Peter Rabbit in the Garden

peterrabbitflyerI am lucky enough to be an educator at the South Carolina Botanical Garden (SCBG), a magical place nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the campus of Clemson University. I am always searching for new ways to bring local families into the Garden for low-cost fun and educational experiences.  As I start writing this post, I am in the throes of preparing for my second Peter Rabbit Festival at the Garden. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the steps I followed, and issues I faced/face in planning this event.

Some years ago – in the late 80s, early 90s – the SCBG was the site for some extremely popular Peter Rabbit Festivals. Since we have a Peter Rabbit Garden the connection seemed natural. Peter Rabbit was also a good choice since Beatrix Potter’s work has been out of copyright for several years and her beautiful, whimsical drawings could be used freely.

The first Peter Rabbit Festival was an attempt to raise the Garden’s public presence, and also to bring in donations to the cash-strapped entity. For several years this festival grew exponentially. The last time it was held, thousands of people descended on the Garden, but, unfortunately, by the end of the day,  every garden bed was trampled flat. The desire to bring donations into the Garden was also unsuccessful. I heard a story of the Director pointing out a sign for a suggested $1 donation and the visitor responding “Well, it only says suggested.” Definitely a cautionary tale for me.

Our Garden is nearly 300 acres, so deciding where to locate the festival within the space took some thought. Our largest parking area is on the opposite end of the Garden from our most visited end of the site. In the end, I decided on locating the festival in this highly visited area which has 2 sets of restrooms and several water fountains. It was important to ensure people’s personal comfort was ensured so they could enjoy the activities. For those less able to walk, we rented and ran a shuttle bus from our main parking area to the front of the Garden, where the activities were located.

Last year’s festival was attended by well over a thousand visitors, and this year we anticipate many more. As I face the second Peter Rabbit Festival, parking and crowd control is at the forefront of my mind. My biggest fear is that people will begin parking in undesignated spots and destroy the space they have come to enjoy. I hope by extending the hours of the festival from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. to 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. attendance will be spread out more. Last year we opened up additional parking in a bit of a panic, this year we plan on using all available parking from the beginning of the program.

prSerendipity: Finding Peter Rabbit
My biggest coup in festival planning was a very happy accident. I discovered that a Peter Rabbit costume can be “rented” for the cost of shipping ($160) from Costume Specialists of Columbus, Ohio.  I highly recommend this company if you are planning a festival – they are incredibly easy to work with and they have many characters from several publishing houses that would fit with many programs.

I knew rabbits were to be the main theme so I contacted our local 4-H rabbit clubs, a local rescue, and a newly formed wildlife education organization, all were thrilled to participate. These groups formed the core of the event. Three families of children in my programs also stepped up to help. One mother is a professional face-painter, and she kindly donated her profits. Another has strong ties to a local craft shop, they kindly produced 500 pairs of bunny ears for children to color. One family constructed and painted a Peter Rabbit photo station. We also had storytellers scattered through the site and a scavenger hunt in one section. We also included Beatrix Potter in the event. At our historic Hunt Cabin, a volunteer talked about Beatrix Potter’s life and told Peter Rabbit Tales. Also, at the Cabin, a mycology professor put on a fantastic mushroom display referencing Beatrix Potter’s skill as a mycologist.

These elements remain in the second festival, but the festival has grown. We have added two food vendors and was approached by an artist who specializes in Peter Rabbit gifts, all of which is very exciting!  In order to try and make more money for the Garden’s education programs we are selling t-shirts and notecards with a Peter Rabbit theme and the vendors are donating a portion of their profits on the day. From the first festival, we made less than a hundred dollars in donations but, thanks to the face-painter giving us all the money she made, we made about $400 total – we hope we can beat this amount this year.

Word of mouth has been invaluable in advertising the Festival. A cadre of mothers who attend my programs helped enormously in spreading the word among local families. This year we were extremely fortunate that a group called “Only in South Carolina” shared information about the Garden and the festival on Facebook in late February, and this article was shared over 600 times.  When I posted the latest flyer on Facebook (last week) it has reached over 12,000 people and had over 1,000 engagements.

