Education equals schools—right or wrong? That deceptively simple question kicked off the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) web conference on October 15. “Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning” was the second installment of HFRP Interact, a yearlong series that explores family engagement in the context of out-of-school learning.

As the host, Heather Weiss—HFRP founder and director—asked panelists with expertise in education and digital media for their thoughts on ways to provide children with meaningful learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Traditional schooling is still important, but according to Weiss, the data increasingly show that learning doesn’t begin and end with a ringing school bell. Kids also learn through extracurricular activities, cultural institutions, health and wellness programs, and especially the internet.

Parents play a huge role in shaping kids’ out-of-school learning opportunities. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent or a caregiver who doesn’t want amazing, wonderful opportunities for their children,” said panelist Gregg Behr, executive director at the Grable Foundation.

Unfortunately, not all families have equal access to those opportunities. Panelist Terri Ferinde Dunham, who leads the National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, noted that higher-income parents outspend their lower-income peers 8:1 on outside-of-school activities, mainly because they have the disposable income to do so. Low-income families seek extracurricular options for their children, but cost and transportation obstacles often stand in the way. Currently, fewer than one-third of US children have access to afterschool programs, Dunham said.

Parents also need help creating a pathway for their children to follow their interests and passions and to bridge what they learn in and out of school. In Pittsburgh, for example, the Kids+Creativity Network is working to help parents find those paths. The 200 organizations and 2,000 people in the network are coordinating their efforts to make sure that kids who have a passion for robotics, spoken word, or computer coding can be challenged and guided to more advanced learning opportunities as their skills develop.

Behr talked about this pathway at the Harvard event, noting the important role of mentors as “tour guides” and supports for this anytime, anywhere learning.

To help guide kids, “We’ve placed fellows in the Carnegie libraries of Pittsburgh,” Behr said. “They have some makerspaces in the libraries, and those individuals know well the other maker opportunities in the community. So, if a child interested in ‘making’ visits the Northside branch of the Carnegie library, just down the street is the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Making those handoffs happen between institutions and supporting parents and caregivers to build upon the learning interests of their kids is critical.”

Libraries, in fact, are an important resource for families. Libraries have been engaging teens for decades, and now many are on the leading edge of reaching today’s kids where their interests lie. Often that means with digital media.

YOUmedia, teen-focused learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in 2009, is one of the more cutting-edge efforts. The library devoted a large space just for teens to work with the latest digital media tools. The teens can mix music in the sound studio, produce podcasts of video game reviews, put visuals to their favorite books, and create documentaries of their lives. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the city’s teens can head to local library branches to make robots or try out instruments with local musicians. YOUmedia spaces have spread to more than two dozen cities.

“That’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums,” Amy Eshleman, who led the team that created these spaces, told Remake Learning last year. “But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again.”

Anywhere, anytime learning isn’t a new concept for libraries, panelist Lori Takeuchi pointed out. Libraries have always been interested in extending learning opportunities for community members. Along with updating libraries for the 21st century, it’s important to strengthen links between libraries and other community institutions—and to simply put the word out.

You can watch Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning in the Harvard Family Research Project media archive and hear more from Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation, Terri Ferinde Dunham of National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, Lori Takeuchi of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, and Heather B. Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project.