Monthly Archives: December 2016

How to gain momentum with your interpretive programming.

As we enter a new year and begin to set goals both personally and professionally, I want to share one of my favorite videos that we share with staff and volunteers to encourage innovative interpretive programming and engage our audiences.

For all the “Lone Nuts” and “First Followers” out there.

Happy New Year!

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The Value of Unstructured Play

As natural history interpreters, we know that time spent in nature, especially engaged in play, is critical to a child’s development. Not only does outdoor play lead to increased physical activity, it can alleviate symptoms of ADHD and asthma as well as promote creativity, self-discipline, problem-solving skills, cooperation, and confidence.  Playing in nature reduces stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and leads to a reduction in anxiety and depression.  Yet too often today’s children are over-scheduled and over-stimulated.  They rush from school to soccer practice to flute lessons and then do homework.  Weekends are packed with deadlines, chores, activities, and much more.  The value of unstructured play in nature, where children can explore the world around them using their imaginations, is the stuff of our childhoods and it is quickly fading away. 

The Woodland Sprites program, at McDowell Nature Center, is one way we are helping children play in nature.  This once-a-week, three-hour program for ages 4 to 6 years is held completely outdoors regardless of weather conditions.  Participants learn through exploration and play in a supported environment where all learning is child-initiated and child-led.  Staff have target skills to facilitate and activities to suggest, but children are encouraged and allowed to follow their own interests and curiosity. 

A typical day begins with parents dropping off their children for the program.  A ‘base camp’ has been set up prior to their arrival and once everyone is ready, the group walks to the camp.  To start things off, staff lead the children in a circle game to check-in, review boundaries and rules, and introduce various props they can use.  Then the group is dismissed into the woods for unstructured play and exploration.  As the children start to explore the woods around them, their imaginations take over.  A few of them may gather within the boundary and start building fairy houses while another group may gather to collect sticks for a fort.  They sit on the ground and get dirty under the careful supervision of staff who join in with the unique games, storytelling, and treasure hunts the children invent throughout the day. 

During the program, children learn by example and through their own trial-and-error.  They experience the importance of showing respect for themselves, others, and the environment.  They learn that it is okay, and encouraged, to get dirty playing outside! Most importantly, they learn to be children. Through providing the community this unique, innovative program, we are able to offer a new service that fills the gap between structured pre-school programs and children’s desire to explore the world around them. 






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Last chance: apply for a scholarship or submit a session proposal for the 2017 NAI Sunny Southeast workshop!

“Rooted In the Land,” March 7-10, 2017, Shepherdsville, KY

Last minute gifts - and scholarshipsFor those of you who like to do your holiday shopping last-minute, here is your reminder that you can still apply last minute for your scholarship or session, too! The deadline for both is 11:59PM this Thursday, Dec. 15.

To be considered for a $500 scholarship, send the completed scholarship application (Word file), personal statement, letter of support, and blog post to Jessica Goodrich Watts,

Submit your ideas for either a 45 or 90 minute session at the workshop! Share your own story or encourage fellow interpreters to present programs they excel at! Review the requirements and submit your session proposal to Whitney Wurzel,

Have questions? Don’t hesitate to contact Jessica and Whitney directly. We look forward to seeing you in Kentucky!

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Dec 21-22 Ursid meteor shower

Cosmic Fireball Falling Over ALMA

Credit: ESO/C. Malin

One of the most surprising public programs that I conducted was simply entitled “A Night Walk under the Stars.”  It was surprising to me because I didn’t think I would have too many people attend a program with such an insipid title—but boy was I wrong–the parking lot was full! I chose this program for our mid-summer schedule in order to avoid the Mississippi heat, which can put a real damper on attendance. So I designed an evening program when it was a bit cooler.

I was traveling to give a lecture in another town that day and really didn’t have time to prepare for the program (yeah, I know you’ve never done that before). So I pulled into the gravel parking lot, arranged a few plastic chairs into a circle, and collected some firewood in case anyone would show. At the appointed hour a few cars pulled in, then more, until there were over 60 adults and children sitting around the circle. Curious about this, I began to ask where the folks were from and why they came. There were some locals, but quite a few had traveled up to 90 miles to come to this program. They said they just never went on night walks or sat around a fire at home and decided to bring the kids. I was stunned and concerned equally.

So as night fell we did the usual campfire things like roast marshmallows and tell stories. Then it came time for the hike. Luckily we had a full moon and the gravel paths were easy to see, but dark enough to see the luminescent critters living in the gravel. Owls hooted, there were plenty of scary dark paths, and long shadows reached from the trees. The kids had a hushed excitement as we came around every bend and we followed our ears to find the frog chorus in the pond. To me it was an evening hike that every scout knows well, to these urban children it was a magical time.

Scheduling an evening watch during a meteor event can be another fun public event. Yes, the best times to see these fireballs are in the wee morning hours, but just like getting up early to go fishing it can become part of the experience. Many cities are too brightly lit to see meteors well, so if your facility is in a rural dark place it could be a real program opportunity. And like fishing, waiting for meteors can be a slow process and offers plenty of time to discuss what meteors are, how they emit light, and how we encounter them at certain times of the year. Add to that some folklore about celestial events and borrow an extraterrestrial rock from a local science museum, and ta da—you have an instant program.

The Ursid meteor shower will best be seen in the northern hemisphere on Dec. 21 and 22 during the winter solstice. Just look for the meteors coming from the direction of the Little Dipper in the Ursa Minor constellation, hence the name Ursids. Tell folks to bring lawn chairs, a blanket and some hot chocolate to keep warm, and a flashlight. And happy stargazing!

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