Making Room for Fitness Programming
By Wynn St. Clair
No one would envy the recreation programming space in Poquoson, Va., a coastal town of about 11,000 people. There's no fitness center or indoor pool within the city limits. The nearest YMCA is about 10 minutes away.
Yet, despite these obstacles, local recreation officials have crafted a creative, engaging programming schedule filled with classes found at the biggest of parks departments. In Poquoson, residents can learn to play field hockey, compete in fishing tournaments and participate in a women's kickball league, among other things.
The offerings reflect an innovative staff that finds programming space wherever they can find it: primary school gymnasiums, the municipal building, school cafeterias or public meeting rooms. In Poquoson, recreation officials know if they find the right class or sports league, they'll be able to make room for it somewhere. Their innovative approach is one that could be emulated by any parks department, regardless of size, budget or space limitations.
"You have to be a good programmer," recreation official Gretchen Gochenour said. "You've got to be creative, and you don't always want to mimic the closest locality. Do those things you know the people like, staples like basketball. But also, don't be afraid to try something new."
No program shows the parks department's commitment to engaging programming and creative space solutions like its fencing classes. Gochenour came up with the idea while watching the Olympics and contemplating new programs. She wanted something unique, something that neighboring towns didn't offer, so it would be easier to attract patrons from around the region. She also wanted to find an equally invested instructor, someone who would inspire participants and care as much about the program as she did.
She found Vicki Hanes, who runs the Isle of Wight Fencing Club in Virginia and is a member of the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association. Hanes initially agreed to hold a demonstration class, but the strong turnout and enthusiastic response prompted the parks and rec department to offer the sport as a regular class. Poquoson now has its own fencing club with instruction offered during the spring, summer and fall sessions at the beginner and intermediate levels. Hanes also provides one-on-one instruction to advanced participants.
"This is a program that kids 10 and up and adults can learn the basics of," Gochenour said. "We've even had families do the class. It's all-inclusive, multi-age. Everyone has the same learning curve. Everyone has to learn the same footwork, how to hold the foil right and the basic steps."
Classes take place on Sunday evening in the Poquoson Primary School gymnasium, which also hosts karate and kickboxing classes during the week. Gochenour said she intentionally chose an unconventional time slot—and location—for the fencing program because the sport is somewhat unconventional itself.
"Of course, fencing is not like baseball," she said. "We chose Sunday because it's a day that's not competing with a lot of other activities. It's alternative time, alternative space, so we're not competing with other sports."
Though it may not be a mainstream sport, Gochenour believes fencing can succeed in similar-sized communities or parks departments grappling with space crunches because it's not a demanding program. Any room that can fit 10 to 15 people can host a fencing class or practice session, she said.
"You have to be a good salesperson if you want them to take your class," she said. "Then, you have to make sure to check in with your instructor to really know and see what they're doing so you can get others excited about it."
For Coach Hanes, who operates her own fencing school about 20 miles away, the partnership between Poquoson schools and the local parks and recreation department has been a creative way to introduce her beloved sport to an entire community. It's such an invaluable opportunity, she's willing to patiently grow the program and help with the outreach efforts.
"It has been a great partnership," Hanes said. "It benefits us because it creates awareness for our sport."
It can work for you, too. Look around your community, and try to find out what kinds of sports or fitness activities aren't available anywhere else. For example, you can start a rowing club, using indoor rowing machines alongside your other fitness equipment both for group classes and individual training. Or what about synchronized swimming? Dodgeball? Disc golf? If you can pique people's interest with an introduction to something new, you might be able to introduce your community to a whole new way to keep fit.
Poquoson is not alone in its school alliance. With programming space a precious commodity, more and more recreation managers are mining local schools for floor space. In Kamas, Utah, the South Summit Aquatic and Fitness Center embodies such a perfect partnership with an innovative design that allows the center to easily transition from a physical-education resource to a community health club several times a day.
Built in a recreation-minded community, the 52,400-square-foot building's design encourages the center's dual purposes through an open layout that minimizes hidden spaces. It also has separate doors for students and the public. With limited hiding places and controlled access points, educators can keep better tabs on students and prevent visitors from entering the school area.
The center, which is owned by the local school district, features a signature aquatic component with dramatic open space, interactive play areas and two pools. The first is a traditional six-lane, 25-yard competition pool. The other is a leisure pool complete with a 150-foot-long helical slide and a children's play area that includes a tot slide and water cannons. It also has a six-foot-wide lazy river that can be used for floating fun or a water-resistance workout.
The building also houses an indoor track, fitness room and aerobics room. The aerobics room, which cheerleading squads often use for practice, has mirrors mounted on one wall as well as a dual-height dance barre. The room can accommodate several different activities, including dance, karate, kickboxing and yoga.
The facility's centerpiece, however, is its climbing wall. The 32-foot wall pays tribute to the Uinta Mountain range in which the Kamas Valley lies. The wall, which serves as the main focal point as one drives into the center, also gives the school system an invaluable opportunity to teach climbing safety to young students.
"It really has been a success," facility manager Stephen Sutherland said. "We're attached to the middle school, in walking distance from the high school and the elementary school is in sight."
The operating hours are dictated by the school schedule, meaning the building is closed for most of the day so students can use the facility for physical education classes and athletic team practices. The general public can use the facility between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., and then again between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. When school is closed for things like parent-teacher conferences, the fitness center is open to the public all day.
They aren't traditional workout hours, but Sutherland said the school board has worked hard to build enthusiasm and understanding for the endeavor. And it seems to have worked. Not only is the facility enjoyed by many of Kamas' 5,000 residents, but the building also draws patrons from Park City and other neighboring communities.
