Guest Column - November 2009
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Surf to Successful Teen Engagement

By Chris O'Donoghue


hen thinking about how our kids recreate today, remember that you are talking to the X-Box/Playstation generation. They are digitally integrated. And they have their own language and their own recreation needs. Those recreation needs are based on a voracious appetite for entertainment and sensory input, and are light years beyond the previous generations. As parents we often scoff at what we perceive as their addiction to the "virtual" world. In reality we likely tend to scoff at things or people we don't fully understand. Our children's recreation needs are changing, much as our society is changing as we integrate much more sensory stimuli and "virtual reality" into our lives.

The need for today's children to absorb ever-greater levels of stimuli is evolving rapidly. This is particularly significant when considering the extremely important teenage demographic. Some will say that today's teens lack the imagination of previous generations. Perhaps, but many suspect that their imagination is functioning like their brains are on steroids, fueled by the incredible sensory stimulus generated by videogames, movies, MTV and the Internet.

Outdoor recreation is not immune to these changes, nor does the term "outdoor recreation" mean the same thing to teenagers today that it did to generations past. Understanding this evolving youth culture is becoming an increasingly difficult and critical task for business and educational facilities to absorb. Successfully implementing the changes necessary to remain relevant to today's teens is becoming an imperative. Simply offering teens the same entertainment and activity venues that older generations had is simply inadequate for their needs. We're leaving today's teenagers' sensory input needs fundamentally unfulfilled with traditional, "old school" park and recreation activities.

Commercial amusement and waterparks are already adapting to the changes in our society by offering a wider variety of alternatives to their teenage patrons. Why shouldn't municipal parks do the same? In order to keep municipal parks relevant to the entire family, the time has come to consider how to elevate the entertainment value of the services that are provided. In other words, how do parks and recreation centers make the activities they offer more relevant to today's youth culture?

This issue of relevant activities is even more critical to municipal aquatic centers, as many are hopelessly outdated. The stand-alone rectangular pool with a slide and a diving board is insignificant to the entertainment needs of today's teenagers. While recent additions to municipal aquatic centers like zero-depth play areas, lazy rivers and the like have improved the quality of entertainment for families in general, the teenage demographic is still left unfulfilled in many ways.