Deprogramming School Programs - Visitor Experience for Children

6 Sep 2018 12:51 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Pam Murray

In recent years, those of us who work in interpretation , or in the broader field of visitor experience, have been waking up to the idea that we need to get off the stage and listen to our visitors more.  We may call it participatory interpretation, dialogic interpretation,  ‘guide on the side’, or ‘STFU’, but when it comes down to it, these philosophies all point to the same idea – that we need approach interpretation as well-informed facilitators of experiences, rather than know-it-all experts.

And yet, in many sites across Canada, from September through June, groups of visitors continue to be enrolled in tightly planned, agenda-driven programs with precise learning outcomes.  These visitors are sometimes grumpy about having to listen to long talks, so we make the talks more fun by using puppets, or songs, or jokes.   These visitors aren’t always great at sitting still, so we incorporate movement and games.  Sometimes, these visitors just really don’t want to participate, so we ask the group to bring along a half-dozen chaperones, in order to ensure that these visitors comply with our directions.  We tell the visitors they have to stay on the trail, aren’t allowed to touch the artifacts or the animals, and can’t eat snacks in the theatre.  They aren’t allowed to opt out of activities, and there may even be consequences if they do.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve planned and presented school programs in parks, museums, and a fish hatchery visitor centre.  The school programs I currently coordinate, at Milner Gardens & Woodland on Vancouver Island, are different than anything I’ve ever done – mostly because the program was created by folks who didn’t have my preconceived ideas of what school programs are ‘supposed’ to look like.

The program consists of a series of five linked visits that are each 2.5 hours long.  The students are mostly Grade 1’s. There are no specific learning outcomes dictated by my site. Parent helpers are not allowed, and the programs are offered for free thanks to some incredibly generous supporters and donors.  Beyond this structure, I inherited no written program plans of any kind, so it was up to me to build the content of the entire program from scratch.

The lack of agenda and parent helpers terrified me at first, but after five years of getting used to the idea, collaborating with teachers, and most importantly listening to my visitors – the children,  I’ve come to think about school programs differently than I used to, and am questioning whether everything I thought I knew might have been wrong.

I used to think parent helpers, as frustrating as they could sometimes be, were essential.  Without them, I realized quickly that I’d been relying on them to coerce children into participating in programs that may not have been as engaging as I thought they were. Without extra adults to help manage the kids’ behaviour, I got immediate and obvious feedback about what my young visitors wanted to do on their field trips.  They didn’t want to sit and listen, no matter how funny I was.  They wanted to explore the trails, catch bugs in the pond, run on the lawns, tell me long stories about their pets, and climb trees.

A young visitor demonstrates what children really want to do on field trips.

I also thought my content and learning outcomes were the whole point of a school program, so the complete lack of agenda from my site was confusing at first.  Having just completed a teaching degree when I started, I looked to provincial curriculum, and the teachers who attended the programs, for ideas. It turned out that most of the teachers I talked to were more concerned with giving their classes the chance to cooperate as a group, develop their critical thinking skills, spend time in nature, and connect with the community than in any particular science outcome that I might focus on. 

The first year I relied on nature exploration activities I’d had success with in the past, and planned the year on a seasonal theme, from fall leaves and decomposers in October, to pollinators in the spring.  With 2.5 hours to fill, I also allowed a lot of time for snacks, breaks, and free time.  I let kids touch and smash the ice on the Reflecting Pool in the winter, jump in the leaf piles in the fall, visit with the resident cat, and yes, even climb a tree on occasion, not because I thought these activities were important, but because the kids enjoyed them and I needed to kill time.

I also incorporated a talking stick circle at the end of the session.  The conclusion of a lot of my school programs in the past mostly consisted of “…and so that’s why you should save ohmygosh look at the time, thanks for coming, bye!”.  I knew this wasn’t effective, so with all that time to spare,  I set aside time at the end of each visit to pass a stick around a circle and let each child speak about what they had enjoyed about the visit.


When I listened to the children during talking stick, I quickly realized that the leaf piles, spontaneous ice experiments, tree climbing, and random events were consistently highlighted as the kids’ favorite part of the day. My carefully planned educational activities rarely made the cut.  I also started hearing other things I’d never heard from children on a school program before:


“When I come here I get so, like, emotional? Because this is my favorite place. “
“It is quiet here and feels friendly. “
“It makes me happy enough that I want to stay here forever.”
“I came here once all by myself when I was having a dream.”


If I hadn’t incorporated reflection and free time into my program, I wouldn’t have realized how important these unstructured activities and quiet times were, and how little my agenda actually mattered.   But isn’t this what everything else in visitor experience is pointing to?  Don’t we all know by now that we need to listen to our visitors more, allow them to share the stage, and be facilitators rather than teachers?

It’s time we applied what we know about effective visitor experience to school programs. And yes, I can already hear everyone’s manager chiming in with ‘But our funding says that we have to..’ and ‘You can’t eliminate parent helpers!’.   We may not be able, as individuals, to make institutional change, and I recognize how lucky I am to run a program where I’m allowed to do school programs this way.   We do all, however, have control over our own attitudes, and it’s high time we started thinking of children as visitors too.  We need to spend more time in school programs listening to children, allowing them to reflect on their experiences, and facilitating exploration, inquiry, and play. We need to de-program school programs, and improve our young visitors’ experiences.

More reading:
I was going to cite some articles here that you could read, but they were all written by the same person.  So, if you’d like to learn more about competing agendas during field trips and children’s field trip experiences, I highly recommend acquainting yourself with the work of Dr. David Anderson from the University of British Columbia.  

Pam Murray is a certified teacher and the current Chair of Interpretation Canada.  She has been delivering school programs in nature centres, parks, and currently at Milner Gardens & Woodland on Vancouver Island, for 20 years. 

Interpretation Canada c/o Kerry Wood Nature Centre 6300 45th Ave Red Deer, AB, Canada  T4N 3M4

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