The Importance of Nature Interpretation

by John Roff – Environmental Educator at Hilton College, Howick, and author of Bridging the gap, a handbook for environmental educators and interpreters.

There seems to be an increasing gap between people and nature. Interpretation can be seen as a process of repairing this divide by building bridges, across unfamiliar territory, to places of deeper care and understanding.

The simplest definition of interpretation is ‘making meaning’. The interpreter is one who makes or reveals meaning of a place and the living things, processes and human interactions, in which all the participants (including the interpreter) are learning.

Interpretation happens in many ways, from guided tours to brochures, signboards, slideshows, living theatre and many others. The principles in this section can be applied in any place, to any kind of interpretation.

“Interpretation is first and foremost a communication process, to reveal the meaning of natural and cultural resources in a way that inspires and educates.” [Jim Buchholz]


For good interpretation, get people talking.

The information below is not only useful for nature guides or teachers, but also for parents who want to be actively involved in the educational process of their child.

Our research showed that the most effective exhibits for learning were those which… encourage visitors to talk to each other about the exhibits, what they mean and how they relate to their life…

Therefore, it is not the interpretation per se which leads to learning, but rather the discussion encouraged by the interpretation.

Head, Heart, Hands

Try to engage the mind, emotions and body of those you work with.

The 4 T’s

Here, the model is based on active learning ideas and suggests that the following components of an experience lead to effective learning:

Touching – Sensory encounters & discovery/research

Talking – Discussion on these encounters with others

Thinking – Reflecting on the experience

Taking action – Doing something with the learning

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