Four Inspiring Examples of Innovative Parks and Rec Programs

Written by Jennifer Elliott

Get inspired by these four innovative parks and recreation departments.

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Nothing turns neighbors into friends faster than powerful moments of shared community engagement. Our local parks and recreation departments are continually inspiring us to build solutions that keep pace with their innovative programs, activities, facilities, and inclusive community offerings. To help parks and recreation departments across the nation benefit from the innovative spirit of some of our most creative and influential parks and recreation #CPfamily members, we have created this list of four inspiring examples of innovative parks and recreation programs. From senior leisure activities to random acts of kindness, to evening exercise, these four communities are leading the nation in taking their parks and rec efforts from expected to exceptional.

Get inspired by these four innovative ideas, and then be prepared to make a big impact when you launch your newest initiatives. Download our free fact sheet, 12 Parks and Rec Marketing Techniques to Increase Citizen Engagement.

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1. ACC Leisure Services Senior Adult Day and Overnight Trips, Athens-Clarke County, GA

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No matter your age or how long you have lived in a community, you can always enjoy being a tourist in your hometown. In Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, the ACC Leisure Services team has made it fun, easy, and affordable for seniors to get out, meet new friends, and explore their county’s local offerings. ACC Leisure Services offers a variety of local and regional day and overnight trips for senior adults. Seniors can conveniently register and pay for events online, and trips depart right from the Rocksprings Community Center. Just a few of the educational, artistic, and historical tourism options available include:

  • The Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon.
  • A Holiday Luncheon at the Tate House.
  • A Milledgeville Historic Trolley Tour.
  • A Dahlonega Wine Tour.
  • Gainesville Theatre Alliance Production of The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Hammonds House Museum.
  • Holiday Shopping at Dawsonville Outlets.

By providing transportation and companionship, seniors who may not have easy access to local and regional travel can remain engaged members of the community and can enjoy the added benefit of socialization with their fellow community neighbors.

How to Create an Engaging Program in Your Community

Consider starting with just one of two seasonal activities, and then building up to a full catalog of local events. Follow these tips to get started:

  • Partner with your local senior citizen center. Work together to plan and execute affordable day and overnight trips that highlight the best of your community.
  • Gain input. Consider surveying your seniors or holding open forum discussions to determine the types of community activities and venues they would be most interested in accessing.
  • Continually update your list of events. Plan seasonally-relevant activities, such as apple picking in the Fall, holiday shopping in December, museum tours in the winter, and garden tours in the spring and summer.
  • Use data to decide on future offerings. Keep track of which events obtain the highest number of registrations. Some events may become successful annual events that your seniors look forward to every year. Others that may not have received the response you expected may become one-offs that you do not repeat. Remember to incorporate qualitative data into your quantitative assessment to continually develop programming that fits the needs and interests of your citizenry.
  1. 2. Fishers Rocks, Fishers, IN Parks and Recreation 
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You know better than anyone that it’s your people that make your community a home. In Fishers, Indiana, the Parks and Recreation Department has partnered with the Fishers Rocks initiative to help make a big impact on the culture of its community—one that reinforces kindness and a neighborly spirit—using simple, natural resources. The Fishers Rocks program promotes random acts of kindness. Citizens are encouraged to make, take, and hide small painted stones with messages designed to make one another smile. The Fishers Rocks program has its own Instagram account, and citizens are encouraged to use #FishersRocks to share those happy moments when they unexpectedly find a motivational message around town.

How to Create an Engaging Program in Your Community

All it takes to create this type of random act of kindness initiative in your community is a theme and some generous citizens to get you started.

  • Choose a symbol of kindness. We love the idea that citizens in Fishers can create personalized tokens of kindness, but you can also purchase or make a limited number of symbolic pieces that you and your staff can initially place around town to make citizens smile.
  • Brand and promote your program on all channels. Giving your initiative a formal name, like Fishers Rocks will make it identifiable and memorable to citizens.
  • Keep your program fresh. Continually introduce new kindness tokens into the community and identify even more clever places to hide and find them.
  1. 3. Canoe by the Stars, Harford County, MD Parks & Recreation

 Many communities with gorgeous natural lakes, rivers, and streams offer canoeing and kayaking, but in how many communities can you canoe under the stars? In the innovative community of Harford County, MD you can paddle by moonlight thanks to their Canoe by the Stars program. Citizens and park participants are encouraged to “Glide through the late evening hours using the original navigation system, the stars. Explore the sky above and let the stars be your guide.” The Canoe by the Stars program takes place at the County’s Anita C. Leight Estuary Center.

