Guest Column - May/June 2003
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Learning Through Interpretation

Educational Outreach

By Erin Fiegel

Tailor your approach to meet your target
audience. The appreciation of one's surroundings
can be as simple as stopping to smell a flower.

Our recreation landscapes often hold wonderful opportunities for educational experiences. Each place has a voice that carries messages about our past and our environment. Whether it is a rich cultural heritage or diverse natural ecosystems, the greatest challenges recreation providers face are how to best communicate that message to visitors and gain funding for the project.

What is interpretation?

Simply put, interpretation is storytelling, the act of communicating information in a way that is understandable. It is not a laundry list of important facts but rather a means to share with people basic ideas that can enhance how they experience their surroundings.

Whether through a verbal discussion led by a naturalist or volunteer or through self-guided educational signage, interpretation can take many forms and cover a variety of topics.

Why is interpretation important?

Allowing people the opportunity to learn about their surroundings increases awareness. Knowledge of local cultural history and natural resources develops a sense of community and promotes civic pride. Planting the seeds of knowledge fosters imagination and curiosity in young and old alike. Interpretation is not meant as a definitive answer but a platform on which further education and discussion can be built.

The act of educational outreach need not end with an informational sign near a wetland or a historical marker at a battlefield. While the National Park Service and forest preserve districts are commonly thought of as recreational educators, many recreation departments and park districts have begun to recognize the benefits of educational recreation by planning for and allocating resources toward educational programming and permanent facilities, such as nature centers.

Where do I begin?

The first step in creating an effective educational outreach program is to understand your target audience demographics. Interpretive projects should appeal to a specific age range and take into consideration the baseline intelligence level of the audience most likely to be visiting the site.

The Roosevelt Park Shape Hunter Adventure
Walk Challenge signage invites participants
to discover their surroundings by searching
for shapes found in the natural environment.

What is the average age of the local children? Are there opportunities to include school programs or youth groups? Once an appropriate audience age is selected, you can begin to develop your program, making sure to include information specific to the setting in which the lessons are based.

The Internet can be a valuable tool in the beginning stages of your project, putting everything from signage and programming ideas to manufacturers at your fingertips. Visiting the local library or historical society are great ways to uncover the history of your site and gather images for use in interpretive features. Incorporating opportunities for imagination and exploration are key to engaging visitors and enhancing awareness.

So how do you get kids and families excited about nature? Often interpretive signs simply act as outdoor nature textbooks. Boring! The most successful signage programs take an "open ended" approach, giving readers opportunities to draw their own conclusions, engage their sense of imagination and invite them to explore the natural world around them.

For example, as part of the physical improvements to Roosevelt Park in Waukegan, Ill., a sign circuit was created called "The Shape Hunter Adventure Walk Challenge." At each "Education Station," the game invites players to look around them to find a certain shape that occurs in our natural environment. The particular shape that is being highlighted as part of the Challenge identifies each Education Station. To further strengthen the overall concept, some of the shapes were also incorporated in the physical improvements of the park. The hope is that those who participate will develop awareness and a passion to learn more about being stewards of our environment.

The Roosevelt Park project was partially funded by Section 319 of the Clean Water Act and administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The Illinois EPA has administered more than $20 million of Section 319 funding over the past decade to Non-Point Source Pollution projects throughout the state and supported the implementation of enhanced information and education efforts through various media. For further information on Section 319 and how it may apply to your community, visit

How do I fund my project?

Both governmental and not-for-profit funding agencies look favorably upon projects that incorporate educational outreach programs. In times of governmental cutbacks, it is crucial to have a Plan B. Often overlooked are funding opportunities with local and national foundations, including The Foundation Center ( These agencies offer funding for both development and program enhancement. Some agencies will require matching funds from the grantee, so it is important to budget accordingly.

Be extraordinary

The most powerful opportunity recreation providers have is educating the public. Whether the subject is community history, natural studies or cultural heritage, a dynamic program can have a lasting impact on its participants.

Why do any less? Think back to your own schooling—the educators best remembered are the ones that helped you understand not just remember, think not simply know. The key to engaging kids in education is a commitment to make learning fun. Incorporating stories and self-exploration opportunities provide children with a sense of involvement in the learning process. The excitement generated in that kind of environment is contagious.

Erin Fiegel is a junior associate at Hitchcock Design Group in Naperville, Ill. She can be reached at or visit