Illinois PRC research assistant finds engaged community members in Chicago Parks (Blog) | Illinois Prevention Research Center | University of Illinois at Chicago

Natalie Nowak (left) watches Regina Sullivan, project officer of the CDC PRC Program, try out playground equipment during a 2015 visit to Chicago. (Photo by Illinois PRC)

In 2014, as a first-year graduate student in nutrition in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences, I started working on Dr. Sandy Slater’s study, which seeks to understand the effects of the Chicago Plays! playground program. Using SOPARC, EAPRS, and BTG-COMP forms, I collected data in parks throughout the city, recording my observations of playground characteristics and the active environment.

As an RA studying the effects of the “Chicago Plays!” Playground Program, I learned:

  • Chicago has almost 600 parks for community use.
  • Many city residents invest time, resources, and energy to improve neighborhood parks and playgrounds.
  • With community engagement, it is possible to enhance your neighborhood/environment for the betterment of the community.

One of my favorite data collection visits was to Palmer Park in the Roseland community.

Just like many other parks I visited, I was kindly greeted by inquisitive community members. From kids running around in the playground sprinkler, to adults playing basketball, and seniors enjoying the park breeze on a circle of benches, the park was always buzzing. Here, the community members came together in a shared space to enjoy nature, the outdoors, and physical activity. By the end of the weekend I often heard kids and seniors alike recognize me and call out “Natalie’s back! Hey Natalie!”

I also conducted telephone interviews with park advisory council members.  My project manager, Anita Bontu, and I spoke with many active community members about the Chicago Plays! application process. We heard about increasing community engagement, overcoming community challenges, and how the playground renovations have impacted park use.

One telephone interview I conducted with a very active parent sticks out in my memory. This mother of two organized and led a park-based neighborhood parent group. Teaming up with the community, her parent group incorporated gardens into neighborhood playgrounds, hoping to make the playgrounds safe, creative, and exciting. I visited these playgrounds, and saw not only the community gardens, but creative art installations made by neighborhood children. A life-size alphabet, with each letter decorated with a bird, automobile, or peace sign framed the playground’s fence.

Through these heartwarming interactions with community members, I have come to understand how instrumental community groups are in improving the neighborhood environment.


This post was written by Natalie Nowak. Natalie was born and raised in Chicago. These days, you might find her cruising on one of Chicago’s bike trails, interning at Skokie’s North Shore Hospital, or traveling in a foreign country.