Author Archives: melissa079

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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The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

Over the past ten years in the field of interpretation, I have worked with nearly every audience:   pre-schoolers, school-aged kids, pre-teens, teens, young adults and families.  Each audience has provided a new and interesting challenge for me and it has been very rewarding.  So this year, when the opportunity to provide nature programs for a senior center arose, I decided to take on this new endeavor with gusto.

My first task was to learn more about my audience.  The old days of whipping up a simple yet entertaining blurb about an upcoming program were now behind me.  I needed to learn how to market to seniors in a different way.  To help me achieve this, I sat down with the director of the center to get insight into how to best provide programs for them.   It turns out that what they crave is routine; knowing that the same person will come on the same day of the week at the same time was helpful for them.  Time of day for this group was also crucial:  late morning.  To meet these needs, I set up the schedule to ensure that I would be there every Tuesday at 11:00am to provide a 50 minute presentation for them.

The structure for the overall series was also key in its success.  I set it up so that each topic ran for four consecutive weeks.  During the first three weeks, each presentation built upon the one before it.  The fourth session was a field trip to a local business or organization that summed up the overall topic for the series.  This format has allowed me to build a relationship with the seniors, which is important for this audience.  Topics so far have included backyard birds, birding basics, native wildlife myths, backyard habitats, composting, water quality, and organic gardening.

To market these programs and ensure success, the program descriptions were tailored to specifically address the concerns of seniors.  For the lectures, it was important to explain whether or not it would be held indoors.  For the field trips, they needed to know how much walking was involved, availability of seats/benches along the way, potential sun exposure, proximity to restrooms, etc.  By doing this, I was able to address Maslow’s Hierarchy within the write-up in order to best serve this audience.

Each presentation is thematic, drawing each sub-theme back to the overall theme of the series.  I try to instill that nature is accessible and they can experience the beauty and benefits of it in many different ways.  Whether watching birds at the feeder from their window, taking a hike, or planting some native wildflowers along a small patio.  My group of regulars loves conversation, and they add a lot to my knowledgebase as well.  This rewarding experience has allowed to me ‘grow my branches’ into a new style of programming.  That’s the great thing about this field:  there’s always something new to learn.

This picture is from our recent field trip to a recycling center.  The trip was the fourth installment of the Green Living Series.

This picture is from our recent field trip to a recycling center. The trip was the fourth installment of the Green Living Series.

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Investing In Your Most Valuable Resource: Your Staff

As a manager of a nature center, it is easy to get caught up in the daily interruptions, challenges, and projects that seem to come out of nowhere. Our plates are full between managing staff, volunteers, facilities, programs, animals, visitors, trails, kiosks…the list can goes on. It is so easy to push aside the less urgent but most important aspect of our jobs: effective leadership of our staff. Yet when we take the time to cultivate relationships and empower the people who provide programs for our patrons, we are truly investing in providing better services all around.

Some of the tools in my toolbox as a manager include:

  • Weekly one-on-one meetings with my direct reports
    • These serve to help me learn about what is going on with them, what they are working on, where they are struggling, and what they hope to accomplish. It’s a great time for me to provide feedback and help them work through problems to find creative solutions.
  • Development of short-term and long-term professional goals
    • It is easy to become stagnant and not work towards a higher vision when we get busy. I challenge my staff to set both short-term and long-term goals for themselves over the course of the year. We focus on SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
  • Regular staff meetings
    • We discuss everything from general housekeeping, updates, program development, special event planning, marketing, etc. Getting the entire team together allows for the flow of ideas in a supportive environment. Everyone has a role during the meeting to ensure active participation.
  • Off-site visits to other nature centers/outdoor recreation facilities
    • The best way to get refreshed and learn new ideas is by visiting another facility. We try to do this a couple times a year. Each experience has been rewarding for the staff.
  • On-going training opportunities
    • One of my staff members came up with the great idea of ‘Each-one, Teach-ones.’ This is where a staff member can spend 15-30 minutes teaching the rest of the group a new skill, activity, technique, etc. We also utilize free/inexpensive training opportunities locally as well as from subject matter experts within the department.
  • Team initiatives and special projects
    • To keep them motivated, we pick a couple of big projects to tackle over the course of the year and split into teams. Each team has a leader who is responsible for keeping everyone on course, tracking a budget, creating a timeline, and presenting updates to the rest of the group.

I’m curious to hear what you have found works well (or doesn’t work) for you and your staff!


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The Dog Days of Summer

Summer is a time for slowing down. Enjoying a cold glass of lemonade a bit slower than usual. Savoring fresh, local produce from the farmer’s market a little bit longer. Taking the time to delve into a novel beside the pool. And taking man’s (or woman’s) best friend for a leisurely stroll through winding trails in the shade.

As many take to the trails with Fido, I’d like to think that each and every one of those trail hikers is a responsible pet owner. But sadly, it turns out that is not the case. Here at our nature preserve, we installed ‘Mutt Mitt’ bags and trash cans throughout the area in hopes that our visitors would pick up after their four-legged friend. Turns out they are using them! But it seems that more often than not, these little bundles end up everywhere except the trash can.

Can any other interpreter’s out there identify with this or a similar visitor behavior problem? I think so! How many times do we find visitors violating park regulations or acting without the best interest of the nature preserve in mind? How do we appropriately discourage behavior like this in a respectful way to the visitor? By interpretation of course!

First, identify the problem. In our case, people were using the bags but dumping them off in a few select areas around the preserve. We decided to target our efforts around these dumping grounds.

Come up with a theme. We could go on all day preaching about water quality, health issues, etc. But when it came down to it, the theme that most people would identify with was ‘home.’No one likes dog poop in their home. Not even dogs.  Our sign has a picture of our box turtle with the caption:  I like a clean home, don’t you?

Identify your method. We came up with some signage to represent our theme and educate visitors on where to properly dispose of their pet waste. We also began offering ‘Hiking with Hounds’ programs to not only convey the rules and regulations of the preserve, but to also show visitors with dogs how to truly enjoy their hiking experience together. By inspiring them to take ownership and see the preserve as a home to a variety of living things, we began to see few bags littering the preserve.

Make it fun. Think of your effort to change a behavior as a way to not only educate, but to inspire and motivate someone to care about the resource.

Sprinkle in a few facts that relate back to your theme. We focused on food and water facts to relate back to the theme of ‘home.’  We used these facts from the perspective of the box turtle: Box turtles, like me, search the forest floor for berries, insects, and mushrooms to eat. I like to live in one area rather than travel too far, which means that I need to have plenty of food and fresh, clean water available. Pet waste doesn’t help plants grow and actually can be very harmful to me. Please help me keep my home healthy and clean by disposing of pet waste.

Encouraging respectful and wise-use of our natural landscape is at the heart of everything we do in the field of interpretation. Inspiring visitors to feel a connection between themselves and their surroundings can bring about a change in behavior that can impact future generations in a positive way.



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