May 14, 2024

Meeting the Needs of Nature Center Visitors

David Catlin
Principal, David Catlin Consulting LLC


When I first launched my business as an independent nature center consultant back in 2015, I frankly had some free time on my hands. Clipping grocery store coupons didn’t seem like the most profitable way to invest that time, so I spent some of it catching up on reading related to our profession. One of the authors I stumbled across changed my entire perspective on how nature centers can best meet the needs of their visitors.

The Work of Dr. John Falk

That author was Dr. John Falk, who — together with a handful of colleagues, most notably Dr. Lynn Dierking — has spent a career exploring free-choice learning and the interactions between visitors and museums. Falk and various co-writers have produced a number of research papers, but the most enlightening works to me were two books: Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions and Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. In these works, the authors focus especially on how visitors’ self-determined identities mold their needs and experiences when they visit museums and similar cultural institutions — including, I’m sure Falk would agree, nature centers.

In his research, Falk interviewed dozens of visitors to museums, aquaria, zoos, and similar venues. He ultimately concluded that there are only five types of motivation for their visits and that, while individuals may have different primary motivations during different visits, typically one motivation will predominate during any one visit. He assigned each of these five motivations a sort of archetype:

  • The Explorer visits because of “curiosity or a general interest in discovering more about the topic/subject matter of the institution.” Explorers read exhibit labels, ask questions, and in general are pretty sophisticated consumers of the museum experience.
  • The Facilitator comes “in order to satisfy the needs and desires of someone they care about other than themselves,” typically children, grandchildren, students (in the case of teachers), or out-of-town company. Facilitators see themselves as the stewards of someone else’s experience.
  • The Professional/Hobbyist has “a strong knowledge and interest in the content of the institution” and comes “with an eye toward enhancing [their] profession, avocation, or hobby.” Birdwatchers, photographers, and gardeners are three of the most common examples we see at nature centers. (During most visits, nature center consultants fall into this category, too!)
  • The Experience Seeker, often someone from outside the area, is motivated to visit “primarily to ‘collect’ an experience, so that they [can] say they’ve ‘been there, done that.’” They are often driven by the expectations or recommendations of other people. Experience Seekers are the folks who take selfies in front of whatever they consider iconic and post them to Facebook and Instagram.
  • The Recharger visits “in order to reflect, rejuvenate, or generally just bask in the wonder of the place.” Rechargers are getting away from the hectic pace of their daily lives. Falk originally called this group “Spiritual Pilgrims.”

For the purposes of my work with nature centers, which generally differ from most museums in having significant land, I add a sixth category that I call Exerciser, since it is a motivation not typical to the museums that Falk studies but occurs wherever there are trails (though I think Falk may well consider many of these users Rechargers, since they could exercise anywhere but often choose to come to the nature center for reasons other than fitness). 

Falk and his coauthors didn’t stop at describing these various types of visit motivations. They went on to suggest ways that the administrators of museums could better meet the needs of their customers based on those motivations — practical tips like offering customized, behind-the-scenes experiences for Professional/Hobbyists and providing instructions for Facilitators on how to interact with the children in their company.

Applying Falk’s Research to Nature Centers

I realized in reading Falk’s work that it could profoundly impact the design and functioning of nature centers. Most of the consulting I do with centers is in one way or another related to planning: designing new facilities, developing strategic and business plans, and evaluating existing centers. My consulting frequently involves doing surveys of the people who visit the centers that are my clients; lots of it is essentially market research. I decided to examine how the motivations of those visitors matched up with Falk’s archetypes. So, I inserted a Falk-inspired question into my surveys:

Thinking about your most recent visit to ______ Nature Center, which ONE statement BEST describes your main reason for visiting?

  • I wanted to explore and learn new things about nature, history, and similar topics.
  • I was with someone else (children, grandchildren, students, out-of-town visitors, etc.) and wanted them to have a good experience.
  • I heard that ______ Nature Center is an important place to see in [name of the city or county].
  • I was pursuing a professional interest or personal hobby (birdwatching, wildlife photography, research, geocaching, etc.).
  • I went because ______ Nature Center is a good place to reflect, recharge, and just get away from day-to-day life for a while.
  • I went mostly to get some exercise.

