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Passport to the park: activating Oak Park

by Park District of Oak Park
in Innovation, ONLINE FEATURE, Parks and Recreation

Local parks and community facilities are key places for children to go to and be active. In an effort to get kids 5-13 to stay active and learn new things about their parks and community, the Park District of Oak Park, Illinois built a Parks Passport program encouraging kids to stay active by going to your local parks and recreation facilities.

Oak Park shared its experience at the 2018 Transforming Local Government conference, noting the success the community experienced by introducing an interactive booklet, created to encourage kids to explore local parks and recreation facilities. Activities range from play, history, nature/exploration, fitness, math, and arts and crafts. Examples of activities include “Visit the new Maple Park Playground and play!”, “Visit Scoville Park”, and “find the sculpture of Percy Julian. Who is he?”, “What is a century plant?”.

The idea for the park passport came about when Leah Pryor, a program supervisor at the park district attended a session on a nature passport at the North American Environmental Education Association’s annual conference. Pryor felt that this would translate well into a parks and recreation setting as a way of promoting the parks in Oak Park and the programs that the park district offers. She presented the idea to the marketing department, after that, other members of the recreation team and the marketing team helped to develop content and find sponsors for the project. Finally, it was submitted to the Park District’s innovation committee which provided funding for printing the final product.

The Mayor by George B. Cuff

The program is innovative in the following areas:

  • The park passport breaks down barriers because it is a completely free program. Anyone in Oak Park regardless of socioeconomic status was able to participate because there was no cost associated with any of the activities.
  • The passport builds awareness of many of the unique features of parks in Oak Park. It also builds awareness of free activities that encourage families to stay active in order to combat childhood obesity.
  • This program empowers citizens of Oak Park to get outside and be active during the summer months and to learn something new about their community.
  • Internal collaboration was integral for the program, individuals from the recreation department, marking department and the innovation team came together to work on the passport.

The project highlights teamwork at several levels, within the agency, and private public teamwork. Several departments collaborated to put this project together, three local government agencies, the park district, the public library, and the school district worked to promote this project, and a local business owner was featured in the passport as a means of incentivizing participants.

The passport program is easily adaptable to many different settings. Any local government can promote their assets using this unique program. Communities could even collaborate to connect parks around the region or province/state. For the private sector, the program could be used to connect like-minded businesses in a community. It’s an innovative way to build awareness for multiple partners at the same time while creating ties between and cross promoting members of different groups.

The Parks Passport was an idea that came about early in the year, yet no specific budget had been set aside. The team overcame this challenge by tapping into the Innovation “Launch Pad” program where a local Innovation Committee reviews new ideas to help improve the agency. Without support to distribute the passports, the team replied on partnerships with other intergovernmental agencies (Oak Park Public Library and District 97) to reach all elementary kids in Oak Park and all folks that visit the library.

When creating the project, the budget was not finalized until later in the process and there were numerous changes within the program itself. Children in District 97 received their Parks Passport booklets the last 1-2 weeks before the end of the 2016-2017 school year and right in time to kick off the summer.

Overall, the program was a success. The following data was collected:

  • Nearly 100 participants finished and submitted the passport in its first year.
  • Surveys were sent to every participant that completed the passport with over a 40% response rate. Participants surveyed were very positive about the program.
  • With an average score of 4.5 out of 5, respondents clearly indicated Oak Park achieved these outcomes.
  • 95% of respondents indicated they would recommend and participate in future parks passport programs suggesting a positive experience.

Since this is a new program and due to its success in the first year, the team is already looking for ways to expand upon the program. Some thoughts for next year include: adding other governmental agencies such as the village; adding other nearby parks and recreation departments; adding additional private businesses for sponsorship; and adding a geocaching element.

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