The public is our greatest advocate. Every year we see this fact through NRPA’s annual Engagement With Parks Report. Adults in the U.S. recognize the importance of parks and recreation in their community even if they do not consider themselves park users. One group, however, is an untapped champion for parks and recreation — parents.
When we asked U.S. adults to compare the frequency in which they currently visit their local outdoor parks, trails and other public open spaces to the frequency before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that just over a third of all adults increased their visits and 37 percent stayed the same. However, if you look at the same question but focus just on parents, the results look much different. Nearly half of all parents increased their visits to local outdoor parks, trails and other public open spaces compared to before the start of the pandemic. Twenty-nine percent of parents said their visitation frequency remained the same.
While it is very interesting to be able to put a number to those visitors, this increase is not a huge surprise. As we found in the NRPA Park Snapshot Survey, parks and other outdoor areas remained largely open throughout the pandemic as a respite for the public. Maybe the playground was closed, but largely fields and trails remained what they have always been — areas of play, relaxation and togetherness.
In 2021, we found parents visited a local park, playground, dog park or any other local space more than non-parents and adults overall (73 percent vs 53 percent vs 61 percent, respectively). Parents were also more likely to use areas offered by their local park and recreation agency to play sports with friends or family (32 percent vs 22 percent vs 26 percent, respectively) or visit a local swimming pool/aquatic center (26 percent vs 13 percent vs 19 percent, respectively).
We find annually that parents are more likely to have a park within walking distance of their home. In 2021, nearly four in five parents indicated they had at least one park within walking distance of their home. Only two-thirds of non-parents and 71 percent of U.S. adults overall said the same.
Proximity to parks is of great importance to parents. Eighty-eight percent of parents say proximity to parks, playgrounds, open spaces or recreation centers is an important factor in their decision about what neighborhood or area in which to live. And, 68 percent say that proximity to parks is “very important” or “extremely important.” The recent release of the Youth Sports at Park and Recreation Agencies Report and the 2021 NRPA Out-of-School Time Report delve deeper into the benefits to children when they have access to parks and recreation.
We have established that parents utilize their local park and recreation resources. How do we turn those parent users into advocates? Engage with them directly. When we asked parents if they think it is important for their local park and recreation agency to engage directly with them to ensure every community has access to amenities, infrastructure and programming that meets their specific needs and desires, there was a resounding “YES!” Engage parents at the park, in the recreation and community center, or in the best manner in your area. Encourage them to volunteer, attend city council meetings, or find additional ways to best use this valuable resource to bring increased attention to your agency’s goals, including receiving additional funding.
When we asked those 1,000 U.S. adults how important, if at all, it is to them that their local and state governments sufficiently fund local park and recreation agencies to ensure that every community member has equitable access to amenities, infrastructure and programming, nearly nine in 10 U.S. adults said this funding is important. However, a decisive 94 percent of parents said this funding is important with 76 percent saying it is “very important” or “extremely important.”
Children are only young for so long and it is crucial to engage with parents right now. Harness the creativity, passion and advocacy of your local community’s parents to bring stronger and better-funded programming to the masses.
Melissa May (she/her) is NRPA’s senior research manager.