Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Literacy Garden at the Mississippi Children’s Museum, Jackson, MS

giant mushrooms

It is pretty well known among educators that early childhood years are crucial for children’s language and literacy development. In addition to learning words, preschoolers are learning to articulate their feelings and needs, ask questions, convey what they know, interact with others, learn grammar, and a myriad of other foundational communication skills. And it is also pretty well agreed that learning happens best when children are having fun. These tenets are the foundations of a new outdoor, 13,000 square foot gallery at the Mississippi Children’s Museum in Jackson, known as the Literacy Garden.

The Literacy Garden was designed to inspire and educate children through interactive and artful play spaces. Designed for preschool-aged children through the third grade, the garden features a variety of audio/visual and signage elements that focus on phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. And these are presented in some unexpected ways.

sand play

Giant pink mushrooms have touchscreen monitors full of riddles and rhymes, and colorful spiraling sculptures offer sounds of musical instruments, wild animals, and letters of the alphabet. A 30-foot waterfall spells words or forms patterns as the water drops fall and the structure itself offers little portals for children to crawl beneath. Scribbling on an erasable creativity wall is encouraged and poems are revealed as visitors walk the meandering pathway. These activities weave together through this outdoor space so children can discover as they move from one place to another.

Fantasy elements also interlace the outdoor garden, with a three story treehouse for children to climb, complete with giant root structures to play amongst. There are giant sand rings, flower-shaped writing stations, a vegetable and herb garden, and even an amphitheater to act out an improvised performances.


The new exhibit has proven popular with children, weather permitting, and offers unstructured outdoor play coupled with learning objectives. Getting excited about reading and words is a first healthy step to early childhood literacy, and learning from the outdoors is a great place to create stories. Find out more about the Literacy Garden at the Mississippi Children’s Museum at

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It is better when you ask the experts

Since I became a Nature Center Manager I had to be realistic about expectations for my staff and myself. We all love what we do and try our best but sometimes that does not mean that we are putting out the best products we can offer.

When Interpreters try to create a flyer the average staff will turn to publisher if they know how to use it. For the most part the flyer will be filled with clip art and look… well, like clip art from publisher.

A few years ago we reached out to our local community college because they have a graphic design department with very talented students that cloud not wait to put their creative brains and newly acquired skills to work. Every semester I receive a few applications for our unpaid co-op position.

EdGuideStudents will not get paid in cash but they get a real life experience to become the head of our graphic design department (which we do not have). They get the artistic liberty to create and gain the experience of selecting materials, request quotes, present a budget and get it approved for production.
The end result are banners, summer camp shirts, flyers, post cards, water bottles, and just about anything that we have produced at the nature center in the past few years. None of these products resemble clip art and look fantastic.

Next time you are dealing with a task, think outside the box and think about the most efficient way to deal with it and who the expert is for that task. You will be surprised with the end result.

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The Secret Ingredient

“________ is the essential ingredient for powerful and effective interpretation-________ for the resource and for those people who come to be inspired by the same.”

Principle 15. Cable and Beck The Gifts of Interpretation

Perhaps most important, interpreters should have a _________ for their work.

-Freeman Tilden Interpreting Our Heritage


In the field of interpretation we are constantly studying how to make the profession better.  We are always looking at new ways to engage audiences, expand our voice through the incorporation of new technologies or best practices from individuals who are practiced in the field.  While all of these skills are needed to move our profession forward, we must first look to see what makes interpretation great already.  Refine the enthusiasm already present in order to make ourselves better interpreters.  When scrutinizing us we must not forget the secret ingredient to good interpretation.  The element needed above all else.  One critical cog present within all interpretation that makes it great.  What is this elusive component?  How can we find it?  Can it be mined?  Is there a learned equation that can provide us the answer?  Why is it such a secret if this part is so desperately needed?

“Well…what is it author?!”

“You can tell me!  I promise to keep it between us!”


Ok I will tell you.  However, you have to promise to NOT keep it a secret.  You must share this element with everyone.  Incorporate into every program.  To have it burst forth from you in both voice and in action.

“Ok I promise!”

You ready?

“YES!  I was ready half a page ago, just saying…”


“Passion?  Really?  Well that makes sense, but how is that a secret?”

Passion is not included in Freeman Tilden’s six principles of interpretation, yet he says it is the most important aspect.

“Why if it is so important did he not include it as a principle?”

Excellent thought, here is mine; because it is a secret feature of every interpreter.  Tilden wrote the six principles to help guide us to developing better interpretation.  Due to the inherent passion for the rocks, trees and history within his soul, Tilden believes the interpreter has same within their own body.  Since the trait already exists inside you, why then make it a principle?  Such a redundancy is not needed when people are naturally passionate.  Without that desire an individual would not be sharing how rocks beneath our feet were formed over millions of years or how integral moths were to pollinizing prairie plants before the introduction of European honey bees.  Passion is the crucial element to making any interpretation powerful, meaningful and successful.  It is a superpower that resides inside us all.  Interpreters just choose to share it with the world, every day of the year, through interactive educational experiences.

