),
Control camp participants’ performance did not improve
from pre- to post-test (SpAM: Mpre=.61, Mpost=.59, t(30)=.19,
p=.85, Match-to-Sample: Mpre=.58, Mpost=.56, t(31)=.61,
Second, to compare performance of participants at both
camps directly, we calculated a Change Score for each
participant in which we subtracted Pre- from Post-Test scores
(such that larger Change Scores indicated larger
improvements). We then used independent samples t-tests to
compare SpAM and Match-to-Sample Change Scores
between the camps, and observed that across both measures,
Change Scores for Zoo Camp participants were larger than
those for Control Camp participants (SpAM: t(56)=2.61,
p=.011, Cohen’s d=.68, Match-to-Sample: t(46)=3.48,
p=.001, Cohen’s d=1.06; Figure 2).
Effects of Camp across Age Range
To test whether the effects of attending Zoo versus the
Control camp varied with age, we measured the correlation
between age and Change Score for each task in each camp.
Age was not correlated with Change Score for either task in
Control camp participants (rmatch-to-sample=-.033, rSpAM=-.002,
ps>.86), whereas in Zoo camp participants, age was
significantly correlated with Match-to-Sample task Change
Score (r=.56, p=.024) and marginally correlated with SpAM
task Change Score (r=.33, p=.09) (Figure 3). Moreover, these
correlations were not merely due to older children having
more taxonomic relations knowledge to start out with: In Zoo
camp children, pre-test performance on the SpAM task was
not correlated with Change Score (r=.11, p=.597) and pre-test
performance on the Match-to-Sample task was marginally
negatively correlated with Change Score (r=-.49, p=.052).
Influence of Taxonomic Themes
Finally, to test whether these results were driven by the
handful of Zoo Camp themes designed to teach taxonomic
relations, we re-ran all analyses excluding all data from
Figure 2. Change scores for Zoo and Control Camp
participants in SpAM (left) and Match-to-Sample (right)
tasks. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.
children in the 8-9 age group in Year 2 who experienced a
week of taxonomically-oriented themes (N=2), and trials
involving reptiles from children in the 4-5 age group in Year
2 who experienced a reptile-oriented theme (N=4). All results
reported above remained unchanged: Significant outcomes
remained for Pre- to post-test Zoo Camp comparisons, Zoo
vs. Control Camp Change Score comparisons, and
correlation between age and Match-to-Sample task Change
Score in Zoo Camp (all ps < .05).
This study aimed to capture learning-driven changes in
knowledge organization in action by measuring the effects of
concentrated, real-world learning experiences on the
organization of children’s knowledge about animals.
Specifically, we measured the effects of a week-long Zoo-
based summer camp on children’s knowledge of biological
taxonomic relations between animals. We observed that
across two converging measures, taxonomic relations
increasingly influenced knowledge organization in Zoo but
not Control Camp children. These effects transpired despite
equivalent Pre-Test performance, suggesting that the
difference between camps at Post-Test cannot be attributed to
greater prior taxonomic relations knowledge in Zoo Camp
children. Moreover, the difference between camps remained
even when data from Zoo Camp children who received
explicit taxonomic instruction were removed from analyses.
Finally, the results provided evidence that the degree to
which Zoo Camp experiences improved taxonomic relations
knowledge was associated with age, suggesting that older
children learn relations more effectively than younger
children (a possibility we discuss further below). Taken
together, these findings provide the first direct evidence that
learning experiences need not accumulate over lengthy
periods of time or take place in formal education settings to
shape knowledge organization. Instead, an immersive but
relatively brief learning experience in an informal setting can
promote significant knowledge organization changes.
The evidence for learning-driven knowledge organization
change presented here highlights the importance of
examining the mechanisms by which experience shapes
knowledge organization. For example, although the present
study was not designed to arbitrate between accounts of
conceptual development that place different emphases on
early conceptual biases versus domain-general processes and
learning mechanisms, our findings are inconsistent with the
perspectives emphasizing early conceptual biases towards
perceiving entities as organized into taxonomic categories
(e.g., Gelman, 2003; Keil, 2007; Wellman & Gelman, 1992).
By the same token, these findings support a key role for
learning throughout development in shaping the organization
of semantic knowledge (e.g., Fisher et al., 2015; McClelland
& Rogers, 2003; Tenenbaum et al., 2011). Research
following on from the present study could further arbitrate
between these accounts, particularly with respect to
illuminating the nature of learning mechanisms posited to
shape knowledge organization given environmental input.
Finally, our results provide some evidence that the
magnitude of learning-driven knowledge organization
changes increased with age. One characteristic of the learner
that may improve with age is prior knowledge organization
(Unger et al., 2016). Although taxonomic knowledge at pre-
test for the specific animals tested in this study was not
correlated with learning-driven improvements, it is possible
that older children’s knowledge of animals in general was
better organized than younger children’s knowledge.
Consequently, it may have been easier for older versus
younger children to integrate new information into existing
knowledge structures. Future research that investigates the
relationship between such learner characteristics and
learning-driven knowledge organization changes could
illuminate how learning from experience improves with age.
This study demonstrated that immersive learning experiences
at a zoo summer camp produced changes in organization of
children’s knowledge about animals. These findings build
upon research in several domains, including cognitive
development, expertise, and the learning sciences by
providing the first direct evidence for learning-driven
Figure 3: Correlations with age of Change Scores in
SpAM and Match-to-Sample tasks for each camp shown
with best-fit lines.
changes in knowledge organization. Future research should
further investigate the mechanisms by which learning drives
the development of knowledge organization.
This work was supported by a Graduate Training Grant
awarded to Carnegie Mellon University by the Department of
Education, Institute of Education Sciences (R305B040063)
and by the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century
Science Initiative in Understanding Human Cognition –
Scholar Award (220020401) to the second author. We thank
Vladimir Sloutsky for input on an earlier version of this
paper. We also thank Anna Vande Velde, Kristen Boyle,
Camille Warner, Ashli-Ann Douglas, Lindsay Gorby,
participating children, parents, and camps for their vital
contributions to this research.
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