One thing I have realized as I write this. I have very few pictures of the first festival. I was busy troubleshooting and trying to make sure everything went smoothly. We did try and use a hashtag to encourage people to share their photos. This time I will put way more effort into this – and appoint someone who is not me to take photos.

The Second Peter Rabbit Festival is this Saturday, April 27th and at the moment I am making lists to ensure directional signs have been made, electrical drop cords and telephone cords available, all the participants re-contacted, all the while trying to keep my nerves under control. I hope this year, in addition to entertaining many people, we’ll make some money for educational programming – we shall see.

Sue Watts, Educational Program Coordinator, South Carolina Botanical Garden





















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Nature Play: Unstructured Play in Two Parts

Other folks have talked before about the value of unstructured play. Today I’d like to showcase the twin elements of open-ended play offered at the WNC Nature Center: the creation of eight Nature Play Areas, spearheaded by Lauren Pyle, and four Nature Play Packs, created by Tori Duval.

Nature Play Areas

I work in the gift shop, so I have the benefit of being able to chat with folks when they are both at the end of their visit and waiting on the kiddos to make a decision about which souvenir will be The One.  I tend to get a pretty good sampling of folks’ impressions of their visit.  One of the most frequent comments I hear is how much people enjoy the playgrounds scattered around the zoo.

Nature Play areas at the WNC Nature Center

Nature Play areas at the WNC Nature Center. Photos courtesy of the WNC Nature Center.

These Nature Play areas were developed to encourage kids to interact with their environment in a way they may not be used to. We are an urban park and many of our visitors are city-dwellers.  These natural spaces offer a way for kids to explore the natural world in a different way.  It also gives parents a chance to take a break, and take a seat, while the little ones burn off some excess energy.


Each play area has its own focus. Arachnid Adventure offers a webbed climbing structure. Egg collection baskets and cleaning tools can be found at the Farm Chores station. Sounds of Nature showcases kids’ musical skills on wooden wind chimes, drums, and marimbas. The Builders’ Deck, Balls & Chutes, and Build a Fort stations encourage young engineers.  Playwrights get their start at the Puppet Theater while artists show their skills at the Paint with Water station.  And, the Mining Sluice lets young geologists and paleontologists uncover fossils and gemstones.

Nature Play Packs

Explore Outdoors Nature Play Pack

Explore Outdoors Nature Play Pack. Photo courtesy of the WNC Nature Center.

The Nature Play Backpacks are a reimaging of our previous adventure pack check-out program.  While the original program was a set of structured activities—similar to a Junior Ranger program—these new kits encourage unstructured play.

Each themed backpack contains tools for interacting with the park in a unique way.  Binoculars, bug jars, field guides, and more in the Explore Outdoors kit.  Vet playset and plushy patient in the Junior Vet kit.  Costume fairy wings and mini furniture in the Fairy House kit. Tarp, cordage, canvas, and knot tying guides in the Fort Building kit.

The kits also contains a bit of inspiration for those who prefer more structure—a scavenger hunt for explorers, a vet exam checklist, or photos of sample forts or fairy houses created using materials found in nature or in the park’s nature play areas.

Kits can be checked out for free while visiting the park.  They’re especially popular with frequent visitors and home schoolers visiting without a group (or who otherwise opted out of scheduling a guided program).


The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has compiled a page of webinars and other resources for developing nature play areas and unstructured play events which can be found here:

For those who prefer a single-source, downloadable guide, the National Wildlife Federation has you covered here: This guide is styled more for personal use so facility liability isn’t really covered here.

You should also check out what they’ve done at the literacy garden at the Mississippi Children’s Museum!

Pathways to Play: Overcoming Nature Play Barriers (AZA)

Pathways to Play: Overcoming Nature Play Barriers, Courtesy of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,

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Underestimating Tilden’s Principles for the Older Generation

I have to tell you, my southeastern interpreter family, I have been wanting to start a nature based bookclub for a few years now as an ongoing program, but have been putting it off in favor of more immediate programming needs at the site I interpret. 

Those immediate needs are focused on a younger audience who move at a fast pace. A group of sponges who are ready to absorb all of the experiences you throw at them. New adventures await along the 16 miles of trails and 1,400 acres of nature preserve I interpret with them, and those kiddos want to do the next best thing ASAP.

