The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Top-Demonstrations for children showing how study skins are made for scientific collections, Boulder City Elementary School. Left-Trail instruction, Hi Hill. Right-Showing the proper handling of reptiles, East Bay Regional Parks, California.

Special Interpretive Programs

As might be expected, there are numerous interpretive programs that merit special consideration. Two in particular seem to warrant a somewhat detailed review: the program for children and the problem of meeting needs of the foreign visitor.


It is unfortunately true that children have often been overlooked in our interpretive programs. This is doubly unfortunate, because the child of today will be the citizen of tomorrow, and is by far the easiest to reach with your story. We have only to look at interpretive programs and activities of many areas to find that most efforts are directed toward the adult or near adult in age. Our museum exhibits tend to be too high above the floor for the child to see easily. Our illustrated talks are too often geared exclusively for adult audiences; and our conducted walks and other related activities are directed toward older members of the group. The child is also ignored in the texts of interpretive signs and roadside exhibits, and certainly in publications. Given one generation of children well indoctrinated in conservation and environmental values, and many of the nation's problems in those fields would be well on the way toward solution.

In trying to reach the young, we should strive for an age group between the 3rd and 7th grade levels in school. This is not saying younger or older children should be ignored, rather that this age group offers the best potential. Below the 3rd grade level a child's comprehension is not extensive, although his interest may be high. His interest span is still of rather short duration. Above the 7th grade, the youngster is adjusting to an adult world and adult thinking.

It is important to keep in mind that, while you may be dealing with a child, presentation of your subject should not be put in a little child's language.

By the time a youngster has reached the 3rd grade he uses and understands words that will often amaze you, and his level of comprehension is growing rapidly. Thus, don't talk to him as though he were a simple child, but as a young person who can very well understand what you are saying if you do not use too many complicated terms. Certainly there is feeling that one must "talk down" to young people of this type, but this is not necessary or desirable. Simply bring out your points in easily understood language.

The young person is especially easy to interest in natural history and ethnology. He has a natural interest in the animal world, and, of course, anything about Indians is certain to appeal.

A number of things should be considered in working with children on the trail, at an amphitheater, or in a museum situation. Some of the most important are:

Where possible, put your points across in story form. Telling about an incident involving an animal that you want the child to remember can be used to bring out characteristics of that animal. Children love stories, especially legends. Such stories as "Why the Coyote Howls," can easily be used to stimulate keen interest in early Indian life and culture.

Use human interest examples to put across important points. For instance, simply telling young people that feeding wild deer in the parks is detrimental to the animal does not carry nearly the "punch" that a true episode does; such as the account of the mother doe that was fed 13 candy bars in one morning by park visitors!

You must not expect every child to appear attentive, but he will likely know what is going on! Often some members of a group will seem to be occupied with anything except what you are trying to tell them. Don't be surprised, however, to learn that this seeming inattention is not real, and that they know very well what you have been saying.

Youngsters like to examine things to see how they work, act, etc. This natural curiosity should be utilized, specially in out-of-door situations where there is so much that can be shown. In museums, have things they can do, examine and make work. In such places as Yosemite National Park, Rock Creek Park in Washington, D C., and in several cities across the country, an entire museum is devoted to the young person and his interests. Here the youngster has the opportunity to use his senses of feel, sight, hearing and occasionally taste, to discover what something is and how it works.

The young person likes a sense of adventure. He likes to discover things. This can be encouraged and used to advantage, especially on trail, by challenging his powers of observation.

He likes to climb and squeeze into intriguing looking places. One or two such spots on a guided walk will be greeted with enthusiasm. Be sure, of course, that the spot chosen is safe.

The young person tends to be impatient, and wants to get along to the next point. Thus, care should be taken not to belabor a subject. If on trail, make stops relatively short and the interest points not too far apart.

A youngster likes to show the adult leader that he knows something about the subject. While care must be exercised that such "contributions" aren't too time consuming, still there is a real value in letting the child take an active part in the presentation.

If you can use a young person to demonstrate something to a group, do so if it is safe, and if the demonstration does not make the child the subject of ridicule.

