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Petaluma launches ‘Virtual Recreation Center’

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What does an experienced Parks and Recreation professional do when, almost overnight, there are suddenly no parks to recreate in. If you happen to be Petaluma recreation coordinators Kevin Hays and Rachel Beer, you get a little creative, as they have done in developing what they call Petaluma’s “Virtual Recreation Center.”

A constantly evolving page on the City of Petaluma’s recently redesigned information website (CityofPetaluma.org), the Virtual Rec Center (CityofPetaluma.org/ departments/virtual-recreation-center) is basically a hub where visitors can find links to an array of other sites and pages. These contain a wide variety of articles, videos, live webcams and online classes, plus lists of other resources for families, kids, seniors and active individuals who’ve been running out of ideas of how to stay engaged, entertained and fit under the coronavirus shelter-at-home orders. The Virtual Recreation Center works in concert with the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department’s Facebook and Instagram pages, which also contain plenty of daily-updated material designed to assist locals with information and suggestions they may not have thought of on their own.

“We were seeing other agencies and cities in our area getting out onto their Facebook and Instagrams with engaging activities and recreation ideas to do at home,” explains Beer. “Kevin and I started by building a social media campaign along those lines, and that eventually merged into doing this Virtual Recreation Center.”

Beer allows that other agencies nationwide have also been doing their own versions of this, and that they often borrow ideas from each other.

“Agencies all over the country are doing virtual recreation centers, and several cities in Sonoma County are doing their own versions,” she says. “This one puts our own Petaluma twist on it.”

As designed by Beer and Hays, the “center” is divided into four distinct sections: Indoor Activities, Outdoor Adventures, Resources for Active Adults (all manner of services offered to aging Petalumans) and Social Media Campaign, the latter directing visitors to a page where there are links to the Facebook and Instagram pages.

After clicking on one of the above, visitors are taken to a list of other links. For example, under Indoor Activities, eager parents and active adults will find several subcategories — Health and Wellness, Educational Resources for Kids, Virtual Tours and one called “Just For Fun.”

Offerings run from Feldenkrais and yoga instruction to guided meditations and family cardio workouts. There’s a virtual craft room for children, a Dr. Seuss-themed game page, online story-telling resources, puzzles, virtual museums and a page where youngsters can learn languages. The “virtual tours” take web-surfers to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (where live cams show aquatic beasties floating and frolicking), the Winchester Mystery House, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and a lot more.

Meanwhile, on the Parks and Rec Facebook and Instagram pages, other opportunities, explorations and distractions await, including a “Joke of the Day,” selected daily by Beer.

“I’m kind of loving the Joke of the Day,” she says. “Some of them are, well, not as funny as others, but searching for them is a lot of fun. And people seem to really be liking them. We put up a new joke every afternoon.”

Beer and Hays, they point out, have been expanding and developing the Parks and Recreation Department’s social media presence for over a year, long before anyone foresaw a citywide closure of parks. In establishing the Facebook page and Instagram pages, the goal was to create engaging ways to share the message that there is plenty to do, see and participate in throughout the city of Petaluma.

“We’ve been working hard, long before this pandemic came around,” notes Beer. “The Facebook and Instagram pages have built a pretty huge following. So once the lockdowns began, we thought it would be a great way to reach out to Petalumans and keep that engagement happening.”

Hays came up with the hashtag “PetalumaPlays@Home,” which the city has been using to organize and track various posts form the Parks and Recreation Department.

“At 8 a.m., every day, we do a post on the pages,” says Hays, “where we engage the community in some way, asking them to participate in some new challenge, a craft to create at home, or post something of their own, or follow a recipe, and things like that.” One of those “engagements” is the Petaluma Landmark Challenge, in which a distorted image is posted of some famous Petaluma building or installation — the Mystic Theatre, the Historical Museum, one of the local feed mills — and then community members are challenged to guess what those landmarks are. “We’re always looking for new ideas,” adds Hays.

According to Hays, he and Beers have been scouring other Parks and Recreation resources looking for fresh content for the virtual recreation center.

“There are a lot of great ideas out there,” he says. “Coming up with ideas for outdoor activities is a challenge, of course, with the shelter-in-place happening, but there are still a lot of great ways to stay physically active, either in your yard or immediate neighborhood, all while adhering to the physical distancing protocols.”

There is, Beer allows, a link to a page listing a slew of chalk-on-the-sidewalk games to play, including newer things and older staples like Hopscotch.

“I was looking at links for hopscotch,” Beer says, “and at first I thought about not including those, because so many kids today are not used to things like that, since they do so much indoor technology. But their parents, we decided, might actually want some of these ideas now, these old-school games like hopscotch and other things.”

Maybe a whole new generation of kids will discover hopscotch as a result of the pandemic.

“We’ve found all kinds of things out there, on different sites,” Beer says. “’Ten different ways to play with dice,’ all kinds of things you wouldn’t expect. People really are looking for new ideas of things to do with their kids at home, or really close to home, and sometimes the best new ideas are actually old ideas.”

Hays points out that all of the activities on the city’s Virtual Recreation Center are free.

“There are a lot of recreation businesses in town who are doing classes and things for a fee, which is really important, to keep those business going,” he says. “So we have a list of some of those too. But all of the things on our own lists are free activities.”

Since no one knows how long the parks will remain closed, Hays wants the community to know that the online resources he and Beer are managing will be constantly updated and improved as they find new content.

“A big part of this Virtual Recreation Center is that we are always looking for new things to add to it,” he says. “If somebody in the community has an idea of something they want to do online or something they’ve heard about, please run it by us, and maybe we can add that to the page. We are all ears. We’re all in this together, we really are, and we want to share all the resources and inventive ideas our community has during this crazy time.”

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