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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