Education and Interpretation

Early in the development of the park, it was clear that with its location far from city noise, combined with its varied landscape and areas of vegetation, it was an ideal outdoor classroom where residents could learn about the natural world. The Discovery Park Associated Recreation Council (ARC) entered into an agreement with the city in 1976, increasing the educational, cultural, and recreational opportunities for Discovery Park.

To adequately understand what the environment in the park had to offer residents, Superintendent of Parks David Towne requested a study from the University of Washington Institute of Environmental Studies on how visitors could increase their understanding of the natural environment. The 1974 Preliminary Report was delivered in March, just ahead of the anticipated summer programming, with the goal of informing efforts to protect fragile areas and habitats. The final report that October provided an inventory that could be used in building a natural history interpretation program and a served as a guide for park development.

Discovery Park naturalists and personnel responsible for developing programs relied on a personalized approach of ranger-naturalists to guide walks; host and deliver lectures; lead campfire programs, demonstrations, slide shows, and organize courses for the public. Their objectives were to "enhance the visitor's perception and enjoyment of the park; protect park resources; and encourage awareness of natural systems."

drawing of ranger and children
Wolf Tree Nature Trail program
Record Series 5802-14, Seattle
Municipal Archives

Naturalist John Bierlein developed guidelines for nature interpretation and outdoor education within Discovery Park's Interpretive Program in 1975 and created this formula to foster a deeper understanding of natural resources:

Interpretation/Education -> Understanding -> Appreciation -> Protection of Park Resources

Education for park visitors started in summer 1974 with programming limited to guided nature tours, initially attended by two or three people. Using local media outlets to publicize the tours, attendance increased.  By the end of the season, total participation grew to approximately 450 people.

Staff conducted beach walks covering human history and beach life, while forest ecology walks introduced park visitors to the interdependence of forest life. That first summer, programming grew to include nature history lectures and botanical walks with speakers from UW; camera tours and film series for film and photography buffs, and bicycle tours of the perimeter of the park. Held each Saturday afternoon, guided nature walks were, and continue to be, free.

Funding was added to the 1975 budget for two full-time naturalists, and Paul Frandsen and John Bierlein were hired as permanent full-time staff. Interpretive programming for adults expanded to include geology as well as salmon, mushroom, tree, shrub, and edible plant identification. Adults were invited to enjoy courses on design and architecture, nighttime nature walks, and bird watching. Discovery Park is an important habitat for roughly 250 avian species and attracts bird watchers as well as birds. In autumn, summer birds head out as winter birds build nests. In a novel approach to immersive experiences, the park offered portable cassette players and tapes of birdsongs and calls to be played in the field to enhance learning and appreciation of the various species in the park.

people birdwatching
Bird watching at Eagle Station with
volunteers Joel Philips and Vince Ferriol
Image 206407, Seattle Municipal Archives
people birdwatching
Bird watching at Eagle Station with
volunteer Paula Younkin
Image 206408, Seattle Municipal Archives

By 1979 annual programs in Discovery Park included 70 guided walks, 10 children’s program, 28 adult programs and 217 school and other programs.

In 1981, the park introduced the Discovery Park Walking Club for Seniors, and a shuttle was provided for round trip service between the visitor center and the beach for those who were unable to walk. Accessibility to nature was a high priority for the park when it began providing walks for seniors and the disabled. Nature walks for the disabled emphasized direct contact with nature, with a paved pathway suitable for wheelchair users.

seniors walking in park
Seniors on guided nature tour, ca. 1990s
Image 206288, Seattle Municipal Archives
drawing of wheelchair user on path
Drawing from 1989 Winter Program shows
paved pathway for wheelchair users.
Record Series 5802-14, Seattle
Municipal Archives

Interpretive programming for children would become the jewel in the crown of the park's education efforts. The guiding philosophy was to design programs which "facilitate contact and...provide concrete, sensory experiences upon which concepts can be built. Our goal is to reveal meanings and relationships between living things and their environment."