Status is important to a young person, just as it is to you. He can be appealed to for order at a program or on a hike. Simple responsibilities, such as helping keep a group together on trail, gives him a sense of importance. However, discretion must be exercised in the amount of authority he is given to carry out his assignment.

In some areas, children's programs have been developed that are quite broad in scope and extend for periods of one to five days. Highly effective field trips are often the means of putting the chosen subject across. Museum exhibits and collections can be used where field trips are not possible. A suggested field program, covering a 3-day period and stressing the general subject of ecology, might be set up with these objectives:

To acquaint the child with a few of the basic concepts in nature that can be readily seen and understood.

To acquaint the child with conservation as practiced by the agency or area.

To give each child a chance to enrich his knowledge of nature with an interesting out-door experience.

For this program, it is believed that children should be not less than 8 years of age and normally not more than 12. Below the age of 8 the attention span is too limited and comprehension is not sufficiently high. Above 12, the youngster is a teenager and much aware of the fact. He, or she, with other teenagers, tends to isolate from the group, and thus the leader has in reality two groups with divergent interests. Those above 12 years should be encouraged to join a conducted trip with an adult group. While not usually encouraged to do so, parents should feel free to accompany their children on activities of the group. Actually they get as much enjoyment out of these activities as do the children.

Operation of the field program is not complicated. Instruction is carried out along the trail. At the beginning of each walk it is helpful to collect the group and briefly state the story or activity to be covered, such as "Today we are going to learn something of the story of rocks; how mountains and canyons are made." Discuss the importance of being a good observer. Point out that "everything has a story" if the observer is sharp enough to see it. Stress that each one will know some part of the story, and when each has put his knowledge together with others in the group, the story will be complete. Stress the importance of not trampling vegetation, staying together, etc.

This is to be an experience in which lasting impressions and truths are gained and learned. Because this is true, it is important that "telling" by the leader be kept at a much reduced level. Instead, encourage the individual members of the group to help develop the story. Ask leading questions. Should the leader get a wrong answer, it cannot be ignored or belittled. Without too much difficulty, however, the leader can take the wrong answer and find application in some phase of the morning's activities. Present points that have quite apparent relationships, so that details of the story can be supplied by the individual; fill in facts only where it isn't likely the group will know them. This is in a way a game of "detective." The leader helps locate the clues, and individual members of the group have the thrill of putting newly discovered clues together to tell a story. It is no great problem to present stories in nature, as clues are many and easy to see. Always stress the use of the five senses. Most children (and adults) depend upon hearing and seeing, but seldom use the senses of touch, taste and smell. A feature in nature acquires distinct character when experienced by as many of the senses as are possible to use. This field experience, if well done, leaves the child with a sense of having contributed, of taking part. It is his trip as well as the leader's. Because of this, he is a ready recipient of any ideas the leader wishes to introduce.

Materials to be covered in the program should be basically simple, and used to demonstrate general concepts. These concepts must be easily recognized, of general application, and capable of being demonstrated with numerous on-site examples. The following general concepts are suggested:

a. There is constant change on the earth.

This is simple and easily demonstrated. Here is found the story of rocks, mountain building, erosion, weathering, temperature, climate, etc. This is the story of landscape and what happens to it.

b. Plants and animals influence change on the earth.

Here are told the many ways in which both plants and animals contribute to topography. The stories of watersheds, formation of soils, erosion control, fire control, relationship of plants to slope and temperature, the work of animals, etc., are among those that can be demonstrated.

c. Plants and animals relate to each other.

Here can be shown the hundreds of stories of how each form of plant and animal life contribute to the existence and well being of other biological forms.

Duration time for field trips should normally not exceed 2-1/2 hours for each trip made. All interpretation should be carried out on trail or in areas where excessive damage will not be caused by a conventional walk away from a designated trail. Each day's program should be designed to cover, in detail, the primary concept assigned to that day. Subjects handled from day to day should lead naturally from one concept to another and back again. A child having only one day will grasp the application of all three concepts, and have a really broad understanding of at least one.

