Last month’s MPA News examined how practitioners are using a variety of approaches to educate MPA stakeholders and build public support for conservation. Among the most powerful educational tools can be the protected area itself. The experience of visiting an MPA and seeing first-hand the benefits of conservation has the potential to deliver a strong, memorable education message – stronger than any brochures or other media could deliver. If management handles this potential poorly, however, visitors can be left with little insight and an indifferent opinion on the MPA’s importance.

This month, Phil Dearden of the University of Victoria (Canada) discusses with MPA News why visitor education is important and how managers can best achieve it. Dearden is leader of the MPA Working Group for Canada’s Ocean Management Research Network, and heads the Marine Protected Areas Research Group at the University of Victoria. He has published extensively on the subjects of marine park planning and ecotourism, including on the need for park managers to engage visitors with conservation messages.

MPA News: Why is it important for protected areas to educate their visitors?

Dearden: There are several reasons:

  • Parks are a political entity: they are created by politicians and can be un-created by politicians. Encouraging people to visit parks, exposing them to park values, and explaining the roles that parks play helps build a constituency in favor of parks. This constituency can be a powerful political force in encouraging politicians to create more parks and provide adequate funding for management.
  • There are serious environmental challenges facing the world that have been caused by human impacts. Parks represent the antithesis of these impacts. They show us another world, and provide an outdoor classroom that people visit not because they have to, but because they want to. We need to capitalize on this to catalyze the changes people need to make for a more sustainable future, including in their own lives.
  • In general, visitors who are educated about park values are much less likely to violate park regulations because they will have greater understanding of the reasons behind them.
  • The un-practiced eye of the novice visitor is often a bored eye. As global society becomes increasingly urbanized, we suffer from a deficit of nature: people are no longer exposed to the rhythms of nature nor understand the complexities that science has revealed. Skilled interpretation re-awakens a sense of wonder and reverence for nature that forms the platform for its preservation in parks.

MPA News: You have spoken elsewhere about the need for managers to create “teachable moments” for park visitors. What is a teachable moment?

Dearden: In general, people enter parks to have an enjoyable experience. Managers should determine how the value of that experience can be improved by skillful interpretation. The idea of the “teachable moment” is to create opportunities in which visitors will welcome educational input that will enhance the value of their visit.

A teachable moment occurs when the interest of visitors is piqued by something they see, hear, touch, or are otherwise curious about. The key to effective park education programs is to seed and take advantage of this natural curiosity. In all too many instances, we try to cram information into visitors when they are not particularly receptive to receiving information – we give them information when we feel they ought to have it (our schedule) rather than when they want it. A common example that I have seen is when, on park entry, a marine biologist decides to show how many names of fish he knows, complete with slides. This might work well with an audience of specialist fish watchers, but for most people it becomes a blur of Latin from which they will remember little.

It is much more effective to select a few species that illustrate different facets of life in the ecosystem and make an interesting story based on these facets. In a coral reef MPA, for example, who would not be entertained by the story of the monogamous, territorial anemone fishes and their symbiotic relationship with the anemone? The story is not only entertaining – which is necessary – but also a vehicle for teaching about co-evolution, ecological complexity, and conservation. The anemone fishes become a window into environmental consciousness, just as do whales, turtles, and many other species.

When the visitor actually experiences these creatures, his curiosity is raised. This is when the information should be delivered. The skilled interpreter hitches her story to such moments as they occur: a breaching whale, a feeding parrotfish, a surfacing shark, a sleeping crocodile. The list is endless, but the essence is the same – a stimulation of visitors’ curiosity that the interpreter uses to convey a message. The most important messages revolve around the splendor of nature, the impacts that human activities are having on species and ecosystems, and what the visitor can do to help.

MPA News: What are some common mistakes in managers’ efforts to educate park visitors, and how can these be avoided?

Dearden: Teachable moments do not come often, and the emphasis needs to be on quality rather than quantity of information. Don’t overload people with details. Managers should identify the three most important messages they would like visitors to receive, and design programs to ensure that these messages are conveyed in an enjoyable way.

MPA News: How would an MPA’s visitor education program be different from a program designed to educate its community stakeholders?

Dearden: The two target audiences are quite different and require distinct approaches. The first step in both cases is for management to assess these constituencies’ perceptions of the park, then prioritize the messaging for each audience and methods of delivery. However, one common factor that I have often found is the value of face-to-face contacts: that is, having a skilled interpretive force rather than relying upon written materials. It may not be the most cost-effective way over the short term, but over the long term – and in terms of effectiveness of conveying message – nothing beats personal contact for both visitors and local audiences.

For more information:
Phil Dearden, Department of Geography, PO Box 3050, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 3P5, Canada. Tel: +1 250 721 7335; E-mail: