Remember when you were a kid and you went to the park – any park, no matter how humble! There was a feeling of space, openness, air, freedom to run, throw, twirl, jump, climb, hide and play without the restrictions of indoors. You were parkliving. It was good.
Maybe you went with your Mum or Dad when you were really young…maybe you brought brothers or sisters or friends with you…or maybe you were lucky enough to make new friends when you got there. It was so much simpler when you were a kid: it was the games that mattered and anyone could join in – the more the merrier.
As a child growing up in Manchester I have strong sensory memories of times in the park: the smell of cut grass in the heat; blackbird song at dusk; the rusty tang of the old playground roundabout, the wood worn smooth by a neighbourhood of children… the excitement of the jingling ice-cream van turning up in summer. And as an only child, I relished the chance to find friends and become part of shared games, shared playground time.
I’ve been lucky enough to always live in places where there was a park within striking distance…but never had my local park been such an important daily part of life until I became a mum. My local park is practically hallowed ground for the hours of free entertainment it has given to our family. The early years of my boys’ lives saw almost daily trips. I cherish the pleasure my sons had from simply being free outdoors - countless afternoons swinging and chasing and hide-and-seeking, the playgrounds visited time and again… learning to ride bikes, play football and climb trees. After letting off steam in the park, everyone came home feeling a bit better, a bit more sorted and – yes! - slept more soundly.
It wasn’t always great: sometimes the monotony of the same swings, the same grass would get to me. Sometimes it was the rubbish weather. And sometimes, if we were the only ones there, it was the knowledge that I would have to be chief entertainer, no matter what I felt like…
I know I’m not alone in some of these feelings: I heard similar things, repeated from the mouths of different people from all backgrounds and walks of life, as, in my day job, I was thinking about what kind of long-term programme Coca-Cola Great Britain should invest in to help and encourage people to be active in their local communities. Our team spent a long time pondering and planning; learning about the barriers to being active which are a reality for so many people. A lot of these were about cost and time and distance to travel. Being alone or having children to look after and no one else to get together with. Or just not being interested in what was on offer.
Along the way, we heard of a pilot Birmingham City Council was running called Active Parks where local people could join in free activities in a small handful of parks in the city - it sounded great - no cost, small informal groups with a session leader to encourage them, getting together at times that suited them. They were doing all sorts of stuff: families were playing games together; older people were doing in Tai Chi; adults and children were learning to ride bikes and beginners’ running groups were forming in places they’d never formed before…
Cutting a long story short, we were inspired and ParkLives was born. Parks are an outstanding resource in this country: many of our urban parks are the legacy of the Victorians, bequeathed by the wealthy through a mixture of self-publicity and philanthropy, to improve the health and leisure time of the masses. They’re within an arm’s reach of many of us, but with ever-increasing pressure on budgets to maintain them, we all need to do more to champion and conserve our parks as the precious spaces they really are. That sense of partnership is at the heart of ParkLives.
When we launched the programme last year, in partnership with the local councils who ran the parks, we offered people of all ages and backgrounds a chance to enjoy outdoor activities in the heart of their communities which would be right for them. They had to be free, informal and fun. And they had to be things that anyone could join in if they fancied. For mums and dads with kids, there would be games and sports for the whole family to play together. For new mums, something they could bring their babies to, start to get a bit fitter and meet other mums. For teens, sports and activities they could play after school or at the weekends. For older people, a chance to socialise and enjoy keeping active.
With our support, ParkLives is up and running now across 120 parks in Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle and the London Borough of Newham. There are free activities going on every day of the week through spring and summer: Zumba classes or tennis lessons, rounders sessions or hula-hooping; conservation groups and dog-walking socials – ParkLives offers something for all ages and abilities and everyone is welcome to join in.
When I hear some of the stories of families spending time together, blossoming confidence, growing friendships and new volunteer groups that have come from the first summer out in the parks, I’m sure we’re tapping into something which harks back to that childlike sense of freedom and joy which came, for me, from those very first memories of parkliving.
Find out, join in and spread the word by visiting parklives.com.