The above is only one suggested program for children. There are many others, of course. You, as the interpreter, will need only to select the subject you want to use, and then work out a systematic way to approach it. Certainly the value of such a program to the child cannot be clearly understood until you have actually presented one. Then you will know!

Children under twelve are much like modeling clay. They can be molded into a desired pattern with a minimum of effort. To work with them and watch their minds unfold is a most rewarding experience for the genuine interpreter.


Some years ago, while on a guided hike to the top of Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, a very earnest young man was trying to follow what the naturalist in charge of the trip was saying. Finally, in complete frustration, he exclaimed out loud, "I wish there were someone who could tell me what he is saying!" Now this didn't sound so much out of the ordinary—except that the man spoke in French. As sometimes happens, one member of the party knew a little French, and spoke to the man. Immediately there was a flurry of questions, somewhat awkwardly answered in uncertain French. However, the two stayed together all day, and the trip ended with a very grateful foreigner trying to express his appreciation for the assistance received.

Now this incident is not a rarity. Perhaps the French visitor didn't get all the help he wanted, but he was there, wishing someone could help him. The numbers of his kind have been steadily increasing through the years, and today we have large numbers visiting this country. Some understand and speak English; many do not.

This is an aspect of interpretation too often overlooked. We see the foreigner around, but we really don't know what he is getting in the way of help, and we have nothing especially set up for him in our interpretive programs. This is important, as he is getting an impression of our country, and we could help so very much to make it a good one. He will appreciate any effort we make, as it tells him we recognize his existence.

What we can do for this visitor depends in large measure on where he calls home. He may speak English very well (many do), in which case there is no great language barrier to overcome. He can visit our great parks and forests, historical buildings and other objects of interest, and pretty well get along on his own. He may be over here on government business, in which case he may need no guidance. He may be a student, especially interested in seeing our country and learning more of how we live.

Foreign visitors like to do many things. Many like to take pictures, and there are no shutter-bugs as ardent as the Japanese. Many enjoy hiking, and our high mountains attract groups from Germany, Norway and Sweden in large numbers. They like to climb to heights, but are not necessarily mountain climbers. They like to hear interesting stories of local color, especially if they pertain to the West. Some are interested in history of one type or another, especially if it has been made by people from their country. They like to collect pictures, folders and some souvenirs.

What can the interpreter do for them? There are definitely some things to do and some things not to do. Some of these are:

Try to remember a name if given to you. This is important to him. Watch and listen to how he pronounces it; he will be complimented if you say it right.

Go out of your way a bit to help his understanding of what you are showing him.

Be a good listener. Try to understand him and his needs. This allows you to assist him information-wise.

If he can understand you, be sure of word selection that will help make your meaning clear.

Speak somewhat deliberately. He may not be able to follow if you speak rapidly, and may miss your real meaning.

Try to speak in terms of his interest, if you can.

Compare what he sees to things you know are in his country, but do not belittle in these comparisons.

Do not talk politics, race, religion or become involved in such. Don't "point with pride" about things American in too positive a way; it may sound boastful to him.

Put up bulletin boards where they will be seen by most foreign visitors with information on them in some of the most commonly used languages.

Put out foreign language booklets or leaflets. Some parks and airlines do this, especially on safety instructions.

Put up elevation signs showing heights in meters as well as feet.

Investigate possibilities of on-site tape repeaters, with the message given in several languages. There are machines from which the chosen language can be heard by simply pushing a selector button.

If you are in an area where a certain foreign language is commonly encountered, such as Spanish in the southern portions of our country, try to hire bilingual help. Also, check your local staff, it is sometimes surprising how many may know a foreign language and can be of real assistance.

One word of caution. In this country we often find it helpful to cater a bit to children. However, it is best to be a bit careful in admiring youngsters who are part of a foreign group. Mothers not acquainted with our free and easy way of talking to anyone may incorrectly interpret your attention. Be very careful about touching a foreign child—in some countries this is simply not tolerated.

Much can be done for the foreign visitor. It takes only an appreciation of his problems, and a realization that he is definitely in your group because he wants to learn something. All interpretive programs should take him into consideration.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association