However, a golden opportunity arose recently when a fellow interpreter, who knew too well my lust for literature, invited me to plan a bookclub style program for a group at a local senior center. 

Our readings were selected from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and our inspiration for activities didn’t stray far from how we would plan for those fast paced sponges, which was curious to me. To prepare for this series of programs, Ariel (my fellow interpreter) and I still found ourselves muddied up and rained on, the same way we would if we were preparing for an audience of ten year olds.

In no way am I likening a group of experienced elders to a group of whipper-snapping ten year olds, but maybe, also I kind of am. Because really, we are never too old or too young to feel the urge to share our stories. What struck me as curious though, is that we weren’t trying to fight our instincts to bring a refined experience to this older group and yet, that is exactly what we were able to offer.

Ariel and I would read a passage to our group with the enthusiasm of Leopold’s run on sentences and almost before we could finish the last sentence, participants were eagerly recounting experiences in nature that were relevant to whatever season or animal played the lead that day.

The experience that was unfolding itself was not only a discussion of the writer and the writings, but an opportunity to connect our audience with the magic of Leopold’s observations, while pondering animal behavior we had taken for granted or sharing stories of “that one time…”

We all even had a good laugh at Leopold’s consistent use of the word “honker” in the essay “The Geese Return”.

Tilden’s fourth principle of interpretation is, “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” and if what we were doing in that multipurpose room/patio at the senior center wasn’t that, then I don’t know what.

We brought the stream to the senior center in storage bins and let participants seek out salamanders and crayfish. We brought mammal pelts and skulls, reptile sheds and shells, taxidermy birds so they could lay eyes (and hands) on the animals that starred in each essay that day. As Leopold described an old board washing in from floodwaters, Ariel and I brought the items that washed up at our nature preserve’s floodwaters.

Ariel and I brought the nature preserve to the seniors in that program, we read them the observations of a naturalist, and then those seniors schooled us on how relevant those essays truly were by telling us their stories. We wanted to dive right into the text, and so offered informational content that led to us investigating, as a group, things like different names for sandstorms (haboob) and coming up with a established lexicon of naturalist terms they used growing up or that their grandkids use to describe wildlife (all I will say is “ghetto deer”).

“Yes, yes, Corinne, you and Ariel had a wonderful program and you’re such great interpreters, but what is your point?” You may find yourself asking.

My point is that when working with an older audience, a wiser more experienced audience, dare I say a senior audience, there’s a lot to consider. But I urge you not to underestimate the basics.

Tilden’s Principles of Interpretation

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.
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Program Fatigue

We’ve all been there. You’ve run regular programs at your site for a while now and you find yourself just going through the motions, not really engaged *or* engaging. Maybe you find yourself repeating themes over and over without meaning to. Or you just don’t know what to do next. Program Fatigue is real and it sucks. Fortunately, with effort you can overcome this problem and continue being the awesome interpreter I know you are!

My manager recently had our team try an exercise that seemed to get the creative juices flowing. Stop and think of your 3 favorite things related to your site’s theme Since we work at a nature preserve, we were directed to think of our 3 favorite things relating to nature. For you it might be history, or animals, or science! We compiled all of our thoughts on the staff board then worked with partner to create a program based on 2 random selections from the pool. We had some great ideas come out of it: SUP’s & Pups, Moss Hikes, Zen Garden Design, and more!  It was an awesome opportunity to flex our interpretive muscles and bounce crazy ideas of off each other. Consider your site and draw inspiration from both the physical area and your team. Don’t be afraid to get a little wild and crazy!

When considering your fatigue be sure to stop and think: what’s really harshing my mellow, blocking my flow, damaging my calm? Why can’t I focus?? Stop and look at your life, both at work and at home. Are you stressed? Not eating or sleeping enough? Did you take your meds? Take some time to R&R: Rest and Recharge. A happy interpreter presents happy programs. Self-care is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days but it really is important.

If all else fails, get back to the basics. What is your site’s purpose? If you’re at a nature preserve, take folks for a hike. Nothing fancy, just a simple walk in the woods. If you’re an animal care facility, set up in front of an enclosure and just talk about the animals within. Nothing elaborate, just natural history and simple facts. Programs don’t have to be major dramatic productions with costumes and scripts and tons of props. Simple is satisfying.