I have now asked that same question at 10 nature centers all over the U.S., and 2,699 people have answered it. The surveys are typically distributed by sending a link to the email addresses on the nature center’s mailing list, by posting it on their websites and social media platforms, and (at some centers) by handing out paper copies to program participants and walk-in visitors.

As a frequent exercise, before revealing the results of the survey to my clients, I often ask them to predict how their center’s respondents have answered it. “What percentage of your customers will fall into each category?” I say. They rarely guess correctly. Before you read further, pause and see if you can predict the results. 

Visitor Archetype Graph web

The above chart summarizes the survey results of visitors for all 10 nature centers.

As you might expect, the results from individual centers vary. However, in all 10 surveys, either Facilitator or Recharger was the most common response, and in nine of the 10, the other came in second. (Exerciser nudged out Recharger at one center.)

It is significant that staff members were rarely able to predict these results. They often picked Facilitators as one of their most frequent visitors, but the prevalence of Rechargers has usually come as a surprise.

The Educator Bias

Why might most nature center staff underestimate the prevalence of Rechargers among their users? One reason is that they don’t see them. Rechargers who use nature centers generally spend their time on the trails, often not coming into buildings at all, or only doing so to use the restrooms. They don’t interact with staff — indeed, sometimes they intentionally avoid staff because they prefer to be alone and undisturbed.

Another reason Rechargers could fly under the radar is something I call “educator bias.” Most nature center staff, including most administrators, have education-related roles. They see it as their job to “connect people with nature,” and they tend to assume that that is the reason people visit their centers. They might also assume that people need help connecting to nature. It is an attitude epitomized in the popular Baba Dioum quote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

One center educator I worked with unintentionally demonstrated this bias. When she realized just how many people were using the trails and not interacting with either her staff or the building exhibits, her first reaction was, “We need to get interpretive signs out on those trails!” In fact, not only do most Rechargers not read interpretive signage, but some are offended by its presence — just one more human-concocted intrusion on the peaceful experience they seek!

Given this bias, educators can mistakenly discount the value of visitors creating their own connections with nature. Do you want to improve the experience of Rechargers? Install a bench out of the flow of heavily trafficked trails where they can sit quietly and reflect. Or take that recharge a step further (as I saw the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center do a few years ago) and stash a hard-cover journal and a pencil on a shelf under the bench seat, with a note that encourages people to write their reflections and read those of others.

A person walks on a trail in the middle of an open prairie. Behind the hiker, dense forest.A "Recharger" at Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo by David Catlin.

Rechargers Can Be Your Best Friends

Despite the fact that we are not “educating” Rechargers, they may very well be our most passionate advocates. They have made very personal spiritual and emotional connections with our centers, after all. 

One center director I worked with told a story that illustrates this point. A piece of property that adjoined his center’s boundary and overlooked its best feature (a small lake) was proposed to be re-zoned as a subdivision. The director went to the public hearing required to review this proposed change and was surprised to find a room packed with re-zoning opponents. He didn’t know these people as nature center volunteers or program attendees, but he did recognize the faces of people he would see on his early-morning, before-work trail walks. They were his center’s Rechargers, there to protect the place they cared deeply about.

Unless you levy an admission fee that requires Rechargers to come into the building and give you their money (and contact information), you may not even know who your best friends are. That may be another practical tip inspired by Falk’s research: Figure out a way to connect with your Rechargers.

A Final Thought

I participated in a discussion a couple of years ago that included Dr. Falk, and the conversation turned to why professionals in our field can be slow to apply things that research reveals. Falk’s take was insightful: “One of the challenges endemic to this free-choice community [is that] historically there hasn’t been a ‘front door’ — most everyone comes [to the profession] through the ‘back door.’” Most nature center leaders, in other words, have arrived in their jobs via careers as conservation managers, nonprofit administrators, park naturalists, and other pursuits. Falk believes there is a good depth of literature in this field, but most practitioners are not familiar with it. 

I don’t take as much time now to keep up with the research as I once did. But reviewing my notes from that discussion with Dr. Falk inspires me to dig into some more current literature. The coupon-clipping can wait.


John H. Falk and Beverly K. Sheppard, Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions, AltaMira Press, 2006.

John H. Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, Left Coast Press, 2009. See Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (2014). The Museum Experience Revisited for an updated version of this work.