"One of the keys to our success has been having the support of the board and the community," Sutherland said. "The community has to buy in to the hours we give them. They have to have patience."
The partnership allows the facility to offer recreation opportunities at an extremely reasonable price. A family of seven, for example, can buy a membership for $290 annually. Residents over 60 can use the facility for free.
And by teaming with the school, the fitness center can offer a wide variety of programs, including tai chi, a diving team, drop-in soccer activities and recreation classes for home-schooled children. Facility managers have come up with several creative events, such as dodgeball tournaments and triathlons. Its aquatic center has also made a big splash with things like Swim with Santa and the Pumpkin Plunge, in which participants swim in a pumpkin-filled pool and then pick a gourd to decorate and take it home. It also has a "dive-in" movie night during which families can come and watch films at the pool.
"We've got an amazing board that had the foresight to do what they did," Sutherland said. "We try to utilize as much as we have to benefit all of the people we have."
With space at a premium, an increasing number of recreation managers have turned to multi-generational classes to maximize the number of people that can be serviced by a particular program. This movement has lead to mother-daughter dance classes, father-son golf camps and family wall climbing clubs.
In Monona, Wis., recreation officials have begun offering parent-child yoga classes. It's an offshoot of the adult program, which was launched last year and was an instant hit, with more than 80 people registering for the class. Given its success, recreation officials knew it made sense to dedicate space for additional classes. When a community member suggested the class, it seemed like an ideal program for the community and for a recreation staff dedicated to combating the childhood obesity epidemic.
A typical class has about six to 10 participants in each age category, as well as their parents. The smaller setting includes basic yoga movements, with the instructors helping to move toddlers into poses. Classes—which include songs and games to engage young participants—are designed for children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Parents can join the class and get in their own workout.
"Parents are always looking for different fitness opportunities for them and their kids," said Jake Anderson, Monona's director of parks and recreation. "So it's important to us, too."
The classes take place in the lounge room, a smaller room in the 12,000-square-foot community center. By programming the classes there, recreation officials helped achieve their goal of maximizing their programming space. In addition to being used for yoga, Pilates and senior sit-and-tone classes, it also is home to Cub Scout packs, Girl Scout troops and city meetings.
"Space needs are such a huge issue in recreation management and especially in municipal management," Anderson said. "We're fortunate to have such a close proximity to Madison (Wisconsin) and access to all of their great instructors, we're just always trying to be creative. We joke that our motto is 'Pack 'em in.' "
Located on the shores of Lake Monona in Southern Wisconsin, the town is home to about 8,000 residents. It has more than 330 acres of park space, ranging from neighborhood and community parks to woodlands and wetlands. The community center houses a senior center, as well as a meeting room, lounge area and a large hall that can accommodate up to 200 people.
In fact, there's such a demand for recreation programming, Monona park officials schedule classes in a wide variety of places throughout the building and town. The library, city hall, the community center. If there's available space, recreation managers want to schedule a class there.
Before adding a class, Monona recreation managers weigh whether the class will serve enough people in the area and whether it can be located close enough to the city center. They also reach out to people in the community and encourage them to become instructors. They find it easier to attract participants when the instructor is a familiar face to local residents.
"You just need to look outside the box as to how a space can be used," Anderson said. "It's always a big decision when we add something to our umbrella of activities. We're maximizing community tax dollars by utilizing all of the spaces we have."
Faced with a lack of indoor space, some fitness managers have turned to the outdoors to help boost their programming menu. Boot camps, kickball leagues, yoga classes and basketball leagues all can be offered al fresco without taking up massive amounts of park space.
But, as with any new recreation class, trailblazing outdoor programs need time to grow and attract participants. In Elmhurst, Ill., for example, parks officials have spent the past year building interest in a girls running club that will teach preteen runners the importance of fitness and self-esteem. The idea came from a local preschool teacher who was inspired by a national program called "Girls on the Run," which has several offshoots in the Chicago area.
"It's a program not only to get girls outside exercising and enjoying some kind of physical activity, but it also helps build self-esteem, self-respect and moral fiber, while promoting strong values and the importance of healthy living," said Matt Poole, a program manager with the Elmhurst Park District.
The 10-week program aims to prepare tween girls to run a 5K race as a team. Once it's established, the club will meet twice a week for an hour. The first half hour is dedicated to talking about self-esteem issues, while the second part will be spent running or engaging in other physical activities. The program will begin with five-minute runs and then slowly build up the distance so the girls will be able to tackle the race. Given most of the running is done outdoors, program managers don't have to worry about finding enough indoor space for the group.
But such innovative programs and spacing solutions, however, don't necessarily become overnight sensations. Elmhurst has not launched the program yet because they weren't able to attract enough girls when they first offered the program in the fall. However, they believe in the running club's mission and intend to make another push in the spring when people's focus is typically on rebirth and starting over. Poole fielded a lot of inquiries about the program after registration closed, so he gathered e-mail addresses for the interested girls and plans to contact them before the next registration period.
"We know the interest is there," Poole said. "We just hope to get it up and running, and when we do, we know that everyone will get really interested through word-of-mouth after we run the class."
When launching a novel program, it's important to give the classes time to grow, Poole said. It's not fair to the community or the program to abandon the idea—especially when there's an interest and a need.
"You just have to keep at it," Poole said. "Know that it's probably not going to go the first couple of times. You must persevere with creative ways to reach your target audience. You have to keep trying to provide opportunities that people might not normally have."
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