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Professional development in parks and recreation

This is an excerpt from Park and Recreation Professional's Handbook With Online Resource, The by Amy Hurd & Denise Anderson.

The Professional Development Process

Professional development encompasses numerous facilitated learning opportunities, from college degree programs to formal course work to conferences and informal learning opportunities situated in practice (Speck and Knipe 2005). Motivation for professional development can be multifaceted and may include career preparation, advancement, networking, skill development, increased compensation, and self-fulfillment.

Career Preparation

One of the first stages of professional development is career preparation. That is, what is needed to be qualified for a career in the leisure services? While it has not always been the case, today's entry-level leisure services professional often has a college degree in parks and recreation or a related field. Currently there are 89 programs that are accredited by the NRPA as well as many more that are not accredited. The NRPA accreditation process recognizes programs as meeting or exceeding standards of academic quality as related to parks and recreation education.

As students prepare for a leisure services career, they must complete course work that meets standards identified by the NRPA as necessary for preparing a student to work in the profession. This course work includes financial management and programming as well as a working knowledge of the history of the profession. Part of this career preparation also involves completing practicums and internships while still a student. This hands-on experience provides students with the opportunity to perform the tasks associated with working in the profession, including programming, staff supervision, maintenance, budgeting, management, and risk management, among others.

Students also have the option to gain multiple certifications or other credentials that may enhance their status as a professional. One of the most recognized certifications for individuals working in public parks and recreation is the Certified Park and Recreation Professional (CPRP). Other relevant certifications include Certified Pool/Spa Operator, Certified Playground Safety Inspector, and Wilderness First Responder as well as certifications in CPR and first aid. The following lists include more certification options.


  • Aquatic Facility Operator (AFO)
  • Water Safety Instructor (WSI)
  • Jeff Ellis and Associates Certifications
  • Certified Pool/Spa Operator

Meetings and Events

  • Certified Festival and Events Executive
  • Certified Meeting Professional
  • Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP)

Public Parks and Recreation and Therapeutic Recreation

  • Certified Park and Recreation Professional (CPRP)
  • Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI)
  • Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS)


  • Personal trainer certifications (via the American Council on Exercise, American Fitness Professionals and Associates, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, National Strength and Conditioning Association)
  • Primary Group Exercise Certification
  • Group Fitness Instructor Certification

Outdoor Recreation

  • Leave No Trace Master Educator
  • Wilderness Education Association National Standard Program
  • American Canoe Association Instructor
  • American Canoe Association Swiftwater Rescue
  • American Mountain Guides Association Certification
  • National Association for Search and Rescue Courses
  • Professional Ski Instructor
  • Certified Heritage Interpreter
  • Certified Interpretive Manager
  • Certified Interpretive Planner


  • Certified Destination Management Executive


  • American Camp Association Professional Certification

Further professional development that should begin as soon as a student considers a career in leisure services is participation in professional associations and conferences. Most professional associations and conferences offer students discounted rates to join and attend both conferences and workshops. In fact, this type of involvement can facilitate overall career preparation, because students can learn more about certification exams and can network with professionals who may be helpful in the search for an internship or a job.

There are multiple professional associations in the leisure services field, including the NRPA; state professional associations such as the Illinois Park and Recreation Association and the North Carolina Recreation and Park Association; the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; and the National Alliance for Youth Sports, among many others. The following lists name a variety of professional associations.

Public Parks and Recreation

  • National Recreation and Park Association (
  • State parks and recreation associations (e.g., Illinois Park and Recreation Association, North Carolina Recreation and Park Association)
  • American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (
  • World Leisure and Recreation Association

Therapeutic Recreation

  • American Therapeutic Recreation Association (
  • National Therapeutic Recreation Society (


  • National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (
  • North American Society for Sport Management (

Commercial Recreation and Tourism

  • Resort and Commercial Recreation Association (
  • World Tourism Organization (
  • World Travel and Tourism Council (

Outdoor Recreation

  • American Camp Association (
  • Association for Experiential Education (
  • Wilderness Education Association (
  • National Association for Interpretation (
  • North American Association for Environmental Education (
  • University of New Hampshire Outdoor Education (
  • Outdoor Industry Association (
  • Student Conservation Association (

Event and Meeting Management

  • International Festivals and Events Association (
  • International Association of Assembly Managers (
  • International Special Events Society (
  • Professional Convention Management Association (

Continuing Education

Once immersed within the field, professionals may choose to engage in continuing education so they can further build competencies and facilitate career advancement. These competencies may include technical and functional expertise related to the job they are in or the job they want to attain. Examples include skills in new technology, personnel management, grant writing, program development, and technical abilities. There are a variety of avenues that a professional can take to learn in these areas.

