Investigating Written Materials at Nature Centers

Cagle, N. L. (2013). Quantifying the Presence of Written Materials and the Use of Outside Texts in Nature Centers for Environmental Education. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 12, 108 - 117.

Written materials are often used to enhance environmental knowledge acquisition, one of the primary goals of nature centers. Despite the importance of these resources, the content and form of written materials have not been deeply studied. In this article, the author presents the results of a survey on the use of written materials at nature centers throughout the United States. The survey investigated the content that is presented as well as the medium.

The survey was disseminated to 1,800 nature centers in the United States, of which 563 responded. This sample of 563 nature centers represents all census regions and states of the U.S. The survey included information on the types of written materials offered to guests and the source of these materials. In particular, the author focused on the use of outside texts, or writing produced outside of the nature center, because interpreters often borrow from these texts to appear more relevant to visitors who may have encountered these texts elsewhere.

A majority of respondents indicated that their nature center offered seven or eight different kinds of written materials, most commonly including brochures, handouts, books, and signage. The number of written materials offered did not vary by region or setting (urban, suburban, or rural). Two-thirds of the nature centers surveyed said they used outside text in their written materials. These most commonly included quotes, citations, or references from Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Richard Louv, the Peterson Field Guides, or state-level agencies; 79 authors in total were named in the survey.

Based on these findings, the author makes recommendations for improving the quality and effectiveness of written materials in nature centers by combining these results with prior research. First, the author suggests improving the adaptability of permanent signage by using Quick Response (QR) codes that can be scanned with mobile devices to access online written materials. While brochures can be quickly amended and updated, signage is much more difficult to change. Experimenting with QR codes could be a way of overcoming that challenge.

Next, the author suggests using contemporary environmental literature to relate to visitors. Visitors will be more receptive to writing that reflects experiences with which they are familiar. For this reason, the author also proposes that environmental interpretation includes more examples from popular culture, in addition to classic and contemporary environmental literature. Using direct quotations from an author's work can also enhance the authority and authenticity of a text and reinforce the connection with the visitor.

The author also suggests historical documents, such as letters or diaries, may be used to support learning by presenting information from a specific perspective. Historical texts often have a clear voice that can help visitors relate to people and circumstances that may not be as overtly familiar. Few nature centers (1%) reported using historical texts; therefore, this may be a relatively new area to explore.

Nature centers may also benefit from evaluating whether local texts help visitors connect with interpretive messages. The success of this approach will depend on the audience served by the nature center; if a center serves primarily local audiences, using texts or quotes from local naturalists and writers may help to connect visitors with the messaging and enhance learning.

Lastly, the author suggests incorporating outside references as a way of extending learning for individuals who may be interested in finding more information and to recognize the contributions of authors whose work is used in the text.

The Bottom Line

<p>Although traditional materials, such as brochures and signage, can help visitors at nature centers and other sites connect with ideas and promote effective learning, audiences can also benefit from other strategies that improve the quality and effectiveness of the learning experience. These materials might include using Quick Response (QR) codes on signage to access online material; incorporating relatable references from contemporary literature and popular culture; using historical text and direct quotations to relay the perspectives of others; including writing from local authors and naturalists; and incorporating outside references to extend the learning experience.</p>