The Noble Experiment: Writing the First History of the National Recreation & Park Association Held Many Surprises and Lessons for Co-Author Karla Henderson

Parks & Recreation, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Noble Experiment: Writing the First History of the National Recreation & Park Association Held Many Surprises and Lessons for Co-Author Karla Henderson


Ten years in the making, The Noble Experiment chronicles the first 40 years of the National Recreation and Park Association. Numerous individuals and committees of the association worked behind the scenes to ensure its launch and to encourage its completion. H. Douglas Sessoms and Karla Henderson undertook the research and writing of the 132-page book as a labor of love on behalf of field of parks and recreation.

Sessoms, who died just before publication of The Noble Experiment, served as president of the Society of Park and Recreation Educators, the Academy of Leisure Sciences, and the American Academy of Parks and Recreation Administrators--in addition to his many years teaching at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Henderson is a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at North Carolina State. She is the author of numerous books and articles and the recipient of many professional awards.

Sessoms and Henderson trace the beginning of the NRPA with the 1965 merger of the National Recreation Association, American Institute of Park Executives, American Recreation Society, and the National Conference on State Parks. Henderson, describes the formation of the NRPA as an experiment. "Associations do not form from a merger of several groups with similar and yet disparate goals and membership compositions," she writes in the introduction. In this interview with Parks & Recreation magazine, Henderson discusses the nature of undertaking The Noble Experiment and what it means for the field today.

P&R: How did The Noble Experiment come about?

KH: It came about because of the numerous changes in society during the 1950s and into the '60s--the Civil Rights movement and a growing awareness of environmental issues. People became more mobile and demanded opportunities for their leisure/recreation. The parks movement was becoming well established on the local, state, and national levels and many communities were aware of the need to provide recreation as a public service. However, parks with their forestry/natural resource base and recreation from an activity perspective, had not been directly connected. Parks, especially, were becoming places for active recreation and not just lovely garden-like sites. At the same time, the National Recreation Association (NRA) was a strong citizen movement (since its establishment in 1906 as the Playground Association of America--see Charlie Hartsoe's book, Building Better Communities). Many people were advocating for parks and recreation that seemed to have similar interests and it was clear that one voice was needed to make the advocacy efforts strong.

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NRPA was a combination of four organizations coming together. The mission was a major debate from the beginning. Could an advocacy group and organizations focused on professional development come together? NRPA was an experiment in developing a dual mission based on both advocacy and professional development and also a way to combine the foci of parks and of recreation. The combinations were not opposite and they had a great deal in common, but the organizations that came together to form NRPA had different approaches to meeting their respective missions and these had to be negotiated to affirm one "voice" and one organization.

The book discusses the first two years and the issues surrounding how the organization should function. Many negotiations were needed. NRPA was structured as a nonprofit organization with a public mission (advocacy), so the board has always consisted of a majority of citizen members. Other interesting compromises were made--for example, the organization is called National Recreation and Park Association while its magazine is called Parks & Recreation.

I contend that NRPA is still a noble experiment. I do not think the experiment has been completed. It is ongoing. …

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