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The importance of research and evaluation in recreation

By Diane C. Blankenship


Foundational Knowledge for Researchers

To become comfortable with research and evaluation, you first need to understand the following:

  • The mission and purpose of parks and recreation
  • The need for research and evaluation
  • How research and evaluation assist an organization
  • The expectations for evaluation and research within the industry related to professional certification and agency accreditation

Mission and Purpose of Recreation Agencies

In the United States, the field of recreation and parks has deep roots grounded within societal needs, community needs, and individual needs (see figure 1.1). As you probably remember, the original needs of the community emerged during the Industrial Revolution. With the population shifting from rural areas to urban centers, children needed a safe place to play and socialize. The scope of facilities and services expanded from that point to include providing public parks, public recreation facilities, and instructional classes. The focus of this expansion was to (1) provide places for people to play, (2) offer programs that were educational and considered “wholesome” for the participant, and (3) provide recreational opportunities for individuals, families, and seniors within local communities.

Figure 1.1

Every park and recreation agency is challenged by—and exists to address—social concerns that become the needs within the community. For example, many American communities are concerned about gang activity, risk-taking behavior of youth, single-parent households, drug and alcohol abuse, and the growing need for sport fields and other public open spaces. Obesity is a primary example of a social concern that park and recreation programs are well positioned to address. This epidemic is prevalent in children, teenagers, and adults within the United States. Researchers predict that many members of the current generation of children will die before their parents because of factors related to obesity (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a lack of exercise). The National Recreation and Park Association has partnered with other organizations to provide initiatives that address obesity factors, such as Hearts N’ Parks, Step Up to Health, and Teens Outside. Each initiative is a community mobilization model that is designed to assist local communities in planning, marketing, and promoting healthy lifestyles related to diet and exercise. In addition, park and recreation agencies provide a wide variety of health and fitness programs, such as swimming lessons, open swim, aerobic classes, sport skill classes, movement classes for preschoolers, weight rooms for working out, and the simple reminder to get outside and play an hour a day. Healthy lifestyles go beyond physical fitness to emotional and psychological wellness. Park and recreation agencies also provide a wide variety of art classes, dance lessons, and concerts. All these kinds of programs and services work toward a healthier community.

Parks and recreation departments provide a wide variety of programs and services to their local communities. But are these programs accomplishing what they are intended to do for the individual, the organization, or the community?

 The Need for Research and Evaluation

 Every park and recreation agency needs to answer a number of questions about its programs, services, and operations which are noted in figure 1.2. These questions include the following:

  • Is the agency meeting the objectives of the programs?
  • Is the agency meeting the needs of the customer?
  • Is the agency financially stable?

 These are only a small sample of the questions that a park and recreation agency needs to answer. How does a park and recreation agency go about answering these questions? The best way is to use the process of research and evaluation. Let’s explore these three questions further in order to gain an understanding of the importance of evaluation and research in providing the answers.

Figure 1.2

Is the Agency Meeting the Objectives of the Programs? All programs provided by park and recreation agencies have a purpose or an objective related to the outcomes for the participants. For example, the objective of a beginning swimming class is to have the participants move through water adjustment skills and learn a basic stroke on their front and back. For the organization, the objective for swimming classes is to have more people learn to swim. This can help reduce the number of rescues or deaths at the organization’s aquatic facilities. In addition, the programs should cover costs associated with the programs and generate revenues for the agency. The agency must always consider the cost and revenues generated from the programs. For the community, the objective of swimming classes could be to have a variety of opportunities available for family members to learn to swim and to enjoy the aquatic facilities year-round. Many park and recreation agencies have indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, or both. Swimming is also a physical activity that people can enjoy throughout their lifetime, either in formal classes or individually. Park and recreation agencies must work to gather the information they need to determine if the objectives of the program are being met and whether these are class objectives, agency objectives, or objectives for the community. The research and evaluation process is the primary method for gathering this information and making this assessment. This process gives recreation professionals specific information and evidence to support or negate the notion that their agencies are achieving their objectives. Without research and evaluation, professionals might have only a vague sense of whether objectives are being met, or they may have no idea at all.

Is the Agency Meeting the Needs of the Customer? What are the customer needs and expectations in relation to recreational activities? For swimming classes, the needs of the customers are generally to have a safe environment for the class and to have the class conducted by a qualified instructor. The needs of the participants’ parents are to have their children learn to swim in a safe environment so that the children can be safer at pools, lakes, and beaches during the summer. The swimming classes provide one way to meet these needs. Additionally, customers have expectations about their experience or their children’s experience in the program. These expectations may be associated with the registration process, how to get to the facility, cleanliness of the locker rooms, cleanliness of the facility, and the quality of the instructor. The agency must gather information to determine if the needs and expectations of the customers are being met during the program.

Is the Agency Financially Stable? Historically, park and recreation departments received a majority of their funding for operations from local taxes. The agency was considered a type of social service that needed tax-based funding for the annual operations. This perception regarding park and recreation agencies has shifted from a social service model to a business-based model. Today, park and recreation agencies are expected to operate as a business. This has resulted in departments receiving very little tax-based funding for operations and has increased the need to generate revenues from programs and services. The agency gathers financial information on a regular basis to determine if the agency is generating sufficient funds to meet the financial needs of the organization. These research activities provide valuable information to assist the managers in making decisions related to the future operations of the agency. The information gained through research and evaluation helps managers decide which programs and services need to be revised, which ones should be added, and which ones should be phased out to ensure that the agency is financially stable. The decision on whether to add or phase out a program cannot be properly made unless the managers have current information about new community needs or needs within the community that no longer exist. The best method for gathering this information is through research and evaluation.

For agencies to answer these fundamental questions concerning their programs, services, and financial operations, research and evaluation have become a necessary activity. Historically, park and recreation agencies did not regularly evaluate program outcomes for the participants. In the past, evaluation efforts centered on the agency’s need to know “the numbers”—the number of participants, the hours of the programs, the revenues generated by the programs, and the expenses associated with the programs. This type of evaluation misses the essence and purpose of the park and recreation agency (i.e., meeting the program objectives for the participants and meeting the needs of the customers and community). Evaluating and researching participant outcomes, needs, and expectations are critically important to the future of every park and recreation agency. Agencies that regularly conduct evaluation and research projects gain many benefits that help to sustain the operation of the agency.

This is an excerpt from Applied Research and Evaluation Methods in Recreation.



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