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All I want for Christmas (in March) is a Front-Line Interpreter!



Please read the above job announcement to begin your blog experience.


A great friend and interpretive colleague shared this job posting with me. It was posted in 1998 and made me think about the optics and perception of our front-line interpreters across our organizations. To be fair, Santa comes with great demand in December and could be considered a front-line interpreter, and generally adds great experiences and revenue opportunities to help us do our thing. Santa definitely makes a stop at our organization for those reasons.

That said, lets dig into the optics and perception of the posting. Do front-line interpreters get the “love” and value they deserve as professionals for what they provide to our organizations?

How is the role of a front-line interpreter perceived within your organizational culture and across our profession?

How do we define or put a metric on the value of our front-line staff to show their true value?

Are we investing in the right areas and people?

Is the interpetive career “staircase” structured right? So often we see staff doing great things with our visitors whisked away to desks, offices, and boardrooms?

Many successful organizations and businesses out there will tell you that their secret to success comes from their people on the front-lines.

Visitor experience data will back this up. The data tells us that engagement and interaction with front-line staff members can increase overall satisfaction, the value of admission, and promote higher ratings of  educational experiences during a visit.  Positive and friendly interactions can promote word of mouth recommendations, personalized experiences, and reduce inconveniences.

Take front-line engagement and interaction away and hypothetically we have the opposite for our organizations.

Thoughts? Discuss…





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New this year at the Cradle of Forestry: Appalachian Folkway Series!

David Burnette from Haywood Country, NC keeps the traditional ways of farming alive during our Opening Day Celebration at the Cradle of Forestry in America.

Saturday, April 6, 2019 we will kick of a new season at the Cradle of Forestry in America, located in the heart of Pisgah National Forest in NC. This is an exciting time for us each year as we ceremoniously break the ground in our Heritage Garden in preparation of the year ahead. We look forward to planting not just vegetables to help supply our Cafe at the Cradle, but also look forward sowing seeds of stewardship with all who visit our site. Opening Day at the Cradle of Forestry is one of our most well-attended events and for good reason. It is a time to connect with the Appalachian way of life, and for many, a chance to rekindle memories of a time when folks lived more in sync with the rhythms and resources of the natural world around them. It is a day where our visitors can take a step back in time and interact with a variety a traditional crafters while old-time Appalachian tunes echo through the mountain air.

Volunteer, Larry Ascher, interprets how to use a spring-pole lathe at the Cradle of Forestry in America.

The Cradle of Forestry is a unique site that sits at the crossroads of Blue Ridge Culture and Forest Conservation. As part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, we have decided to offer a series mountain heritage events throughout the 2019 season. Thus, the Appalachian Folkways Series at the Cradle of Forestry has been born!

2019 Dates for the Appalachian Folkway Series
April 6
May 25
June 15
July 27
September 7
October 5
November 9

We hope you will join us for one of these special days where we interpret a truly special piece of history, and as you will learn, a way of life that some are still living today.

Sowing seeds of stewardship with the next generation of conservationists in the Heritage Garden at the Cradle of Forestry in America

For a full list of Cradle of Forestry events, please visit and consider signing up for our e-newsletter.

See you in the Forest,
Devin Gentry
Cradle of Forestry in America

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Breaking out of the “informal ed” bubble

Photo by on

I recently completed a professional development course on designing STEAM curriculum in informal settings. After initially reading the course description (even just the title), I was excited by the promises this course offered. Honestly, my thought process went something like: “Finally, a course focused on informal settings! Sign me up!!”

A week into the course, my excitement had wained. Instead of learning about how to deliver STEAM curriculum in my setting, I was learning about what was being done in “formal” learning environments. I felt the course had lied to me. Even with my disappointment, I continued forward. I learned more information than I ever needed or wanted to know about how the Next Generation Science Standards were developed. I learned about studies focused on STEAM education in classroom settings. I learned about different frameworks for curriculum development in classroom settings. The modules all built on each other, but I still wasn’t seeing much that I could use.

