BLM Trails Center’s Student Docent Program creates the next generation of educators

Story by Tyson Finnicum, Public Affairs Specialist. Photos by Stacey Moore, Education Specialist.

A docent (“DOH-sent”) is a person who acts as a guide, typically on a voluntary basis. If you’ve ever been on a guided tour of a museum or an art gallery, you may have been led by a docent. You will find these volunteers at Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wyoming’s National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming too. However, the difference here is the docents are much younger than your average tour guide.

Since 2011, the Trails Center’s Student Docent Program has trained children to be effective educators and communicators. Students enrolled in the program attend a comprehensive, six-week-long training course that ends with the students leading tours. Hundreds of students have graduated from the program over the course of the decade.

A group of children looking at an "Explorations of the West" map display at the Trails Center.
For more than a decade, the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center’s Student Docent Program has trained local children to become effective educators.

Classes consist mostly of fifth graders from local elementary schools but attract homeschoolers and participants of the Trails Center’s youth “History Club” programs as well. Participation typically stems from the long-standing partnerships between the Trails Center and certain elementary schools and teachers. Often, teachers will reach out to the Center with prospective students. Other times, kids visiting the Trails Center on a school trip are led by a student docent. Fascinated by their knowledgeable peers, they beg their parents to let them attend.

One would assume the focus of the program would be on the history of the four national historic trails that the Trails Center interprets. The students do learn a lot about trails history, but the curriculum and resulting benefits are so much more. Much of the course centers around public speaking and having conversations.

“The idea behind the docent program isn’t to teach kids what to think, but how to think, how to ask questions, how to have a conversation,” says BLM Trails Center Education Specialist Stacey Moore, who spearheads the program. “Being a good interpreter isn’t about teaching facts and figures; it’s about leading conversations and making connections.”

Students then help out by leading tours at the Center, allowing school groups and other young visitors to learn from their peers as opposed to an adult. “Kids teach kids better,” says Moore.

This education model forges strong interpersonal skills for the budding educators. In turn, it helps the children visiting the Trails Center to make a deeper connection with the historic trails that run right through their backyard.

“Docents are making that connection with other children; the children are connecting with the history. That’s what interpretation is all about!" says Moore. 

A girl dressed in period clothing with a dress and bonnet raises her arm as part of a presentation while other children look on.
Docent-led school group tours are an important part of the program, allowing young visitors to learn from their peers while docents strengthen their communication skills.

In addition to the core curriculum, a highlight for participants has become the wagon treks. Although it’s not a requirement, students can tag along on a three-day excursion across the historic trails where they travel by wagon and foot, sleep in canvas tents, and cook over an open fire. The trek provides the docents with a different perspective of the trails that they interpret, giving a first-hand experience of the challenges mid-19th century pioneers would have faced. Post-trek, students curate a temporary exhibit that is displayed at the Trails Center to showcase their experience.

“With reenactments, we go beyond sympathizing for the pioneers that made the migration West and actually empathize with people in history,” remarked one student docent about her wagon trek experience, demonstrating a level of understanding that translates into presentation and conversation.

wagon trek and student-curated exhibit: Four photos and a quote from one of the children are on the wall.
A highlight of the program is the optional wagon trek and student-curated exhibit that ensues, where participants showcase their profound insight.

While the number of graduates from the program can be quantified (20 per year on average), the overall impact of the student docent program is immeasurable.

“To me, the success of the program is marked by effective communication and greater connections and empathy rather than numbers,” says Moore. 

Five children dressed in period clothing in a wagon.
The Student Docent Program isn’t all hard work. Participants also have a lot of fun!

Who knows how many children have left a docent-led school tour with a newfound love of historic trails, or at the very least, a stronger connection to them. The docents themselves leave the program with a greater sense of confidence and improved speaking ability—traits that they carry with them the rest of their lives.