Favorite Park and Recreation Activities According to the Data

By Catherine Tepper | Posted on November 22, 2023

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As some of you may know, this Park Engagement blog series is designed to inform our readers about how U.S. adults and their families are utilizing public parks and recreation facilities. With eight years of data from NRPA’s annual Engagement With Parks Reports, park and recreation professionals can gain insights into how engagement with local parks and recreation may be changing over time, identify trends for the future, and shape offerings and programming to meet the needs and desires of the public.  

Today we will discuss the different types of participation and engagement that we see within our park and recreation facilities. What facilities are being used and what kind of programs do park-goers tend to gravitate towards? Questions like these are very important to ask and take notice of, as they allow agencies to identify and predict community needs. 

What Kinds of Park and Recreation Activities Do People Want?

From being with friends and family to learning a new skill, there are a multitude of reasons that people visit their local parks and recreation facilities. We have noticed some interesting trends in the way the public uses their local parks and recreation facilities since the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic (2017), 77 percent of park users indicated they or their family’s sole destination was to visit a local park or open space. In 2023, that number is down to 66 percent. Additionally, there was a slight decline in the use of hiking, biking and walking trails between 2022 (53 percent) and 2023 (47 percent). 

While specifically visiting parks or hiking on trails may not be as big of a driver to the public this year, more people are taking advantage of other types of park and recreation activities, programs and facilities. In 2021, 19 percent of park-goers visited a swimming pool or aquatic center, which has jumped up to 28 percent in 2023. This pattern displays itself in the popularity of other activities and facilities, as well. Eighteen percent of park users visited a local recreation or senior center in 2021, which has increased to 28 percent in 2023. Meanwhile, between 2021 and 2023, taking part in classes increased by 7 percent, out-of-school time program participation rose by 8 percent, and participating in a sports league increased by 6 percent. 

What Are the Reasons People Visit Parks and Recreation?

Reasons why people visit park and recreation facilities have also been shifting in popularity. Prior to the pandemic, the most popular reason to visit parks was to spend time with family and friends, with percentages ranging between 58 percent and 62 percent of survey respondents. Post-pandemic, this number has changed. In 2023, 50 percent of U.S. adults cite visiting a park or recreation facility to be with friends as their main driver. This reason is followed closely by parks and recreation facilities being a destination to take a break from day-to-day stress (47 percent), to be closer to nature and to exercise (both 46 percent).  

There also are other interesting trends to take note of within this set of data. Specifically, between the years of 2020 and 2023, connecting with community members, learning new skills, and having someone to care for children while parents go to work have become increasingly popular reasons to participate in park and recreation activities. In 2021, 18 percent of survey respondents said that they visited parks and recreation facilities to connect with their community — this percentage has risen to 23 percent. Similarly, in 2021, 9 percent of respondents visited their local parks and recreation to learn a new skill or craft. Today, 14 percent use their parks and recreation for this purpose.

Lastly, two years ago, only 5 percent of U.S. adults responded that they participated in park and recreation programs to have someone take care of their children while they were at work. This number has increased to 10 percent in 2023. 

These statistics all reveal the shifting uses of park and recreation facilities and programs. As time goes on and the world changes, so does how people use our parks. It is extremely important that we take note of these changing ways so that we can provide our community members with the facilities, resources and programs that they need and want.  

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Catherine Tepper (she/her) is a research assistant at NRPA.