What we love about this initiative is that it gives citizens an unexpected perspective of their community’s natural resources. Plus, so often our days are filled with job responsibilities, kids’ activities, and errands, that canoeing under the stars allows its participants to heave a big sigh and indulge in an evening activity that will refocus and reset their mood and stress levels. We imagine it is also the perfect setting for first or fiftieth dates.

How to Create an Engaging Program in Your Community

For any canoeing initiative, but particularly one that takes place by starlight, safety is of the utmost importance. Ensure your starlit canoe program incorporates the following safety precautions:

  • Outfit all participants with proper nighttime safety gear. Such gear should include:
    • A life vest equipped with water-based light sensors. 
    • Two clip-on lights: a green light to wear on the right side, and a red light for the left side. This low-light canoeing and kayaking standard will quickly enable other participants to tell in which direction they are paddling.
    • A waterproof headlamp. Since artificial light hinders night vision, instruct participants to use their headlamps only to check navigation, enter and exit the canoe, check the time, or for any other moments when they need additional light.
  • Keep participants within a designated route. Rope off a section of your waterway with buoys and post expert canoe instructors around the perimeter to keep participants from traveling away from the designated safe area (both intentionally and unintentionally).
  • Enable proper belonging safety. Encourage participants, especially photo enthusiasts, to bring a dry bag for their essentials, such as a camera, phone, or identification. You may want to consider stocking and selling some in your recreation building.

4. Spread the Love, Mesquite, TX

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It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a caring community filled with warm-hearted citizens to help sustain those in need when times get tough. In Mesquite, Texas, the Parks & Recreation department’s Spread the Love campaign encourages donations of both peanut butter and jelly and financial contributions to help feed children in food-insecure families during the summer months when free or reduced school lunches are unavailable. The City accepts donations throughout the spring and summer months at several City facilities and special events. The City collaborates with two of its local food pantries for food distribution: Sharing Life Community Outreach and Mesquite Social Services.

What makes this program innovative is its targeted approach to a season when the city knows some citizens are particularly in need of financial and meal resources, as well as the ease with which citizens can participate. What family doesn’t have peanut butter and jelly on nearly every week’s grocery shopping list? All a philanthropic citizen needs to do to contribute is toss an extra jar or two in his or her grocery cart and drop it off at a nearby community outreach center. To make participation even easier, citizens may choose to make a financial contribution year-round through the City of Mesquite's Donations webpage. We also love that the only foods requested are peanut butter and jelly—kid-friendly foods with a sustainable shelf-life and a high satiety offering.

How to Create an Engaging Program in Your Community

Whether your parks and rec department chooses to hold a one-time food drive in response to a local crisis, such as a natural disaster, or you identify a need for an annual support program, follow these five tips to ensure your food drive is a success:

  • Leverage every communication channel to spread the word. Involve your local media, promote your campaign on your local government homepage and your parks and recreation department webpage, schedule recurring posts to social media, distribute pamphlets to local faith-based and community service organizations, and include slips in home utility bills. The more citizens aware of your initiative, the more donations you will receive.
  • Partner with existing community support organizations. Focus on the food collection and leave the food distribution to the experts. Partner with your local food pantry or other community service organization to ensure reputable social service programs are the benefactors of your donations.
  • Specify what you are collecting. Families in need of food need healthy Establish parameters around the food supplies you are soliciting. Canned goods and non-perishables are easiest for citizens who want to add a few extra pieces to their grocery cart or pull some canned goods out of their cupboard but specify that you are collecting such healthy options as canned fruits and vegetables, boxed rice and grains, and whole wheat pasta. Encourage donors to keep the marshmallows, processed cheese, and sugary cereals at home.
  • Enable easy financial contributions. Today’s citizens want easy access to online payments and donations. Add a page to your department website that allows citizens to donate online anytime, from any Internet-enabled device.

Your Turn

You’ve read about four inspiring examples of innovative parks and recreation programming. Now it’s time to implement an engaging program in your community.

The first step?

Leave a comment to let us know which initiative you found most inspiring.

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