• Becca, Learning Wayfinder

How to make the perfect...Trail Guide (Resources Clinic)

In June, we met and brought together resources from knowledge centres/visitor attractions/sites that we’ve gathered throughout our careers, and from around the world: designs that caught our eye, souvenirs, and ones with ideas that inspired us. In fact, we brought together so many resources that we couldn’t get through them all! But never fear: the Scottish Learning Group is setting up other meet ups to go through more kinds of informal and formal, led- and self-led resources and aimed at different learning audiences.

At this particular session, our resources scramble focused on trail guides. We looked at those made for informal learning provision, not ones aimed at schools and other formal learning institutions (as that is a whole other session!). We also focused on paper guides, not apps or VR/AR.


What is a trail guide?

A trail guide is a place-based, hand-held resource that lead learners on a route through an area and have activities to do at each stop, such as ‘spot the ____’. Some cover all of Scotland or a permanent outdoor or indoor place or temporary space/event (e.g. Edinburgh Science Festival’s Discovery Trail, which led learners to look at photographs). In informal learning, most trail guides are aimed at children, so the audience for these is actually families.


Interested in finding out more? See our linked blog post to read about what trail guides usually include and the goals for creating one. We discovered and discussed so much that two blog posts were needed!


Getting started

1. Figure out your goals. Are they the same as these ones?


2. Work with your marketing team to ensure the point of the guide is learning, not an advert! The best guides had their organisation’s information listed, sure, but this was kept to a minimum (e.g. logos on the front, company contact information on the back).


Learning Point: You may need to get quite insistent here. We found that some guides were clearly reaching a marketing goal (such as linking buildings from around a geographical area) but this:

  • took up valuable learning space

  • missed out crucial points (such as is this for the adult or the child to hold?)

  • left the reader with a confused message

3. Keep it simple. You’re doing informal learning and interpretation here. Don’t use too much of everything! One guide we saw, which shall remain nameless, was crammed with 14 activities set out in 2 rows (and had an angry look with yellow and red throughout).


Learning Point: Why not create a story? We all thought this was a powerful and popular way to present a trail guide.


4. Get a good illustrator and a good designer. Having all the trails in a pile meant we stopped at ones that – literally – caught our eye.


Learning Point: You’ll want a mix of e.g. illustrations, frames, black shadow-style shapes to match or circle (e.g. paw prints), borders, bespoke characters and/or drawings of particular elements.


Learning point: icons make for less reading e.g. Manchester Museums of Science and Industry's robot exhibition had 3 icons – one for each activity types it asked families to do at each stop


5. What are you going to call it? ‘Trail’ is overused. How about journey, quest, challenge or mission? Avoid ‘hunt’ – it sounds a bit violent. We thought that ‘treasure’ was a bit misleading. Learners aren’t leaving with bags of sovereigns…although knowledge and fun are mental nuggets of gold I suppose!


6. Figure out a route. Make sure that you’re passing areas that meet families needs such as toilets, picnic areas etc. Also check that you aren’t sending people round and round or up and down a hill.


7. Pricing Is it free and left-out-for-people to grab or is it available to buy? Something to think about: adding a cost adds a barrier. We had examples of:

  • free, left out for people to grab

  • £1 only – this works nicely as ‘it’s only change’

  • free admission to a site which has minimal interpretation on the grounds, and £5 for the guide, which brought the area to life

8. Get your numbers right:

  • eight is a good number of ‘stops’ on the trail.

  • don’t number the stops! We felt that numbering made our audiences frustrated: either they couldn’t find a ‘stop’ or kept going through fatigue/thirst in order to ‘finish them all’.

  • 3 things to do per stop is best

Evaluation and Use

1. Time it! We noted that most of the trails didn’t include any mention of time, yet surely families would like that information so that they can plan. Even an estimate here would be helpful.


Learning Point: figure out your attraction’s ‘average dwell time’ and make the trail take less than that, to allow for toilet/food breaks. So, if families are normally at your site for 1.5 hours, make the trail take 1 hour. This means some people will race through it in 40 minutes, and some will take a little over 1.5 hours.


Learning Point: in an observational/non-creepy manner, follow some families through their experience and record times. Do this at the beginning/first draft stage – don’t wait until your resource has gone to the printers before pre-testing it! People like to feel they’re making a difference. If you let them know beforehand that they’re helping you test it in the pre-productions stage (and that you will be observing them), that should be fine.


Learning Point: learn more about techniques in observation from visitor studies: e.g. Visitor Studies Group or Visit Britain quality assessment


2. Build in pre- evaluation (see above re: observation) before you fully launch your guide.


Learning Point: Don’t be afraid to use a draft for as a talking point (or for surveys and questionnaires) pre- production and when you make any changes later.


Learning Point: Check what they are completing in each section, if the entire resource is being completed or if people are giving up, and to ascertain quickly if visitors are consistently showing a particular keenness or lack of interest in something: have visitors head back to a certain point at the end to hand in their book to get their stickers/prize etc. This way you/your colleagues get a quick scan and can feedback to the team.


3. Build in mid-time checks and post- evaluation, using the points in 9 and 10 above. Most organisations have no idea how their trail guides actually fare.


4. Make it re-usable.

We found that it works better to have trails for the whole site/area/park etc rather than for a one-off event or exhibition. Perhaps make it so that you can have different, say, printed stickers to match your one off event but use the same trail.


Learning Point: If it is for a one-off, is there a way you could tie it into your permanent offerings so that you can use it again?


Learning Point: take a leaf out of Scottish Seabird Centre’s book and use frames to change up the trails. These open up and allow you to change the clues to match the month/event etc. We also liked how by completing the Scottish Seabird Centre’s trail of the month, you got a badge and a thick, beautifully cardboard mount for them, and accumulating six badges meant you got a prize.


5. Sort out your staffing needs

Your trail may not be suitable for an unstaffed area. For example: stickers – how are you going to give them out? Visiting services and/or café or shop staff won’t have time to give out stickers. Also, the stickers, which can be beautiful illustrations of your attraction, say, can be different for each stop. That is even more complicated to coordinate.


Learning Point: either provide staff or volunteers for this at different stations or ‘hide’ trays of stickers as part of the things that kids need to watch out for.


Learning Point: embossing stamps are great because they can be unstaffed – but be warned: they last best indoors, away from the elements!


Learning Point: If you’re doing a passport type trail at an event, note that you’ll need one person dedicated to handing out stickers or writing names on certificates, and your other staff providing your stall’s activities. Don’t have one person – even if they’re part of a team that day – trying to do both.



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