The Problem with Underestimating Fun

My 7-year-old niece recently spent the week us “in the big city” as a mini-vacation and a chance for us all to spend more time together since we’re only able to see her family a few times a year. I asked her what she wanted to do while she was in the Chicago and her answer was “go to a park and ride a train.”  I’m not going to lie – the urban planning geek inside of me was a little proud that the two things that she mentioned were open space and public transportation.  But, in order to fulfill her wishes, I happily promised that we’d make sure that we crossed both of those items off of the list that week.

That week we set out exploring different parts of the Chicago area that would appeal to a 7-year-old girl, which ended up included visiting a historic farm, a natural playground, a butterfly house, a pool, another playground, a museum, a beach, a zoo, and a Broadway musical. And it really wasn’t until the end of the week until I realized that all of those places except for one had been to park and recreation facilities, which really speaks to the quality and variety of what local park & recreation agencies offer.

 My niece using the guide to identify butterflies in the Butterfly House at Geneva Park District's Peck Farm Park.

My niece using the guide to identify butterflies in the Butterfly House at Geneva Park District's Peck Farm Park.

After a long week, with a lot of activity, sun, and macaroni and cheese (she is a picky eater), we packed up everything and headed downstate to bring her back home.  With a few hours to talk, I asked her the inevitable question that we all ask kids (and some adults) after a trip – “Did you have fun?”  And after an enthusiastic yes, and a review of all of the cool things that she did, I decided to dive a little deeper and ask a few more questions, including “What did you try for the first time?” and “What did you learn this week?”

In terms of what I was expecting as a response to these questions, at the beginning of the week I think that her mom and I were just hoping that she would try some food that wasn’t macaroni and cheese.  And while we might not have accomplished that goal, I was a bit astounded by her answer.

She first told me about how she floated on her back in the pool for the first time and how now she can swim on her back, even where she can’t touch the bottom of the pool and knows what to do if she ever gets in deep water. Then she talked about other things, like how to bend metal, that icebergs are melting, how pullies work, why there are no sharks and jellyfish in Lake Michigan, why spotting a monarch butterfly at the zoo was a big deal, and how she had to work with another girl she had never met at the museum to invent a new contraption out of LEGOs. 

And it was then, even as someone who is well aware of the benefits of parks & recreation from working in the field for 15 years, that I was reminded how powerful visiting parks can be.  In one week in park & recreation facilities, my niece played and had fun, but she also learned a live-saving skill, practiced social skills, and became more educated about how the world works and what’s affecting the environment.  And while this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the full benefits of parks & open space to a community, it's crazy to me that it’s not enough.  I’m certain that on that day my niece could have convinced any council to increase their park & recreation funding. It's amazing what can happen when you take a week off from being a park & recreation professional and instead become a park & recreation user. Sometimes in our industry’s rush to better tell our story, we miss out on the best ones by not asking our very own users the right questions.

At the end of our drive, we met my sister to grab dinner with the rest of her kids and my niece got to recap her adventures all over again. And just when I thought that I knew all of the lessons that my niece had learned over the week and the new things she had tried, she surprised me one more time. She ordered corn dogs for dinner.

Many thanks to the staff at Fox Valley Park District, Geneva Park District, Park Ridge Park District, and Chicago Park District where our adventures that week took place, and to everyone else in parks & recreation that are creating experiences like these every day.