Taking Parks and Recreation to the Community

May 1, 2016, Department, by Jane Peterson

 Oakland County Parks mobile units include inflatable bouncers, two climbing towers that simulate rock climbing, a zip line, stages, bleachers and retro games like sack races and kickball.If residents can’t get to a park, then the park can go to them. That’s the philosophy behind the popular Oakland County Parks Mobile Recreation Program. Using a fleet of moveable units, Mobile Recreation addresses many challenges, such as transportation, that may prevent people from enjoying the parks system. It also opens up opportunities to those who live in urban communities where there may not be a physical park location.

“Everyone deserves high-quality recreational experiences,” says Terry Fields, chief of recreation, programs and services for Oakland County Parks (OCP). “We take these recreational experiences on the road.” 

Many miles are logged each summer as OCP’s moveable units are a welcomed sight at local festivals, concert series, libraries, schools, daycare centers and other gathering places within Oakland County’s 62 cities, villages and townships. 

Mobile Recreation Units

In operation since 1974, the Mobile Recreation Program has evolved over time. The first units were innovative for the 1970s: two skate mobiles, two puppet mobiles, a fashion mobile with sewing machines and makeup stands, a movie mobile and two swim mobiles, which were big aluminum tubs on wheels that were filled with hydrant water. Today, OCP mobile units include a variety of equipment that reflect current active lifestyles: inflatable bouncers, two climbing towers that simulate rock climbing, a zip line, stages, bleachers and retro games like sack races, tug-o-war ropes, kickball, egg-and-spoon relays and parachute games.

Come Out and Play, an OCP-sponsored community event last June, attracted hundreds of families and showcased these mobile recreation units. Held at Catalpa Oaks, a 24-acre park located in a busy urban area, the event allowed adults and children to enjoy water inflatables, a zip line, retro games, climbing tower, face painting, a concert and treats free of charge.

Complementing these units is Get Outdoors! adventure trips and clinics like GO! Fish, GO! Golf, GO! Bike and GO! Cache, hands-on events that immerse participants in a recreational activity. With the GO! Fish adventure for example, indoor play includes poles rigged with plugs and plastic fish to teach the basics and safety of fishing. The outdoor component, a Hooked on Fishing Trip, takes participants to any lake in Oakland County or an Oakland County Park to experience fishing.

Another option is OC Express, a service that often combines transportation with programming, although the school bus, transit bus and coach bus can be rented separately as well. Past OC Express programming has included fall color tours and senior trips to view holiday lights.

“There’s no doubt that mobile recreation is a substantial financial responsibility, but thanks to stage, bleacher and other rentals, the Mobile Recreation Program does generate revenue and boasts an impressive 98 percent cost recovery rate,” says John Haney, recreation program supervisor.

Although mobile recreation is a big commitment for a county-wide parks system, it has great rewards. “Some children, for example, have never been fishing,” Fields shared, “and seeing the look on their faces as they experience this for the first time is priceless. Being a part of that is a privilege.” 

A Cool Teaching Tool

Another fan favorite is StarLab, an inflatable planetarium that is among the most requested indoor mobile recreation offerings.

“People have a real fascination with the sky,” Lynn Conover, recreation program supervisor, says. “As nature teachers, we teach about all of nature from the sky above our head to the soil beneath our feet and all the plants and animals in between.” 

Patrons enter StarLab through an inflatable tunnel and then settle on the floor inside the inflatable dome, which has enough seating space for up to 30 people, including a wheelchair. With the lights on, naturalists, or “star captains,” provide basic information about the nighttime sky and constellations that are visible during the current season. Then, they turn the lights down and the constellations come to life on the dome ceiling. Participants also learn about the Greek legends that are connected to the constellations.

The presentation is tailored to the audience, which often consists of people of all ages. It is popular among teachers who request the StarLab presentation to supplement classroom learning and scout leaders, as it fulfills many requirements of a merit badge.

Two staff members travel to StarLab presentations. The inflatable dome takes approximately 30 minutes to set up and one staff member stays outside to monitor the inflatable while the other staff member makes the presentation. Staff members are chosen for training based on their interest in the nighttime sky and their ability to present in a unique environment with the lights dimmed most of the time. “StarLab is a cool toy, but it is the quality of the presentation and the passion of the naturalist that makes it special,” Conover says.

Almost 25 years ago, Oakland County Parks became one of the first park systems in Michigan to purchase an inflatable planetarium. The program has proven to be so popular that the park system recently spent $15,000 to purchase its third StarLab to replace two older models after replacement parts became hard to find.

The Oakland County Parks Board of Commission continues to support the Mobile Recreation Program, providing the necessary funding for staffing and equipment. In addition, last year the commission approved $150,000 for the Recreation Assistance Partnership Program (RAPP), which offers grants for outreach programming to communities, school groups and nonprofit organizations. Implemented in 1982, the program makes recreation opportunities and bus transportation available from Memorial Day to Labor Day.


Jane Peterson is a Technical Assistant, Communications and Marketing, for Oakland County Parks.