Beyond Playing Fields

By Jacquelyn Goddard
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Dzalio

When the Boston Parks Department met with the mayor to plan programs in city parks for the coming year, the mayor reminisced about what he did for fun when he was growing up: fish with his father, play chess on the front steps with friends, and go for walks in the woods near his home. That discussion led to brainstorming new programs that could be offered by the city to encourage children and teenagers, particularly non-athletic youth, to go outside. Those kids who enjoy sports already have hundreds of outdoor activities to choose from.


The department’s marketing division immediately went to work, asking young people what they would like for activities, evaluating available resources, establishing partnerships with nonprofits and private companies to help host events, and finalizing a schedule for what could be done immediately and what ideas might be possible long-term.

Resources included existing park amenities, current city employees, revenue opportunities such as grant options, and any local non-profits or companies for possible partnerships. Several new program ideas quickly materialized.

Paddle The Charles River
An existing amenity in the West Roxbury neighborhood is a boat launch on the shore of the Charles River at the city’s MillenniumPark. The department decided to approach L.L.Bean to see if the company would be willing to offer free kayaking. On four Saturdays, L.L.Bean hosts several sessions each day, providing free equipment and instruction. Interested residents register in advance on the city’s website. Guides teach the fundamentals of paddling and take participants on a 1-hour paddle on the river. In 2012, 121 individuals participated in the sessions while 168 participated in 2013.

Free Fishing
Another program idea developed in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain: a pond stocked with fish each year by the state. Free fishing opportunities are now offered because of local business owners’ in-kind donations. Bass Pro Shops provides 60 “gently used” rod and reel sets, P&J Bait of Dorchester provides free tackle, and the non-profit teaching entity, The Fishing Academy, provides volunteers for instruction. The free loaner gear is made available on several mornings; last year, a total of 160 individuals came to fish.

Knights In The Park
The marketing division noticed that game tables were among the newer items installed after playground renovations. After spending approximately $200 to purchase a dozen chess sets, the department now offers chess opportunities in select neighborhood parks in the evenings in a program called “Knights in the Parks.”

Up-Close And Professional
An education initiative was formulated to take advantage of the knowledge of the park rangers and the city’s archeologist. The department asked the rangers to attend children’s festivals and offer wildlife exhibits. Families are thrilled to see taxidermy specimens up-close and ask about wildlife such as a fisher and a beaver. The archeologist also was pleased to participate in these festivals to demonstrate techniques used during digs. He lays out a grid on the ground which he fills with Easter grass and items to “unearth.” Families learn how a grid is mapped and how data are recorded. When speaking about how Native Americans erected a fishing weir on what is now Boston Common, the archeologist brings artifacts unearthed during recent construction projects as teaching tools.

Partners For Progress
Non-profit organizations also assisted in forming new initiatives. Many science workshops are held thanks to partners such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Zoo New England, Arnold Arboretum, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Partnerships with private entities have also improved what the department offers the public at free events in the parks. For example, a spontaneous sledding event for families in February was enhanced thanks to the donation of hot chocolate and cookies from Burger King in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood. In another partnership, the Bank of America allows the department to host arts-and-crafts events for children, watercolor and photography workshops, and free outdoor concerts and movies.

Public outreach that works well for the department includes its Facebook page that asks partners to post event information on their social-media sites; “sandwich board” signs are placed at the program locations in advance of scheduled events.

Jacquelyn Goddard is the Director of External Affairs and Communications for the city of Boston, Mass. Reach her at .