Introduce Parks Through Programming

“We wanted a project that would require families to come into the parks–not just attend programs that we were holding elsewhere,” says Au. “We also wanted the children to learn something about nature.”

Getting Families To The Parks

The first challenge was to get families to enroll.

“Our naturalists had already been providing free nature programs at the county libraries,” says Au. “So we wondered: Would the libraries allow us to use their summer reading program kickoffs to also enroll children in the Summer Letterbox Adventure?”

The libraries agreed to the idea, and just like that, Preservation Parks had a ready audience of families happy to discover a fun, inexpensive and educational summer activity for their children.

The libraries worked closely with the parks on registration-day logistics, and library staff continued to register families throughout the summer–keeping Letterbox Adventure materials at the children’s department desk or at the front checkout counters.

“Registration at the libraries was important for working families,” says Au, “because although the parks themselves are open in the evenings and on weekends, park offices are closed.”

Connie Pottle, head of youth services for Delaware County District Libraries, says that having library staff help with registration made the ongoing parks/library partnership even stronger and more equitable.

“Preservation Parks has been doing nature programs for us for awhile,” she says. “We’re happy to have the experienced naturalists from the park, to do the kinds of programs that we can’t. For very little work on our part, we benefit from these great programs.”

Overcoming The ”We Have No Budget For This” Hurdle

Like most park districts, Preservation Parks tries to minimize its programming costs. The district dove into the letterbox project with no funding, so all materials were produced fully in-house in 2008, the project’s first year. The booklets were designed using publishing software, and pages for about 200 of them were printed on a copier and trimmed, collated, and stapled by hand.

Other costs incurred were for flyers, posters and some inexpensive incentives (insect finger puppets) for the participants.

For the second year of the project, Preservation Parks set a small budget. Staff members again designed the booklets in-house, but the printing was done by a quick-copy service. The outlay of only a few hundred dollars resulted in 750 booklets, which, while still printed only in black and white, had glossy covers and were cleanly cut, collated, and stapled–a professional-looking product for little money.

In 2009, the park district also found a few sponsors who underwrote the cost of some prizes for the participants.

Most of the cost was in the form of staff time. Apart from the marketing and design work, naturalist Kim Banks decided on the hiding places for the letterboxes, and formulated clues while choosing which natural features to emphasize in each park. Park managers familiarized themselves with the letterbox locations, so they could assist visitors, and all staff members helped maintain the project throughout the summer.

A Growing Program

About 220 children signed up the first year, and 30 or so found all the hidden boxes. In 2009, the number of participants jumped to more than 700, with about 75 children completing the project.

Banks, who helped design the Letterbox Adventure, believes the program grew because of its inherent appeal. “Participants like the exercise, learning something new about nature, and spending quality time with their families,” she says.

Pottle says word of mouth helped the program grow as well.

“We would overhear parents say to their friends, ‘We had a great time last summer doing the letterboxes,’” she says, adding that library staff members helped push the project.

“It was an opportunity for us to tell families about other resources available to them in the county,” she says.

Many families say they will participate year after year.

“This was a great summer project; we’ll do it again,” says Bodker, pointing out that her children learned about nature, had fun outdoors, and discovered new places to explore. “ … And before this,” she says, “we didn’t even know half of these parks existed.”

Sue Hagan is the Marketing & Communications Manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County, Ohio. A lifelong resident of the Midwest, she grew up spending parts of each summer in the northern Wisconsin pine forests, and can close her eyes and remember that wonderful aroma. After working as a journalist for many years, she decided to combine two loves–writing and the outdoors–into a new career. She can be reached via e-mail at shagan@preservationparks.com.

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