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Since 1985, July has been celebrated as the nation’s official Park and Recreation Month. A program of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), the goal is to raise awareness of the vital impact that parks and recreation have on communities across the U.S. This July’s Park and Recreation Month theme is Game On! All month long, your parks teams are likely celebrating the fun and games that local parks and recreation offers to residents of all ages and abilities.
Cue the cute photos of smiling kids playing with balls and hula hoops, running through an outdoor obstacle course, jumping in a bounce house, getting their face painted, swimming at the beach, kayaking at a lake, or touching a snake at a nature center.
It is true that in our parks and recreation summer camps our kids learn teamwork while exploring arts, music, sports, and nature. And at our summer movies in the park, families picnic, eat popcorn and watch movies for free. And in our pools, kids splash and swim to beat the heat. The symbols of balls and playgrounds are often ubiquitous with parks and recreation programs, but our work is so much more than fun and games.
While summer is a time my park and recreation colleagues plan for all year, this is a particular time of reflection for me because, for all of the work put into the smallest details of recreation programming to ensure kids have fun, we should not lose sight of the larger, important outcomes.
Parks provide opportunities to be physically active, reducing health problems and increasing life expectancy. The Trust for Public Land has a video and booklet effectively conveying Eight Ways Parks Improve Your Health. Recently the New York Times proclaimed ‘It’s a medical fact: Spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, is good for you.’ And with physical health follows long-lasting improvements in mental health and a California State Parks report identifies a significant conclusion that these benefits can act in tandem – a recreation program directed at youth obesity can increase self-esteem, reduce the use of alcohol, build family bonds, and promote volunteerism, all at the same time.
Parks are proven to improve water quality, protect groundwater, prevent flooding, improve the quality of the air we breathe, provide vegetative buffers to development, produce habitat for wildlife, and provide a place for children and families to connect with nature and recreate outdoors together. Parks increase values of residential properties immediately adjacent to parks by as much as 20% of the properties’ marginal value – especially if the park is a natural area. The economic impact that large tournaments, competitions and special events hosted in parks bring to the local economy can offset park maintenance operating budgets. Park after-school and drop-in programs provide a safe refuge for youth and for every dollar spent in afterschool programming, an average of $6 in crime, court and detention costs were saved according to a 2010 study. Just as water, sewer, and public safety are considered critical government services, parks are equally essential to ensuring the health outcomes and life expectancy of multiple generations and contributing to the economic and environmental well-being of a community and a region.
These benefits are second nature to me, working in the parks and recreation field, but they are not always obvious to others. Sometimes we need to employ effective communication and influencing techniques to nudge something of importance squarely in the realm of human consciousness.
One of the best ways to effectively communicate park benefits and the associated importance of parks is through storytelling.
Telling stories is fundamental to part of our human behavior – our brains are wired to remember stories. We desire to be connected, and especially in today’s digital age, storytelling is an emotional and powerful tool and, as it turns out, it is the only thing that works.
My Department is currently in the process of updating our Strategic Plan and in our employee and community surveys, we asked about their favorite memory in a park and a meaningful memory at work. They have shared many stories of how parks impacted them, some of whom grew up in our park system.
.. Some shared stories of refuge and safety: “Growing up in the park system I always had somewhere to go. When your parents don’t have money, you have to be glad that there is still a place for you somewhere.”
.. Several shared stories of saving a life: “Preventing an individual from jumping off of a bridge probably had the most impact on me while on the job, and relief in knowing the individual was able to get the help needed without any tragedy.”
.. Others shared stories of friendships and love: “I had my first kiss at the park.” “I was having a conversation with my then-girlfriend, now wife during a sunset in a park, and while our relationship was in an infantile state, I knew this is who I wanted to share my life with.”
.. Some had stories of loss: “I distinctly remember huddling with my friends at the park and crying together after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.”
.. Others had stories of triumph and celebration: “My favorite memory at work was taking a group of Seniors to Dodger Stadium to watch our 99-year-old participant throw out the first pitch!” “I have seen generations of families come through my park where I grew up and now work, and girls that I coached when I first started working are now bringing their children to the parks to play the sports.”
Every summer has a story.
These and so many more meaningful stories are worth celebrating this month. It may be the summer that one of your parks staff saves a life; it may be the summer someone who grew up in your summer program gets a job with your parks Department; it may be the summer you swim with a frolicking dolphin in the bay; it may be the summer you give that smaller kid a chance to play on the t-ball team who later turns out to be a major league baseball player. These are all things to lift up and celebrate by sharing our park stories.
And it may be that the summer is your parks team’s busiest time of year, so if you see one of these staffers, they may need a hug, a cup of coffee, or five minutes of peace and quiet.