Beginning in 1977, Nature Day Camps were offered for kids aged 6 to 11. Billed as “The place Mother Nature could send her children”, campers explored the meadows, forests, and beaches of the park and took trips to the lighthouse. Campers visited the stables to see how the mounted police trained their horses. Children visited the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center to view murals and engage in art projects. The Nature Day Camp programs also brought hands-on learning to small children, with activities including producing plays, using seasonal props, topical games, and allowing children to participate in gathering specimens.

children in meadow
Children on meadow walk, ca. 1980s
Image 206287, Seattle Municipal Archives
naturalist and childen on beach
Volunteer and children on beach
walk, ca. 1990s
Image 206289, Seattle Municipal Archives
children with mounted policeman
Seattle Police Department Mounted Patrol, 1976
Image 206184, Seattle Municipal Archives
costumed childen performing on outdoor stage
Nature Day Camp interpretive play, ca. 1999
Image 206283, Seattle Municipal Archives
kids sitting on log listening to naturalist
Docent/Volunteer teaches children
about eagles, ca 1990s
Image 206284, Seattle Municipal Archives
kids reflected in pond
Children collecting specimens
Image 206285, Seattle Municipal Archives

In April 1980, "Nature at Nighttime" extended education programs to include evening hours. Naturalists led 7- to 12-year-olds in small groups through the woods and along the beach to search for raccoons, owls, and sea life, followed by a campfire.

To foster interest in future naturalists, the Junior Ranger program, beginning in 1975, and later the Youth Rangers program, allowed youth to become involved in the care and keeping of the park as well as interpretive programs.  Children 8 years and older met twice a month on Sundays to learn how to care for injured animals, provide first aid, and learn about litter control and trail maintenance. Part of the experience included presentations by park staff followed by on-the-job practice helping with park ranger duties.

To support and develop stewardship of natural resources, beach clean-up walks conducted by school groups allowed kids to experience the intertidal zone of the beach while providing care for the land and its many inhabitants. The Stewardship for Students program, provided to school groups, promoted children to actively participate in habitat restoration by removal of invasive species, plant native plants, learn Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, and better understand the balance of ecosystems.

group of people on beach
Beach clean-up, ca. 1999
Image 206281, Seattle Municipal Archives
children with kelp on beach
Children on beach walk, ca. 1990s
Image 206286, Seattle Municipal Archives
Stewardship for Students brochure
Stewardship for Students program
Record Series 5802-14, Seattle
Municipal Archives

Working alongside park employees to manage Seattle’s largest park, volunteers played an invaluable role in Discovery Park. Opportunities such as docent programs let those who enjoyed working with children lead environmental education outings; others supported the park by joining the Park Advisory Council, and families and individuals were able to Adopt-an-Area to steward specific habitats. Volunteer programming continues to be a cornerstone of community involvement in the park.

By 1980, the number of visitors pushed the limits of the existing visitor center. Exhibit space was lacking, the number of children's programs that could run simultaneously was limited, and there was limited meeting space. A new visitor center, partially funded by Metro mitigation funds, was dedicated in 1998.

old visitor center
Original visitor center, 1999
Image 172075, Seattle Municipal Archives
new visitor center
New visitor center, 2001
Image 172066, Seattle Municipal Archives

In continued efforts to reach the public about interpretive nature programs, the park employed local radio station KRAB for weekly on-air programs with naturalists. Another innovation used by the park was the Dial-A-Naturalist program in which a two-minute recording about a species, habitat, or event in the park could be played by phone. Listeners could dial the 1-800 number to learn new facts each week.

Discovery Park continues to be a place where city residents can escape the concrete and noise of the city. Despite the many pushes for the park to be used for purposes other than a refuge, it has withstood the demands, and continues to be an urban wilderness for those that seek it out.

Timeline -->

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.