Does Every Program Need a Theme?

I am about to pose a question that might verge on blasphemy within the professional NAI community. Are you ready? Here it comes: Is it possible that not every program needs a theme?


Did I really just write that in a forum seen by my peers? Will I be banished as a pariah interpreter? Will I lose my professional certification? Have I gone crazy?

Well, yes, many who know me will vouch that I might be a touch crazy. But hopefully I won’t be banished or professionally rebuffed. Let me explain what I mean …

First of all, I strongly believe in the value and effectiveness of thematic interpretation for the majority of situations and program types. I’ve had years of training in this method, have spent years training other interpreters to employ it, and firmly believe that most programs should have a theme. Like you, I believe this is the best way to get your message across to your audience.

But … yes, here’s the but! Is it possible that some programs don’t need to have a “message” per se? Can the purpose of your program be to create an experience – instead of conveying a main idea, create a special moment? Not a lesson but an impression? Is a program with this as its main goal ever appropriate?

Here’s what this kind of program might look like: Maybe instead of structuring your program as supporting points that build to your main idea, you structure this program as steps to prepare your audience to be receptive to a moment of direct experience with nature. Begin with an activity to break the ice and loosen them up. Then get them warmed up to the habit of focusing their senses and paying attention. Then set up the direct encounter with something special in nature. Finally, give them a chance to reflect or share so their mind can process this moment into a memory. This progression might be familiar to you if you’ve studied the “flow learning” method advocated by Joseph Cornell.

In the end, they haven’t really learned a “lesson,” but they go home with a special memory that they might carry with them forever. They’ll tell their teacher, their grandparents, and their cousins about how they got to hold a crayfish, or see a hiding deer fawn, or hear the call of a bald eagle. Can this sometimes be enough?

For example, consider a bird walk for families with young children. You could design a bird walk in the traditional way with a theme. Perhaps the message would be “Birds need safe places to raise their young.” Along the walk, you might visit several areas where birds are nesting and cover supporting ideas such as that some birds build their nests on tree limbs while some build them inside cavities, etc. By the end, your participants would hopefully take away your message.

Or, you could design the program to build up to the experience of a child holding a baby bird in their hands. Maybe you start with some kind of fun activity where the kids try to build a nest like a bird. Then maybe you go for a walk and warm up their senses by having them pretend they are parent birds looking for bugs to feed their babies. Then you arrive at your purple martin colony, where you watch the parents flying around, peek inside an actual nest with babies, and finally let the kids hold a baby in their hand! At this point, you just allow the kids to experience a magical moment with the baby bird, and don’t try to “teach” too much. The important thing going on here is the connection, not the information. The feeling, not the facts. The memory that is getting created. On the walk back, to help them reflect on the experience, maybe you ask them each to tell you two words that describe the baby bird.

Is a program like this acceptable as an interpretive program? Is it good? Does it fall short? Or does it have a place in our programming?

Personally, I think these kinds of programs are valuable. Especially in today’s world, where not only kids but people of all ages are having fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature on their own, I think that nature centers can try to facilitate these experiences. I think that sometimes setting up a simple but powerful experience, without trying to teach a lesson or convey a lot of facts and information, can go a long way towards getting people to feel that basic connection with nature and animals that is necessary as a starting point for any kind of care or concern for the natural world.

I don’t know. I could be lazy. I could be a heretic. I could be a bad interpreter. But I do know that when a little kid holds a baby bird, their eyes widen, their mouth drops open, and sometimes they tremble with excitement. Is that sometimes enough?

Categories: Discussion topic, General | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Does Every Program Need a Theme?

  1. Finally, someone at least pecking slightly at the whole thematic paradigm. The research seems to tell us that it is the memories that stick. I view memories of an indicator of connection to place that is fare more powerful than any interpreter-centeredintended “so what.”

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