In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nonformal and Informal Environmental Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Textbooks, Anthologies, Bibliographies, and Dedicated Journal Issues
  • Planning for Nonformal and Informal Environmental Learning
  • Evaluating Nonformal and Informal Environmental Learning
  • Evaluation: Relevant Journals and Websites
  • Nature and Environmental Interpretation
  • Ecotourism and Nonformal/Informal Environmental Learning

Education Nonformal and Informal Environmental Education
Joe Heimlich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0316


Much of what people know about the environment and the world around them is learned outside of schooling. Everyday and incidental learning (e.g., magazines, newspapers, Internet) have rapidly become more prominent with the mobility and interconnectedness of handheld electronics and nearly constant connectivity, yet two other structures of learning, those of nonformal and informal environmental learning, remain important ways in which people learn about the world around them. Whether map-led nature walks, exhibits in museums, or interpretive signage in a park or zoo, informal education efforts are important in the learningscape of an individual. The nonformal elements of workshops, programs, guided experiences, and museum shows or first-person interpretation often help learners transition from the “wow” to the “what” of our world, including the natural and constructed components of it. The differences between the structures of informal and nonformal learning are important for designing learning experiences that are highly transferrable to other informal and nonformal learning contexts.

General Overviews

Defining informal and nonformal environmental education is at best an imperfect art. Much of the grounding literature comes from adult education, where these terms for out-of-school learning have a more easily understood context. The key distinctions among formal, nonformal, and informal learning were presented by Coombs, et al. 1973 as administrative: formal education is tied to institutions from which learners graduate, nonformal is associated with communities and organizations, and informal is anything else (such as television, museums, libraries, and conversations) that leads to learning. Mocker and Spear 1982 moved from administrative-driven definitions and added a fourth category when the authors structured a taxonomy using a programmatic determinant of who sets the goals, and who controls the means of engagement to distinguish between formal, where the goals and means are set by the organization/teacher; nonformal, in which the means are set by the educator but the control to learn or not learn is up to the individual; informal, where the individual determines the means but the institution or educator sets the outcomes; and incidental, or the unintended, everyday learning where the learner determines both the objectives and the means. Fordham 1993 added the construct of top-down/bottom-up approaches related to nonformal and informal to differentiate when the decision resides with the learner (bottom up) versus the organization/educator (top down), and Heimlich 1993 applied the conditions specifically to environmental education. A different approach presented in Schugurensky 2000 offers an image of exclusion leading to the large arena of informal learning where most meaningful learning occurs. Falk and Dierking 1998 reframes the discussion to pull all nonschooling education under an umbrella of “free choice learning.” The report National Research Council 2009 brought together concepts from many areas of education theory and helped codify theoretical foundations of informal learning. Other collections of articles in special issues of journals also provide grounding in the constructs of informal and nonformal environmental learning: Heimlich 2005 focuses on free-choice environmental learning; Falk, et al. 2009 looks broadly at free-choice environmental learning; and Taylor and Parrish 2010 focuses on adult learning in cultural institutions that are informal and nonformal contexts for learning, and on opportunities in nonschool (or beyond school) settings to maximize the learning possibilities.

  • Coombs, P. H., R. C. Prosser, and M. Ahmed. 1973. New paths to learning: For rural children and youth. New York: International Council for Educational Development.

    Formal education is institutional, hierarchical, and chronologically graded; nonformal is any organized educational activity outside of schooling; and informal is what is left, such as conversations, mass media, and what one gets from everyday activities.

  • Falk, J. H., and L. D. Dierking. 1998. Free-choice learning: An alternative term to informal learning? Informal Learning Environments Research Newsletter, May-June. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

    Falk and Dierking coined the term “free-choice learning” in the 1990s, arguing that it can transcend the challenges of formal versus nonformal and informal learning. This article represents the presentation of the term to the larger education research community.

  • Falk, J. H., J. E. Heimlich, and S. Foutz, eds. 2009. Free choice learning and the environment. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

    This book contains eleven chapters written by leading voices in environmental education in the United States at the time, and broadly addresses informal and nonformal environmental learning across multiple contexts.

  • Fordham, P. 1993. Informal, non-formal and formal education programmes. YMCA George Williams College ICE301, Lifelong learning, Unit 1: Approaching lifelong learning. Informal Education Archives.

    Expanding on Coombs, et al. 1973, Fordham presents the contexts in which formal, nonformal, and informal differentiations emerged more broadly in education. Community and underserved audiences are important drivers for informal education, along with realizing education and schooling are not the same.

  • Heimlich, J. E. 1993. Nonformal environmental education: Toward a working definition; The environmental outlook. Columbus, OH: ERIC/CSMEE Informational Bulletin.

    Building on the work of Mocker and Spear, Heimlich presents the first critical structure for analysis of the many different contexts and structures under which environmental education is taught.

  • Jarvis, P. 2006. Towards a comprehensive theory of human learning. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge.

    Jarvis presents a compelling picture of adults’ inability to realize present learning and notes the incidental nature of both preconscious and unplanned learning. He reflects that people respond to events in a “living manner—but then learning is about life” (p. 1).

  • Mocker, D. W., and G. E. Spear. 1982. Lifelong learning: Formal, nonformal, informal, and self-directed. Information Series No. 241. Columbus, OH: Eric Clearinghouse for Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

    Developed for the ERIC Clearinghouse system, the report presents a framework for determining differences among formal, nonformal, incidental and everyday learning using a transferrable matrix based on who controls the content, and who controls the means of receiving the content.

  • National Research Council. 2009. Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Edited by P. Bell, B. Lewenstein, A. W. Shouse, and M. A. Feder. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This was the first National Research Council (USA) consensus study to identify and summarize research on learning in informal settings, which the authors define very broadly to include everyday experiences (e.g., walking in a park, a hobby), designed settings (e.g., zoos, science museums) and programs (after school, or environmental monitoring through a local organization). The committee brought together insights learned from many fields of education, such as experiential education and adult education, and constructs of life-long, life-wide, and life-deep learning.

  • Schugurensky, D. 2000. The forms of informal learning: Towards a conceptualization of the field. Wall Working Paper No. 19. Ontario: Centre for the Study of Education and Work.

    This short paper offers three forms of informal learning: self-directed, incidental, and socialization. Author builds this taxonomy based on his earlier work of intentionality and awareness of learning as a continuum with self-directed and socialization at either end.

  • Taylor, W., and M. M. Parrish, eds. 2010. Adult education in cultural institutions: Aquariums, libraries, museums, parks, and zoos. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 127. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This rich collection of articles presents a broad array of how adult education is employed in nonschool settings. Many specifically focused on environmental learning.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.