We have all heard that statement, and it’s never been more true when describing the best way to promote active behavior in our communities. People have different interests, abilities, skills, and talents. The more we can create outdoor spaces that beckon all of them, the better chance we have of reversing the sedentary behaviors that hold so many captive, while creating an active, vital, cherished space for our community.
As a child, there was nothing more exciting than the playground. I looked forward to the feeling of flying that was associated with swings and slides, the fun of spinning on the merry-go round, and the company of my peers as we imagined ourselves to be astronauts, eagles, and ship captains. In between, we would sit on the grassy hill and talk, (or sometimes just roll down and climb back up) and explore the woods surrounding the play space.
When I was a teen, our local park would hold outdoor dance festivals and people would come to be playful and enjoy the music. Some even came on roller skates, and though the dances were designed to provide teens with an active outlet, the park made sure people of all ages and abilities felt comfortable; it was a great community event!
Many kids grow up playing sports, so ensuring there is a space to play (or at least practice) is important for this group to keep them actively engaged in a way they enjoy.
When I was young, we could play in the street without fear of traffic, stranger danger, or hazards in general. However, children don`t play in the streets anymore because often the streets aren`t safe. Neighborhoods are often built without sidewalks. Kids take the bus to school instead of walking or riding their bikes. Moreover, a child`s natural urge to move is often squelched by the draw of television and video games. Sadly, our technological advancements, for all their practical applications, have also created a world that discourages motion.
For adults, the challenge can be greater. We are consumed with our busy lives, so taking the time to be active doesn’t always come naturally. Even those who were athletes and sports enthusiasts in their youth will find that when they’re 30 and need to exercise, there’s little likelihood to find soccer teams or a baseball game at the ready to engage with. For adults, fitness most frequently derives from solitary activities, such as the morning jog, that people have learned to incorporate into their lives. Providing an outdoor adult fitness space, whether a cluster, trail, or near a play space for parents, can help give them the opportunity to incorporate outdoor activity, and an appreciation for their local park.
And finally, let’s not forget the simple pleasures of open, green space. A grassy field, natural plantings to attract birds and other small wildlife, and the shade and hypnotic sound of leaves in the wind that a tree can provide are valuable amenties. Too often, parks are overdesigned with so many compact features that the beauty of seemingly “untended” wild spaces are forgotten. While planned flowerbeds and grass that rivals a putting green are certainly beautiful to behold, “Keep Off” signs sort of defeat the purpose. Looking back on the woods behind my house, it was blazing trails, piling loose branches over a natural swale to create caves, and even see-sawing on a fallen tree (shh, my mom still doesn’t know about this) that made nature fun, not walking and quietly oberving stuff as it grew.
I know the perfect park. It has a field that can be adapted to a variety of sports, and alongside are bleachers which are used as much for groups of friends who want to sit and talk in an outdoor space as they are for observing the frequent, and often impromptu sports games. Teams can reserve the space for practice, and if not reserved, it’s open for random games of soccer, fitness drills, or whatever sports people want to play.
It has a playground with lots of fun, adventurous ways to play, including a climbing wall, and age appropriate areas for younger and older children to encourage development along a continuum, while keeping them engaged in active behavior. Leading to that playground is a curving trail, created in such a way that it is almost maze-like, certainly not as complex as the Yew mazes that are found by British castles, but curvy so that it is unique at each bend. Along that trail are exercise stations for adults, and playful pockets of child appropriate equipment that informally teach the value of our environment while children play. Seating options stationed along the trail provide comfortable rest stops for people who wish to sit, observe, and listen to their surroundings. There is also a perimeter trail around the park with a “wheel” lane for bikes and skates, and a “ped” lane for walkers and joggers, with signage that tells each group to be respectful and mindful of the other. This trail dips into the trees in key areas to provide variety, shade, and quiet space. To help encourage cycle traffic, bike parking is copiously available at all of the main activity areas, so cyclists can stop and enjoy all the other amenities the park has to offer.
Along one side of the park is a picnic area with grills, seating, and shelters – close to the parking area so families don’t have to tote heavy coolers for long distances. On the opposite side of the park is the dog friendly area, created so pet lovers aren’t excluded from bringing their furry friends to the park. A fenced dog park within the pet zone provides additional opportunities for off leash adventure and a dog agility course. Nearby is an aquatic center where children learn the valuable (and lifesaving) skill of swimming, and adults, especially those with tender knees, hips, etc., come to swim, socialize, and enjoy life.
Where is this park? For now it’s on paper, here in my office. Since I work for a recreation equipment manufacturer, one day, just for fun, I sketched out a park using all of the equipment we make, being mindful to include applications of programming we’ve developed to encourage design best practices. When done, I realized that the space featured activities for most every type of person, young or old, of all abilities, fit or deconditioned. Is my paper park unique? Absolutely not. All throughout the world, parks, recreation centers, camps, and public spaces are realizing the benefit of including a variety of equipment and activity types, both built and natural, to attract everyone to the space. After all, we each have our favorite way to be outside, but to assume everyone shares our exact passion, and design to our preference would be irresponsible.
So what’s your favorite way to be active? And where is your preferred place to go to participate? I’d love to hear what gets you moving, and how you balance healthy activity with all of the other things that life throws your way! And if you want to build my “paper park,” I’d love to hear from you, too!