Creating New Park District Programs

September 7, 2023

It’s not alchemy. You talk. We listen.

The Park District is always developing and testing new programs based on community feedback and trends — whether it is a new program topic, a different time of day, day of the week, or even a different age group.  Every season, we add several new classes to the list of offerings that we think you’ll enjoy based on resident suggestions. We try to include fitness trends and other recreational activities for adults. We add nature classes and adventures for kids and families. And we’re always looking at when classes are offered, to better fit your schedule. Whether or not the classes run is most often based on how many people register, but sometimes we hold a class with just a few participants and then tweak it to get more responses.

So, we thought you might like to know a bit about how we create and try out new programs.

Julie Nichols, our Recreation Program Manager, has been working on the question ‘what kinds of Park District classes do Highland Park residents want,’ since she joined the district two years ago. “Even though I had worked in Parks & Recreation on the Northshore for many years, it was critically important for me to understand the Highland Park and Highwood communities.”

Throughout the first year, she offered one-day workshops for a number of different programs, as a way of testing and evaluating the response. “I was in the room during all of those sessions, so I could see and hear what the participants were interested in, and what they wanted to add to the park district program lineup.” She invited them to share their feedback, and they did. “Parents and grandparents told me that they were looking for more weekend options, more programs after 5pm, and that they really wanted more art, music, and dance classes.” Discussions also included adding STEM classes, and that resulted in offering Coding and Engineering with Legos. Julie added, “Online surveys don’t really bring in great response numbers. But talking to residents face-to-face really gives me a chance to listen, and for them to know they’ve been heard.”

Julie, along with Chris Holling, the district’s Recreation Supervisor for Youth Enrichment & Arts also hired a new Dance Coordinator and tested response to a brand new dance program. They held a free, one-day workshop where parents and prospective students could meet the instructor and get a feel for what the program would offer. Then they ran a short summer program. Was it a success? Within 9 months the program had 200 dancers participating in a Spring Recital where more than 400 family members and friends came to applaud! We call that show a big hit.

“We were able to deliver what everyone was looking for, all because we listened to people,” said Nichols. “Our niche is to provide something that anyone at any age can try for the first time. Here, you’ll be celebrated for your choice, you’ll learn something in the classroom, and you’ll be inspired to do more. We hope our participants will want to continue and perhaps move to a next level program, but what we provide is the first stepping stone.” That’s how we do it here at your park district.

In her second year, based on more one-on-one discussions, Julie, along with Chris, launched a whole new set of performing arts classes. This summer they ran a specialty camp called Take the Stage, designed for kids ages 1–4. “Campers enjoyed the full range of traditional summer activities, like swimming and sports, but we featured things that we heard would appeal to ‘theater kids,’ including stage direction, music direction, choreography, and prop construction. It was a great success!” Julie’s favorite Take the Stage memory? “Seeing the pride and confidence on the campers’ faces as they performed.” As they looked ahead to creating a fall theater program lineup, Julie and Chris asked the Take the Stage counselors to write a personal note to each family. “Those letters were so important, because we were able to tell moms and dads that their child had shown a particular interest in music, or dance, or acting, and we could recommend that they look at one of the new classes we are now offering this season.” Those include Introduction to Theatre (concentrating on stage direction); Broadway Here I Come (with an emphasis on music, dance, and acting); and a Teen Improv class.

In the talking stage is creating a Teen Advisory Committee, to help the district develop more programs for that age group. Things like becoming a Certified Babysitter, and being certified in CPR. “We know we can learn a lot from listening to teens in the community, and we’re really looking forward to making that happen.”

The Park District serves all ages, and to learn more about another important demographic in our community—those folks without young children.   This summer Julie produced a series called In The Parks — nine free events in nine different parks. Once again, it gave her a great opportunity to talk to active adults and find out what they were looking for from us. “At a recent concert in Memorial Park, where the people were mostly ages 65 and up, we asked questions like ‘where do you find out about park district events and programs’, ‘how do you put it on your calendar,’ and ‘how far in advance do you do that.’” Think of it as trading a free concert for real-time feedback. It’s invaluable, and we are so grateful for the information we get.

Coming up, look for more workshops and more free concerts, including the brand new Dance Team and the Hip Hop Crew doing performances at community events, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. Giving back. It’s another thing we love to do.

We would also love to hear from you. Tell us your ideas, and let’s work together to make something wonderful happen. You can find us on the website, along with hundreds of programs and events we know you’ll enjoy. Until next time… See you around the parks!