At week six of the course, all the disparate information that was provided began to connect like when you place the puzzle piece that finally allows you to determine the image. The frameworks and knowledge of what works and did not work in classroom settings gave me a way to support and supplement the NAI program guidelines we use for our hands-on activities. The different frameworks allowed me to physically make the connections between our program goals and objectives and the program itself. I completed the course with a number of new tools that I hope to start implementing regularly.

What this course reminded me of is the importance of not becoming so focused on my own institution that I don’t look around or try something new or different. There is an ocean of knowledge and experience that can be applied and adapted. All it takes is for you to break out of your bubble to find resources that can help you develop and reach your goals.

Credit: carterse [CC BY-SA 2.0]
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Try Something New

My New Year’s resolution this year was to try something new every week. There aren’t any restrictions on myself, other than to try something I have never experienced

Arabia Mountain

Arabia Mountain during NAI gathering

before. It is probably the first resolution that I haven’t stopped after a couple of weeks! So far I have tried new exercise classes, played in my first tennis match, traveled to places that I hadn’t been before and attended my first state NAI gathering!

At work, there has been a push in the past year by our department to do something new so my resolution is fitting for my work life too. This could be interpreted as creating new programming but I want to approach what I am already doing with a new light. How can I take an old program and make it like new? Is the way I communicate with others the most effective? We get in habits and don’t take the time to review how things are going and if there can be another way to do them.


Paddling in the Okefenokee


I think this resolution will make for an interesting year. I hope that I will learn from my experiences, continue to grow in my profession and have fun

raven cliff falls

Raven Cliff Falls, Georgia

trying new things. I would encourage all of you to give this a try and we can compare notes at the end of the year!

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Why do you do what you do?

In the past few months I have listened over a dozen books, I find it a lot easier than reading and I can’t get enough of them.

I have been learning new concepts about leadership and how to motivate staff. One important concept is to know WHY we do what we do and be able to tell the difference between WHAT, HOW, and WHY.

All companies know what they do, products, services, you name it. This is very easy to figure out. How they do it can be a bit more complicated, but very few can eloquently articulate why they do it.

Since interpretation is mission based it should be easy to articulate why, the challenge is when our mission is stated in a way that only tells what any maybe how but not why. One of my favorite mission statements is ” to deliver happiness”. Who could not get on board with that statement. It is short, simple, easy to remember and tells all employees why they do what they do.

Very few people would guess that this is the original mission when Zappos started. If you visited their headquarters or their website you would understand that they didn’t just sell shoes, not only offer great service and outstanding customer service. They exist to deliver happiness. Any decision that needed to be made my managers or staff had a clear message to deliver.

Next time you are at work make sure you are good and what you do, share with peers how you do it, and you better understand WHY you do it.



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How to Improve Your Programs

As we gear up for a new season of our High School Intern training classes at the South Carolina Aquarium, I am challenged to find fresh, creative ideas to keep our classes engaging, educational, and fun. We had our first class on Saturday, January 5th and used the same biology PowerPoint that we’ve been using since the class was created in 2006. It dawned on me as the kids eyes glazed over that this PowerPoint could use some sprucing up.

Sometimes our biggest assets are the teens participating in the program that we want to improve. We asked one of our teen mentors how we could make this basic biology part of the training class more fun and engaging and she told us about a program called “Kahoot!”. I had never heard of this program but apparently every single high school student has. After playing around with it for awhile, it seems like it will be such a more engaging educational tool than just reading from a PowerPoint. Not only this, but it will be relevant and familiar to our audience.

It’s important to never get on “auto pilot”, to never lose sight of your audience and ways to improve current programs. Often times the best person to give you advice on how to reach your audience is your audience itself. When you’re struggling to think of new and creative ideas, try polling your audience. Evaluations are a great way to do this with your public programs. We also have the interns fill out journals at the end of the classes where they share what they wish was different about the day. We have made some really great changes and improvements based on what they have wrote. For example, one student suggested spreading out the three icebreaker activities that we do at the beginning of the class to keep the energy of the students up throughout the day. Remember to include the people around you, especially on the front lines, to help plan your programs. They usually are the people with the best insight and advice.

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