Pop-Up Parks: No Space? No Problem. (When You’ve Got Strong Partnerships.)

young kid in a cardboard robot costume.

“I’ve got an idea — who’s in?” read an email from Minneapolis Community Education’s Steve Alexander to his local YMCA and YWCA contacts.

That was the beginning of a concept that blossomed into Pop-Up Parks, seven weeks of seven youth-serving organizations coming together to provide pandemic-safe music, sports, games and crafts in neighborhood parks all across Minneapolis.

“In a typical summer, we operate out of the schools,” explained Alyson Gagner, YMCA of the North. “Not having access to that space was a huge barrier.”

“We were thought partners already,” noted Katie Rehani of YWCA Minneapolis. “And we were all trying to figure out how to do summer programming with COVID-19, so it really was that simple.”

Steve, Katie and Alyson quickly broadened the circle to include Rachel Oberg-Hauser from Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, who plugged in Hennepin County Library plus Minneapolis Parks. Youthprise jumped in soon after by providing bag lunches.

“There was lots of coordination between organizations,” reflected Athelgra Williams, Minneapolis Parks. “Whatever resource organizations had — staff, supplies, or sometimes just information — they brought it.”

“We were ‘all in’ in a different way,” added Katie.

That “all in” approach from partners had big pay offs for young people and families. By early July, Pop-Up Parks were up and running from 2-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Young people could try out story strolls and storytelling, choose a book to keep for their home library, play socially-distant lawn games such as giant chess and Jenga, build cardboard robots out of recycled materials, write or draw at the art table and “all this bustling activity in the park,” as Athelgra described it.

Youth workers got creative with sports too, directing socially-distant rounds of frisbee golf and volleyball. Basketball morphed into an “around the world” competition to promote safer approaches to favorite games. Each week, the activities moved to a new park. “We were literally meeting young people where they’re at,” Alyson shared.

“One family discovered Pop-Up Parks in the middle of the summer and had so much fun that they decided to come every day for the last few weeks of programming,” commented Steve.

“Watching families coming together was so encouraging,” agreed Rachel. “I talked to a grandmother who was taking care of her grandkids a few times per week so their parents to work from home during COVID. She was excited to have new activities they could do together within walking distance of their house.”

“Connecting kids and books is one of the best parts of summer,” reflected Bernie Farrell, Hennepin County Library. “Seeing families and kids sit right down and read books together, and observing 7- or 8-year-olds reading to adults and younger kids was such a joy.”

So what’s next for the Pop-Up Parks partners?

“This was the opening of a lot of future work,” assured Steve. “This opened the door to new relationships and shared resources. I’m sure we’ll be doing something together and our programming collaborations will continue to grow. We’re already trying to figure out how to move forward together in winter months.”