Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
A brief history of nature education in provincial parks.

“Through these interesting and enjoyable experiences that are both educational and recreational, interpretation contributes to the inspiring value of the outdoors and fosters understanding, appreciation and wise use of our parks.”

– Alan Helmsley, Department of Lands and Forests, 1960

Ontario Parks nature programs are designed to help people discover and connect with the park’s natural and cultural history during their visit.

Algonquin Provincial Park was the first provincial park in Canada to have a nature program, developed and led by natural history experts. It started as a trial in 1944, but was so popular with park visitors that it became a world-renowned program, now offered in more than 70 provincial parks.

The following timeline charts major milestones in the history of nature education in Ontario parks:

1944 – Frank MacDougall, deputy minister of the Department of Lands and Forests, hired Professor Dymond (then director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology) as the seasonal naturalist of Algonquin Provincial Park.

During this first summer, 15 guided walks and five visits to children’s camps were carried out. A marked trail was also created in the park.

1946 – Two students, Al Helmsley and Norm Martin, were hired to assist JR Dymond in the interpretive (nature) program at Algonquin.

1948 – The first (temporary) museum was established in Ontario parks. A 14′ by 14′ marquee tent, provided by the Royal Ontario Museum, housed exhibits of live birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and a collection of local conifer specimens. The tent museum turned out to be very popular.

Very faint photo of a tent with interpretive elements inside.Museum tent at Cache Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park in 1948. Photo: Algonquin Provincial Park Archives and Collections

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1953 – The Algonquin Park Nature Museum opened. Gerald Killan, author of Protected Places (1993) wrote, “The Algonquin Park Museum of Nature was the centerpiece of what was considered the premier park interpretive program in Canada.”

1955 – At the time, two parks had full naturalistic programs: Algonquin and Rondeau Provincial Park.

1956 – More than 127,000 people used interpretation services in provincial parks.

Several people milling around various interpretive stations. Visitors to the Rondeau Nature Museum in 1954

1957 – Grant Tayler became Algonquin Provincial Park’s first permanent biologist and naturalist.

1960 – Five parks had naturalistic programs: Algonquin, Rondeau, Sibley (now Sleeping Giant Provincial Park), Quetico Provincial Park, and Presqu’ile Provincial Park. The naturalistic programming included museums, marked trails, guided walks and illustrated talks.

Black and white photo of several people sitting on a beach, listening to a person talkingGuided nature hike in Lake Superior Provincial Park in 1963

1962 – Naturalistic programs were presented on the beach of Lake Superior Provincial Park at the Agawa Bay campgrounds. The benches were driftwood logs and the screen was a large sheet tied between wooden posts. Power for the projector came from the park office and ran through the trees.

1963 – Algonquin Provincial Park’s first public wolf howl took place.

Two men howling at the sky at night with people watching from behindRon Tozer and Dan Brunton leading a wolf howl in Algonquin Provincial Park in the early 1970s. Photo: Algonquin Provincial Park Archives and Collections

1964 – More than 531,000 people used interpretation services; an increase of more than 400% since 1956.

1973 – The park’s interpretive program became the “Visitor Services Program.”

Guy in a red cap with a stuffed creature on top using a piece of rolled up birch bark as a megaphoneLongtime performer Shan Walshe at Quetico Provincial Park in 1988

1993 – More than 2.2 million people participated in programs, hiked trails and enjoyed visitor centers. The current Algonquin Provincial Park Visitor Center was dedicated to mark the park’s centennial. The Visitor Center highlights the natural and cultural history of the park.

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Algonquin Park Visitor Center

1994 – 44 provincial parks offered interpretive programs to park visitors. This year marked 50 years of natural heritage interpretation in Ontario parks.

nineteen ninety five – The program was renamed “Natural Heritage Education.”

Three young women having an argumentInterpreters at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in 1995

2011 – A Learn to Camp program was established to help people discover the joy of camping in a safe and fun environment.

Campers learning to camp in Darlington Provincial Park in 2013

2015 Ontario Parks launches a Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative to promote the link between a healthy environment and a healthy society.

2017 – Nearly three million people participate in programs and services for their own use and led by Natural Heritage Education staff.

Park Naturalist at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park in 2015

2018 – Today, 72 parks across the province offer interpretive programming. Sixty-three parks have a visitor center, activity center or museum. Ontario Parks celebrates its 125th anniversary with special programming and events.

Discover the parks today

Since many of our parks offer naturalistic programs, there are many opportunities to discover what makes each park unique.

Ontario Parks naturalists and guides provide enjoyable and memorable experiences for visitors who want to explore the natural and cultural wonders of our provincial parks.

Come join us! A list of events in provincial parks can be found here.

Find your favorite parks on social media to stay in touch with their weekly programs and events.