Our five year old, Sam, began Kindergarten this fall. In hopes of reducing any separation anxiety, his older brother and sisters began "selling" the concept of going to school throughout the month of August.

Little nudges like, "Hey, school is great," or, "I can't wait to go back to school."

All were intended to get him thinking about "leaving the nest" in a positive way. School started easily enough. On that fateful first day (a day I am convinced is actually more feared by parents than children) he got in line, waved to mom and never looked back.

About a week later, as our family sat around the dining room table finishing homework (why I ever put desks in their rooms I'll never know), he mentioned looking forward to school on Monday.

"You don't have school on Monday, it's Labor Day! We get the day off," his sister explained happily. He looked at me in total confusion. I understood the look.

He'd been hearing about this great thing called "going to school" for a month now. He'd tried it and it was pretty cool. Now he suddenly didn't have to go and that was suddenly a good thing?

What's up with that?

In short, his anxious look to me said a lot. The clues and signs he was getting were not enough. He wanted to say, "Somebody, just tell me what to think."

Anticipating Needs

I've seen that look before. I've had that look before. It's the look on my sensory-overloaded face when I pull up to the Disney-colored, 700 menu-item, audio-screaming, ordering box at the nearest fast food restaurant.

After the static-enhanced taped voice auctions off the daily "combo-meals" and the bright, energetic voice of American youth follows that with, "G'head wich yer order," I am not a deer in the headlights, I am a deer under the taillights.

I am so "run-over" with contempt, disgust and confusion that a quick glance at my panicked self in the side-view mirror says it all.

It's usually at this point that I look over to my wife with that "tell me what to think" fear in my eyes, so she leans across the wheel, bellies up to the window and speaks that special "drive-thru" language that I have yet to master. I've come to enjoy this moment though; it's about as intimate as it gets since the kids showed up.

As parks and recreation professionals, we are challenged with the task of minimizing that bewildered look for the vast public we serve.

Facilities and amenities that are utilized by patrons should not only be clean and accessible, they should be easy to understand and interpret. At first glance, the functionality should be clear. But how do we measure satisfaction and know if the public is being properly served?

In a sense we must tell them what to think when it comes to these facilities because we know well that instant interpretation and ease of operation assure that the greatest number will be served in the most efficient way.

Some years ago when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) began to require things like a number of available parking spaces and wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls, Americans not only accommodated the needs, they began to think differently. There was a level of "tell me what to think" at play here because some of us were simply unfamiliar with how to provide services without making it always seem like an exception.

As time passed and ADA has become more blended into the workplace, the whole tone of what to think has changed. This is even evidenced in Saturday morning cartoons where a number of them today include a character that utilizes a wheelchair or is perhaps blind or deaf.

Sam and I watched an episode a few weeks ago about a three-legged dog that was new in the neighborhood but didn't want any special treatment. Wisely, we're telling our children what to think while their opinions are still forming.

The message is that the simple acceptance of some things (like physical challenge) goes hand in hand with the societal expectations of those charged with providing them (like wheelchair ramps to public facilities).

We are told what to think simply by noticing what's available all around us. We've come to expect there to be reserved parking for the elderly and disabled, ADA accessible bathrooms, wheelchair ramps, Braille instructions, and closed captions. Each of these provisions tells us what to think by indicating to us that fairness is important; it creates a level playing field.

To that end, how does the parks and recreation professional maintain and improve facilities in light of this awareness? And further, how does the parks and recreation professional avoid the trap of only serving the sector with the obvious need?

Have we have become so accustomed to accommodating the smaller sector that we may ignore the less vocal majority? Certainly methods to measure whether or not the public is being properly served is easily garnered through user surveys and levy passage, but what about the day-to-day measures of simple user satisfaction?

Fortunately, the public will usually tell you by leaving clues -- clues we must remain diligent in seeking and reading. Overflowing garbage cans indicate the need for more receptacles; dirt paths cut across sidewalks indicate where pathway connectors should be placed; vacant playgrounds indicate antiquated equipment or a lack of perceived safety by parents; worn paths into the woods near restroom facilities indicate that pit toilet facilities may need to be serviced more regularly.

The public is telling us what they think. Now take the other tack. By providing additional or larger capacity garbage receptacles, or installing pathway connectors where the preferred path has been indicated, or servicing playgrounds and restrooms with consistent attention, we are telling the public what we think.

That is, quite simply, that their satisfaction is important and the facilities offered to them should be as neat, clean, state-of-the-art, and easy to enjoy as possible.

The facility checklist, then, might include the following:

1. When was this structure/area built?

2. When was this structure/area most recently updated?

3. Is there regular traffic through this area?

4. At a glance, do you notice outdated amenities or construction methods?

5. Is there evidence of needs not being met and substitution taking place (like a steel trash can used as a burn barrel)?

6. Has there been a major repair to the area recently from general weathering and/or simple wear and tear?

Should review of questions such as these indicate that the facility has outlasted its intended useful life, then it can be easily concluded that continuing to leave the area unattended sends several clear messages to the public about commitment to their needs and wants.

If the park and recreation professional demonstrates to the public a clear presentation of his concern over what they think, he/she will be providing well-kept, safe amenities and their interpretation will be positive and their relationship with the entity strong.

Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at