As a member of NRPA and a reader of Parks & Recreation magazine, you already know about the power of public parks and the broad scope of the great work park and recreation agencies perform for their communities. The American public agrees. Earlier this year, NRPA published a study it commissioned with Penn State University that affirmed Americans’ passion for local recreation and park activities. Even more so, Americans firmly believe that local park and recreation agencies benefit themselves and their communities, and they share this belief regardless of whether they actually use their local parks.
This support is remarkable because the general public may not be fully aware of the wide variety of facilities, programming and offerings delivered by these agencies. Some people may only think of their local park and recreation agency in terms of the green space around the corner, the trail where they hike or bike or the swimming pool where they cool off during a hot summer day. Others may view their local agency as the host of the hometown sports league in which their children participate or a cooking class offered at the community recreation center. Still, most people probably do not have a full understanding of everything their agency does.
This means there is always more to talk about when it comes to making the case for expanded park and recreation programming and amenities. A recent NRPA research survey reports out-of-school time (OST) programs as one of the most widespread services offered by park and recreation agencies. Nine in 10 agencies offer OST programs for their community’s children that can include everything from afterschool care and summer camps, to educational content and mentoring programs. For all of the great results OST programs bring to their communities, there remain many opportunities for greater success by serving more children and expanding program offerings. To gain a better understanding of the scope and missions of OST programs, along with their greatest challenges, the NRPA research team surveyed park and recreation agencies throughout the United States during June 2016. Click here to access the full report.
About OST Programs
The typical park and recreation agency’s OST program serves roughly 1,000 children per year, but the scope of individual programs can vary significantly in the number of children served, with some agencies providing OST offerings to just a few hundred children and others serving tens of thousands of children. The typical agency in an urban setting serves 1,400 children per year while the median count of children served in rural and suburban areas is 800.
OST programs serve children of all ages, spanning from infants to teenagers about to graduate from high school. But, the overwhelming majority of children participating in OST programs are of elementary or middle-school age. Thirty-four percent are between six and eight years old while half are between the ages of nine and 14.
The children served by OST programs are racially and ethnically diverse, reflecting the ability of park and recreation agencies to bring together Americans from a variety of backgrounds, incomes, races and places. Forty-four percent are non-Hispanic whites while 23 percent are black or African-American. One in five children participating in OST programs are Hispanic. OST programs in metropolitan and urban jurisdictions serve an even more diverse population. Thirty percent of the children participating in OST programs at these agencies are black or African-American while 27 percent are Hispanic or Latino. At these same agencies, 28 percent of the children partaking in OST programs are non-Hispanic white.
OST Program Offerings: Leaders in Child Care
Park and recreation agencies offer a wide array of OST services to meet the needs of their communities’ youth. For many municipalities, park and recreation agencies are a major provider of child care. In fact, the most common OST offering is summer camp, provided by 95 percent of park and recreation agencies. Further, six in 10 agencies offer afterschool care, while a quarter of agencies provide before-school care.
Beyond child care, OST programs are split between athletics, education and enrichment activities and opportunities. Seven in 10 park and recreation agencies include organized sport leagues as a part of their OST program. Learning-focused OST programs include those concentrated on environmental education (43 percent), tutoring/help with homework (39 percent), nutrition education (32 percent) and STEM (science, technology, education and math) (32 percent). These offerings connect children with the great outdoors, help stop summer brain drain and close the education gap, provide nutritious meals, and prepare children for the jobs of tomorrow. As part of their OST offerings, some agencies also provide individual enrichment activities, including teen clubs (34 percent), mentoring (22 percent), drug/alcohol prevention (10 percent) and gang/violence prevention (10 percent).
OST Serves Millions of Meals Each Year
OST programs are about more than child care, fun activities and education. These programs also are an important source for nutritious meals for many children who may otherwise go hungry. Fifty-seven percent of park and recreation agencies offering summer camp and before-school/afterschool care also serve meals through USDA meal programs. This can include the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and/or the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
This percentage rises at urban and metropolitan agencies. Seventy-six percent of agencies serving urban or metropolitan areas provide meals as part of their child care offerings. Similarly, 72 percent of agencies with more than half of their OST participants being African-Americans and/or Hispanics offer meals as a part of their child care offerings.
Challenges Facing OST Programs
Even with the many benefits that OST programs bring to their communities today, park and recreation agencies face a number of challenges that are preventing them from expanding these services to even more children in their communities. The two biggest challenges have to do with insufficient funding (65 percent) and a shortage of facility space to hold OST programming (58 percent). Slightly more than two in five agencies also face difficulties in the form of inadequate staffing.
Regardless of these challenges, OST programs are providing critical offerings to their communities. For many families, OST programs are lifesavers for their ability to deliver quality child care, nutritious meals, physical activities and mentoring for free or at a low cost to caregivers. But not all people may fully appreciate or be completely aware of the role OST programs perform in their town. Sharing these survey results or just telling your agency’s story about its OST activities will broaden your community’s view of how park and recreation agencies contribute to the well-being of children and families. This is the type of story that further makes the case for local park and recreation agencies. And what a great story that is.
Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.