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How Do You Beat the Heat?

Perhaps it’s to be expected over the Labor Day holiday, but it is H-O-T outside.  In my neck of the woods, even the cacti in the nearby gardens are sweltering under a wretched week-long stretch of heat indexes over 100.

It’s a good reminder to think about how we can remind our visitors to be heat-conscious at our sites.  Below are some examples.

Pets heat First-Aid-Sign-NHE-17813_1000 drink water DEVA heat

How do you beat the heat?  Tell us in the comments!

Editor’s note: This is Chance’s final blog post for Region 3, as he has moved to Toronto to enroll in a doctoral program at York University.  His research will focus on the intersection of public land management and Indigenous studies.

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No Country for Old Gophers

By Marisol Asselta Castro

Warning: this story involves farmers, tourists, and rodent decapitation, in pretty much that order.

Not the gopher in question, but this one's famous for similar reasons.

Not the gopher in question, but this one’s famous for similar reasons. (Orion Pictures)

One of my most memorable interpretive moments is not what you’d call a conventionally successful one.

Picture it: Sicily, 1937…no, wait. That’s the Golden Girls. This was a gorgeous day in the central coast region of California during the summer of 2006. Our Farm-to-School and “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” information tent was up and running at a beautiful strawberry and pumpkin farm that was one of the many local farm stops on the “Tour d’Organics” bike ride, and we already had a chance to talk to several San Francisco area foodies about the importance of robust local food systems that work with the environment. The premise of the Tour was a simple but effective one: bicyclists do a 50 or 100 mile loop around the area, visiting checkpoints at different organic farms, restaurants, businesses, etc. to learn more about what they do and how to support them. Raffles for the trendiest new environmentally sustainable items, such as a $3000 bamboo bicycle, helped to draw in the wealthier Slow Food crowd from San Francisco and Oakland. Overall it was a wonderful event that helped bring consumers and producers together in a fun, effective way. What could go wrong?

To quote another long-running TV show, there is a point where people stop being polite and start getting real. A day-long event means that the farms need to keep doing what they do while the tourists come and go. Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that things will inevitably get messy. You know who doesn’t necessarily know that? Tourists. We’d already run into some difficulties with a few of our farmers who didn’t approve of an ad in our local food guide saying, “Come meet your friendly neighborhood farmer!” What if they didn’t want to be friendly? Who said they had to be friendly anyway? Sure, people can visit, but they shouldn’t expect them all to be friendly all the damn time! Fair point. The “friendly” was ultimately removed, just to make sure no unrealistic expectations of friendliness were set.

The woman who ran this particular farm was, in fact, very friendly in a no-nonsense, full-contact sort of way. L would welcome you to her place with open arms and then drag you along to help with the chores while stuffing you with every delicious thing she could find along the way. I was once greeted by an amazing fresh strawberry vodka cocktail right after she met my boss: “Here. You need this.” She delighted in showing people her fields and farm animals. She also had a strong right arm and a wicked swing with a hoe. This became incredibly relevant during one of our Tour d’Organic visitor sessions.

So there we were, with a new batch of shiny-faced, enthusiastic bicyclists munching on strawberries and leafing through Farm-to-School brochures while listening to my partner’s spiel on the benefits of student field trips to local food producers, when one of them happened to look up and squeal in excitement as a cute little gopher popped its head up from a nearby hole. Nature appreciation was in full swing, with cameras out and mutual shushing to keep the little guy from getting scared off. You can see where this is going. Next thing we know, L is barreling down on the rodent with hoe in hand, not so neatly slaughtering the critter in front of a group of horrified Bay Area foodies. As she hacked away, she did help us out with a teachable moment: “These (chop) F****RS (chop) eat my (chop) PUMPKINS!”. And while this is completely true and an important facet of organic farming – L had shown us a line of squashes she had spent backbreaking weeks cultivating that had been hollowed out from underneath by gophers – I can’t say with total confidence that those tourists walked away with this truth in the forefront of their minds.

As interpreters, my partner and I did our best to bridge the gap between presenting the uncompromising reality of farming, as opposed to the romanticized ideal many people imagine, and the need to give people some warning before you decapitate a small creature in front of an inexperienced audience. And most of them did end up with a good understanding of how difficult it can be to cultivate food without many of the conveniences that come with conventional large-scale agriculture. L is still going strong on her farm today, welcoming visitors and running camps, field trips, and other programs. And I will never forget the taste of a fresh strawberry vodka cocktail, the site of the sparkling bay just over the next field, or the look on the faces of those poor tourists. It’s just one of those moments that stays with you.

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