Many communities across the nation have adopted creative methods for engaging with their residents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, park and recreation departments have a unique opportunity to bring residents together—even if it’s not through traditional in-person activities. These neighborly gatherings and moments in which strangers become friends through shared experiences can be crucial to battling the isolation and depression that many have felt during the pandemic. In addition, the mood-boosting health benefits of laughter and learning can help reduce stress, improve moods, and decrease loneliness.
Park and recreation leaders can become heroes in their communities by developing programming and activities that give residents a chance to connect in ways that can ease depression and anxiety.
The Benefits of Outdoor Activities on Mental Health
Spending time outdoors has countless benefits that improve people’s mental health. In addition, data shows that different outdoor environments can offer various health benefits, enabling further opportunities for creative programming. For example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gathered a variety of studies and statistics finding that spending time outside in forests or having increased exposure to trees provides the benefits of reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving one’s energy level.
The benefits of spending time outside are wide-ranging and impact many groups within your community. For example, spending time outside can help children with ADHD increase their focus and reduce attention fatigue. Outdoor events also continue to be a safer alternative to in-person events as communities continue navigating, mitigating the spread of COVID-19. In addition, as seasons change, park and recreation departments can plan and execute themed events that allow neighbors to mingle outdoors safely. For example, consider homemade sled races in winter, a daisy chain crown-making class in the spring, outdoor yoga in the summer, and a fall colors photo contest in autumn.
Indoor Community-Building and Joy-Spreading
While spending time outside has numerous perks for improving community mental health rates, park and recreation centers can host indoor events that offer critical socializing and mood-boosting opportunities as well. Creating dynamic opportunities for folks to learn new skills can help them develop a sense of levity and improvement in the mood of residents. According to a guide from the National Health Service in the UK, learning new skills can help improve one’s mental health and well-being. It can also increase self-esteem, boost confidence, and assist with relationship-building with other residents.
Community gathering and shared learning can also bring a community closer together, which is critical when many feel anxiety around the risk of differing with friends and neighbors on social or political ideologies. Expanded community-building opportunities can come through educational events hosted at your local parks and recreation centers. Consider hosting generational teach-ins, events where rotating resident leaders can host learning sessions regarding new skills residents are looking to learn. Sessions could range from technology training to life skills to relaxation solutions. Consider such diverse educational sessions as knitting, chess, public speaking skills, basic CPR, and conversational Portuguese. To determine which types of content might be most interesting to your residents, issue surveys by email, on social media, and on your parks and recreation department website.
When planning content, ensure you consider a range of ages and experience levels. Having younger residents leading sessions can encourage more of the community to come out and learn about what interests the next generation. For example, ask a group of high school students to teach seniors how to use Facebook or take quality photos from a smartphone. Intergenerational relationship-building can give young people confidence and purpose and help seniors battle feelings of isolation and loneliness—improving mental health for all involved.
Parks and recreation departments can create opportunities to engage residents and give them a sense of purpose, belonging, and personal development—three benefits that can build friendships, boost moods, and improve community morale. In addition, the health benefits from prioritizing mental health in your parks and recreation department can set the tone to show your community that you value each member—and that you care about their health and happiness.