Monthly Archives: December 2015

Keeping Things “Cool” with Help from Our Young Staff

No matter what set of standards you use, one of the prime guidelines for effective interpretation is to make your programs “relevant.” To relate your message to your audience and their experiences. To frame your message in a context that helps your audience connect with it. At my place of work, the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between The Lakes, we have found that tapping into pop culture works well as a way of making our programs relevant.


And we have also found that our youngest staff members are the most helpful when it comes to knowing what is “cool” in the world of pop culture.


During our most recent program calendar planning meeting, where we brainstorm ideas for the next year’s public programs, our younger staff told us “old fogies” (I’ll turn 40 in a few months) what was likely to be popular with kids in 2016: The Jungle Book, Frozen (yes, again, welcome the Frozen sequel), The Avengers (yes, again, ditto), and March Madness (we are located in Kentucky, you know, and have a live resident bobcat to boot), to name a few. In the past, our younger staff members have clued us in to trends like cooking contest shows; Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, etc.; reality talent shows; The Lorax movie; ninjas; and the list goes on.


So, what do we do with this information? The key is to find ways to tap into these popular trends that help you communicate the messages you want to communicate. In other words, we don’t change our messages just to fit the whims of the moment, but we capitalize on these pop culture trends to help make our programs more fun and enticing.


As a native wildlife center, we do a lot of programs that focus on topics such as the food chain and animal adaptations. Back when Iron Chef was popular, we created a program called “Iron Chef Animal,” which mainly taught about the differences between herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores. In recent years, this has evolved into “Chopped: Animal Edition!” To teach about adaptations, we have come up with twists such as “Nature’s Ninjas,” where we learned how predatory animals use stealth and surprise, and the kids even learned one ninja move to go with each animal. In a similar vein, we have offered programs such as “Animal Avengers” and “Animal X-Men,” which compare animals and their adaptations to superheroes and their powers.


Other examples include a puppet show for young children in which Olaf from Frozen visits Kentucky and meets native Kentucky animals (and makes funny comparisons between them and the cold-weather animals he is familiar with); an outdoor skills program called “Kid vs. Wild;” a puppet show version of The Lorax, followed by a hands-on activity about the human and animal uses of trees; and a birthday-party-like “Happy Wolf Day Party” to celebrate Wolf Awareness Week (birthday parties are always cool with kids).


Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m still a huge fan of good old-fashioned outdoor experiences like nature hikes, pond dipping, creek walks, and kayaking. But like it or not, there are lots of people who would never consider attending a program like that. But something called “Dancing with the Animal Stars” (coming in Spring 2016) might get their attention. Or “The Hunger Games: Wolf Edition” (that was so 2014).


The first step of communicating our message is getting people to want to come to our site in the first place. And a good way to figure out what might appeal to the masses, in my experience anyway, is to start by asking your youngest staff what’s “cool.”


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Is Your Site A “Dangerous” Place?

In academic circles there is a lot of discussion these days about “safe spaces.”  The term has evolved to mean there should be places where students won’t be confronted by ideas, concepts, or imagery that might challenge them.  One train of thought says the entire campus should be a safe space.

Some (for sure not all) of college-aged folks have created quite a stir.  There are demands for “trigger warnings” before provocative information is shared.  Some propagate avoiding these “triggers” or “microaggressions” altogether.  Exposure to these challenging ideas apparently causes the students to withdraw or shut down. This has caused some to refer to said individuals as “snowflakes” because they are so fragile.  This is not just in the United States.  In Taiwan they are called “strawberries” because strawberries bruise easily.

This past summer my family and I visited Poland and while there we toured the Auschwitz concentration camp compounds.  I was able to follow up that visit with a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, this past fall.  The Holocaust Museum is one of, if not the best, museums I have ever visited.  At both sites I was confronted with painful images and stories of utter horror.  As hard as it was to take in, it had a powerful impact on me and I shall never forget.

Tilden’s Fourth Principle states “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”  I have always highlighted the idea of provocation.  While provocation may stir up various emotions, it is not about making someone angry or hurting someone.  It is about making us think and possibly shaking us free from an incorrect notion.  My campus and your site would be mistaken if we bow to the pressure of being a “safe space.”  Please, never be afraid of being “dangerous!”

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Geo-Caching and Interpretation

The holidays are happening and sometimes I’m at a loss on what to write, but after listening to a geocache aficionado discuss the joys of finding that hidden treasure the other day, I had a question to all those interpreters out there: “Are there sites or projects using geocaching in their interpretive practices?”

What I’m really hoping is that, in the comments section, interpreters will leave ideas based on some of their models. I’m certainly not sure this will work–but it depends on our Sunny Southeast folks to help out and give us some fresh new perspectives.

Just what is geocaching in case you’ve been tucked away working on more traditional interpretation ideas for the last few years?

From “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”

The idea of geocaching just seems to enticing not to be using–what better way to have visitors explore than to put down a line of breadcrumbs located at important locations around a site and then fill containers with bits of interpretive goodness?

Anyway, please take a moment to share your geocaching successes–and failures–with everyone.

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Stone Mountain’s just around the corner!

It’s that time of year when the world falls in love – Every song you hear seems to say “Merry Christmas, may your New Year dreams come true”….and it’s also that time of year to start getting ready to attend the NAI Sunny Southeast region’s annual workshop!

Cardinal snowTwo months from Thursday, the workshop will be starting in Stone Mountain, Georgia. To make it easy to get your ducks in a row, here are a few quick links from the workshop page:

Questions? Contact Kate Mowbray, 706-613-3615 X 231 or

Please also help the 2017 workshop committee make key decisions about the next RIW by filling in this short 5-question survey.

Thanks, and happy holidays!

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