Putting the “Creation” in Parks and Recreation

recreation departmentAnd they're off! Kids hit the court at the Somerville High School gym. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

With STEM camps and songwriting classes, Somerville’s Rec Department is thinking inside and outside the gym.

When George Scarpelli took on the role of Somerville Recreation Department program director nine years ago, the organization looked far different than it does today. Most of its offerings were limited to the summer months, and just about every activity was aimed exclusively at children.

But not long after he started working for the city, Scarpelli found himself in a meeting with Mayor Curtatone, who had a somewhat ambitious proposal for the newly minted director.

“The mayor said to me, ‘Let’s do everything for everyone in the city,’” Scarpelli laughs.

Curtatone wasn’t kidding, and he wasn’t afraid to fail. Scarpelli says he was encouraged to experiment without worrying about what might not work. “He just said that we’d see soon enough what stuck,” Scarpelli says. “Our successes would outweigh our failures.”

The first step was to figure out what Somerville residents were looking for in recreation programming, so Scarpelli organized a youth summit to find his target audience. He started small, reaching out to neighboring cities and towns to see what they were offering and what was working best for them.

It paid off: In that first year alone, Scarpelli more than doubled the number of recreational programs, and demand has continued growing steadily ever since. The department currently has 29 active indoor programs for Somervillians ages two and up over the winter. Even more programming—like a canoe skills camp on the Mystic River—has been added during the warmer months.recreation department

The athletic options have also expanded to include cold-weather kids’ classes and winter vacation clinics in sports like floor hockey and lacrosse, and the department has debuted several early spring series like Sprout Sports, a six-week sampling of sport skills for kids ages 3 to 5 held in the gym of the Capuano School. Ice skating is offered almost every day of the year at the Veterans Memorial Rink on Somerville Avenue—an activity that’s totally free if you bring your own skates, though the rink does have rentals and lessons.

It isn’t just the kids who get to have all the fun. Somerville Recreation now offers adult classes including yoga, zumba and a twice-weekly body sculpting intensive that are perfect for getting active on a budget. Fees range from $30 to $60 per session. But unlike many gyms, there are no annual membership fees or early cancellation penalties.

For those who prefer organized sports to classes or routine workouts, the department has debuted basketball, softball, flag football and hockey leagues for men, and there’s a weekly open gym night for women’s basketball. Women’s softball will also return this spring. And if residents want to try out a sport that isn’t currently available, Scarpelli says they shouldn’t hesitate to make a suggestion—he maintains an open door policy. “This is the people’s rec department,” he says. “I just facilitate their vision.”

recreation departmentIn an effort to make the most of city space and to engage with more kids, the department is getting creative, taking an expanded view of what recreation really means. Its offerings now go beyond sports and into the arts and sciences—there are songwriting classes taught by youth arts coordinator and musician Jimmy DelPonte, and February vacation programs will include a Lego STEM challenge camp and a space camp complete with rocket building that also gives participants a chance to wear a genuine space suit.

Still, it’s the summer programming that remains the department’s anchor. There’s a summer camp held at the West Somerville Neighborhood School and a free program that places play facilitators in the city’s neighborhood parks. Most rec programming is free-form, which is in line with Scarpelli’s belief that children need unstructured time in their lives to play and explore, and he works hard with the staff to make the summer experience magical for all the kids. “For many Somerville kids, this is their Disneyland, their house on the Cape,” he says. “This is where they make their memories.” And, much like Disneyland, the magic doesn’t necessarily wear out as kids age. Many remain in the rec community for years, which offers not only activities for young children, but summer jobs for Somerville’s teenagers. Most of the teens who work as camp and park instructors are part of the mayor’s summer jobs program and were once participants themselves.

Scarpelli is clear that the rec department is here not only to get people active but to bring them together as part of something bigger. “This programming is for all children,” he explains. “Every kid who grows up here or moves here becomes part of a community.”

The only real limitation? Securing space. There are only so many gyms and fields in this densely populated city that are suitable for recreation, and it comes as a surprise to no one that real estate here is at a premium, which poses a challenge for a public department determined to keep costs low. “The mayor is committed to not making a dime off kids participating in activities,” says Scarpelli.

The department offers scholarships and sliding-scale fees for participants of who meet the income requirement. And despite spatial constraints, even more innovative options will debut this spring, including a pilot after-school program at the Founder’s Rink, which will be covered in turf and used as an additional indoor recreation space. Scarpelli is keeping the format loose, providing guidance and homework assistance but letting the kids choose what activities to do in the rest of their time. He reasons that children spend most of their days highly scheduled once school begins, so this program will be a release after the stress of the school day.

“Rec time is free time,” Scarpelli says, in an enthusiastic tone not often used by someone discussing their day job. “I get to put programs together that let kids have fun. I have the best job in the world.”

For more information about Recreation Department programming, head to somervillerec.com or check out the annual Recreation Fair on March 11 at the Somerville High School gym—a fun day out for kids even if you’re already aware of all the great things the department has to offer.

This story originally appeared in the January/February print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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