Citizen Engagement in Parks Programming in 2021

Written by Kathryn Boutwell

What does parks and rec look like long-term as our communities recover from COVID-19?
Keep Citizens Engaged and Active with 14 Virtual Parks and Rec Activities

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Virtual programming for parks and recreation has been thrust into the spotlight due to COVID-19 and the need to engage in practices like social distancing. Focus has widened from traditional activities reliant on personal interaction to include new outlets that allow citizens to maintain their community involvement through safe, online alternatives. Options are being created that encourage civic engagement and perpetuate healthy, active lifestyles that are important for people seeking well-being and normalcy in an uncertain time.

While this type of programming has become a focal point due to unfortunate circumstances, there are positive takeaways; a new door has been opened to expose a clear and open landscape on which to build for the future. Untapped potential exists all over the state in audiences that previously may have fallen outside the reach of traditional programming.

As conditions related to the pandemic improve, communities will get back to the types of activities they were engaging in a year ago, but it’s important to note that not everyone will return to previous habits at the same pace. Additionally, some citizens, due to various limitations, had the same lack of options even prior to COVID-19, and they’re looking forward to the possibilities brought forth with this shift in focus. Some citizens may implement entirely new and permanent approaches and thought processes to community recreation offerings and their willingness or interest to participate. It’s best to plan for everyone in these scenarios.

A New Normal

Virtual programming isn’t a bridge or a stopgap, rather it’s a unique domain just like in-person facility-driven activities, and it can be enhanced through innovation to become an equal player in recreation programming. These offerings can provide impactful benefits regardless of whether there is an outside factor like a health crisis pushing them to the forefront of our minds.

Most citizens are walking around with portals to the community right in their pockets. It makes sense to utilize this connectivity to everyone’s advantage. Smartphones, tablets, and computers can be used as catalysts for interaction and positive change. Convenience can be the difference-maker when it comes to increasing engagement. People have grown accustomed to the ease-of-use of their advanced devices. As a result, more users will look to online options as a permanent expectation because it’s simply what works best for them and their lifestyle. A convenient virtual component has been a missing piece of the puzzle for some, and filling that gap can create future interest and involvement that is more successfully sustained.

It may not seem obvious that programming from parks and recreation departments can be a spark for change and positive community momentum. However, consider an isolated boy or girl playing live virtual chess with a peer. Think about a senior citizen with limited mobility and transportation options who can work with a trainer to complete a specialized chair yoga program via virtual lessons.

These are powerful opportunities to create a continuous atmosphere of care and inclusion in the community.

Online Payments and Registrations

If you are going through the hard work to develop a robust catalog of virtual programming, ensure that you’re providing interested citizens with the opportunities to participate without worrying about in-person, paper-based submissions, signups, and payments.

Utilize your recreation management software or your content management system to allow users to do everything they need to participate, from beginning to end, online. It’s essential to ensure citizens can do any of the following from home:

Next Year’s Programs: Springboard Ideas

When it comes to creativity and innovation in building a diverse programming catalog, the brainstorming phase can be challenging. Encourage your public to get involved. Let your citizens know what you’re trying to accomplish and request their feedback. Consider some of the following ideas as jumping-off points and then utilize the tools at your disposal like online forms, request trackers, polls, and activities software to initiate a creative implementation.


Virtual games have been entertaining and educating users for years, but they typically exist independently from a municipal website as a set of links or resources.

Create unique, fun experiences that can only be found through your website and form connections between your community and citizens. Consider ideas like home scavenger hunts, live board game tournaments, or real-time chat trivia. Virtual competitions can be held with prizes and incentives offered.

The Arts

Classes and lessons can bring people together to learn in a setting where ideas can be workshopped, and people can gain valuable insight and feedback from teachers and peers to improve their skillset or try something new.

Art classes can span a wide spectrum, from writing, painting, sculpting, acting, woodworking, knitting, and beyond; there are many opportunities to organize groups and workshops, and the great news is they all can be held virtually with a comparable level of effectiveness. Hold virtual contests and feature winners via homepage spotlights on your local municipal website.

Experiencing the arts in-person is tough to beat, but the next best thing may be having the ability to consume it through virtual exhibits. An interactive tour or a live stream gallery walk-through could also provide a rich experience. Perhaps you have a city band that plays in the local park pavilion on Friday nights in Summer; consider making the concert a virtual event.


There are many citizens on the lookout for ways to expand their horizons and become more knowledgeable. Groups of children could go on virtual field trips to the local history museum. Young adults could seek help with the college application process or receive assistance with test preparation. Adults may be interested in volunteering in the community to become public safety and preparedness leaders by taking a course in your area’s common adverse weather scenarios.

Perhaps there are opportunities for cross-department collaboration where Parks and Recreation works with the Library or Emergency Services to tailor a diverse virtual learning catalog.

Physical Health

An important component of achieving a state of positive physical and mental health is remaining physically active through various forms of exercise. Yoga, aerobics, weight training, and dance are just a few types of activities where citizens could benefit from signing up online to be lead by an instructor and be part of a community. In such programs, participants can give and receive encouragement, ask questions, and contribute to a common goal with fellow residents, all from the comfort and convenience of home.

Senior Resources

Each of the above categories can be expanded upon in a portal specific for seniors, including transit information, meal programs, housing resources, and more.

Civic Participation

Live, in-person events can be supplemented virtually for those unable to attend. Fundraisers or live auctions, festivals, holiday celebrations, career fairs, voter education and registration events, and more, can all be bolstered by virtual offerings that work in tandem with a live event or standalone, giving additional citizens the chance to contribute and participate.

Expanding on What We’ve Learned

How can you virtually transport people out of their homes and provide them with beneficial communal interaction? Citizens are eager to be engaged in the community if provided the opportunity. Convenience is key, and by creating and expanding virtual options, your organization can tap into new audiences and fill a need for citizens in the short and long term.

For a time in 2021, some citizens may be required to isolate, and others may have reservations about getting back out in public, but it’s important to remember these are just a couple of circumstances highlighting a need for alternative programming. The other factors to consider are always going to play a future role; citizens may have financial limitations, a lack of transportation, lack the time in their schedule, or be isolated in terms of their proximity to facilities and resources.

It benefits a single community, a greater region, and an entire state to expand virtual programming and parks and recreation offerings to be more diverse and inclusive. The adversity faced in 2020 can be used as a sound foundation for the future's ambitious virtual endeavors.