Parks and Recreation and Libraries Working Together During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Noah Lenstra | Posted on May 1, 2020

Libraries and Parks and Rec blog 410

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread throughout the United States, I have been actively tracking how public libraries have responded. Right out of the gate, I found park and recreation agencies collaborating with public libraries for a unified response. In Oak Park, Illinois, on March 11, 2020, the village’s two school districts joined forces with Oak Park Public Library and the Park District of Oak Park to make the joint decision to close and suspend all programming. Rather than a scattered response emanating from different agencies, the schools, libraries and parks came together to have one unified message.

Teaming up for virtual programming

As the pandemic created a new normal in communities across the country, park and recreation agencies and public libraries deepened their partnership to create new virtual programming. In Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Warren County Public Library announced on April 6: “We are so excited to share our newest online program in partnership with Warren County Parks and Recreation Department!  Silver Streaming is coming to you LIVE every week with FREE Fitness and Knowledge classes through our Facebook page!” Tuesdays feature free fitness programs sponsored by the park and recreation department and Thursdays feature lifelong learning programming by the library.

At almost the same moment in time, staff from the Tempe, Arizona, library and park and recreation agency were at work on their own unified virtual programming platform. On April 15, the City of Tempe announced the launch of Tempe at Home, a one-stop-shop for virtual programs and services brought to you by Tempe Parks and Recreation, the Tempe public library, the city’s Center for the Arts, as well as other municipal agencies. The library offers interactive storytimes, STEAM activities, and arts and crafts activities for teens. The park and recreation department also offers exercise and fitness classes, sports skills and drills, and specialty classes.

Collaborating to keep families engaged outdoors

Across the country, librarians continue working with park and recreation professionals on StoryWalk® programming, which combines literacy and nature education by placing pages of storybooks along trails — typically in parks or along greenways. According to Anne Ferguson, who developed the idea at a public library in Vermont around 2007, a StoryWalk® is “an innovative and delightful way for children — and adults! — to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time.”

In Southhampton, Pennsylvania, the public library launched what it calls a “Story Stroll” in Tamanend Park in March. An ABC affiliate in Philadelphia reported on this new library service: “It has become particularly useful during this time of social distancing to avoid further spread of COVID-19. Families are bringing their children out to read at the park when they are otherwise stuck at home. No librarian guide is necessary, either. The outdoor atmosphere allows families to stay far away from each other and still enjoy the space.”

There are plans to keep the stroll active until the library reopens, refreshing the choice of book every Friday. Southampton Free Library recommends contacting your local library to find out about story walks near you. Libraries across the country continue to offer similar services in partnership with parks and recreation. Learn more in the blog post “How Public Libraries Are Helping Us Find Nature During the Crisis” published on the Children & Nature Network’s website. 

In other communities, libraries and park and recreation professionals are finding other ways to work together to promote engagement in parks and green spaces during the pandemic. In Eastern Tennessee, the City of Elizabethton Parks and Recreation and Carter County Public Library teamed up to host a quarantine photo contest. Community members are encouraged to post photos of their favorite spaces while staying at home to the City of Elizabethton Parks and Recreation’s Facebook page.

Libraries and park and recreation professionals also team up to promote safe, physical distance walking. In High Point, North Carolina, with the support of an America Walks Community Change Grant, the library and park and recreation department announced the launch of their new “Urban Hikes” initiative on April 15. The two entities came together to map safe walking routes that begin at the library — many of which go to parks — and to encourage community members to use them. The library launched an “Urban Hikes Challenge” which asks people to complete five hikes and send selfies from the library and the hike destinations. Dozens of families have completed the challenge and you can see some examples on the library’s Facebook events page.

Elsewhere, in rural eastern North Carolina, the Farmville Public Library moved its annual Farmville Moves collaboration with Farmville Parks & Recreation into cyberspace. Through the new Farmville Moves at Home Program the library and park and recreation department are encouraging everyone, regardless of fitness level, to work towards better health and fitness by walking, jogging, running or participating in any form of exercise. There’s an added incentive to win gift cards to Play It Again Sports in their town and free entry into the Town of Farmville’s 6th annual 5K & Fun Run to be held in the fall.

Every spring in Farmville, the library and park and recreation department work together to inspire residents of this small town of 4,654 to get active and train together for a 5K. In past years, the library provided motivational literature and speakers, and the park and recreation department provided expert instruction in safe physical activity and route planning. The two agencies have now moved this collaboration online.

At the national level, the American Library Association has also helped public libraries do their part to keep their patrons connected to nature. On April 21, 2020, the American Library Association published “7 Ways to Celebrate Nature while Social Distancing,” focusing on simple things people can do in their backyards, neighborhoods and parks to celebrate Earth Day and stay engaged with greenspaces during the pandemic.

If you are not already working with your local library on virtual programming or promoting engagement in nature, now is the perfect time to start! Reach out to your local library and get the conversation started.

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please visit the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

Noah Lenstra is an Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.