Professional conferences are one venue through which professionals can engage in continuing education and earn continuing education units (CEUs), which are required to maintain professional certifications. For instance, a one-hour educational session typically earns a CPRP .1 CEUs; a CPRP must earn 2.0 CEUs over a two-year period in order to retain certification. Sessions must be approved by the certifying body before they can award CEUs. Approval is based on the background of the speaker, the length of the session, and the objectives of the session. Sessions cover a variety of topics relevant to today's professional, including customer service, risk management, program design, partnership, leadership, teamwork, and personal effectiveness. Regardless of the topic, sessions awarding CEUs must be conducted professionally by a qualified speaker with well-defined learning objectives.

Professionals may also attend educational workshops that are strictly focused on one particular topic such as playground safety or aquatic facility management. Often these workshops cover a great deal of material on the topic and conclude with a certification exam for which the professional should then be prepared. These workshops often last multiple days due to the amount of material that must be covered in order for the professional to be prepared for the certification exam.

Other opportunities for continuing education may occur in more traditional educational settings such as colleges and universities and may include online as well as traditional classes. Often these learning opportunities are a good fit for employees interested in increasing their understanding of the parks and recreation field, particularly employees whose previous educational background is outside of the parks and recreation field. Others may be seeking an advanced degree in parks and recreation or in a related field such as public administration or youth development in order to gain more opportunities for advancement.

Career Progression

Most professionals are not content with indefinitely remaining in the same career position that they started in; most professionals ultimately look to advance to jobs with greater responsibilities and certainly greater rewards. There are two ways to advance throughout a career: external advancement and internal advancement. While there may be opportunities for career progression within larger agencies (internal advancement), often career progression requires an employee to transfer outside of the current agency in order to advance (external advancement). Regardless of the path a person takes, networking often provides the first entree into a new position.


Starting as early as college, or even high school, networking is an effective way to make contacts with people who may be able to help with career progression either immediately or in the future. Although many high school students may not think a full-time career in leisure services is an option, part-time jobs can help students learn about the profession and make early contacts that can open doors with respect to both future jobs and college programs to prepare for a full-time career in leisure services. Building a solid network of contacts can help young professionals not only find a first job or a new job but also address issues that come up in the current job.

A diverse network of contacts is beneficial. In this sense, diversity refers to variety in the types of positions contacts hold, the education levels contacts have obtained, and the geographic locations in which contacts work. Think about it: If you are working as a youth sport coordinator and your entire network comprises other youth sport coordinators in a small section of your state, who can you go to when you are looking for a position with more responsibility, such as a facility coordinator, or when you are looking to move out of state? A homogenous network of professional contacts does not serve a person nearly as well as a network with some variety.

Networking can take place at many locations, but often professional conferences provide the most successful venue, because they provide a great opportunity to interact with a wide variety of professionals. However, networking opportunities can present themselves in numerous ways, not only in professional life but also in personal life. Being aware of opportunities and willing to extend your professional contact can go a long way to cultivating those opportunities, wherever they are discovered. Remember, the people you keep in touch with can serve as an entree into new positions down the road or as a resource for solving problems in your current position.

Internal Advancement

Internal advancement typically does not rely on external networks, although internal relationships can be an important component of advancement within an agency. Internal advancement is just as it sounds—advancing into a position of greater responsibility within the same organization a professional is already working in. The new position comes with a title change as well as a pay increase and possibly new benefits such as use of an agency vehicle.

There are different ways that an employee may become eligible for internal advancement. While some agencies may not want to advance internal candidates, preferring instead external hires who will bring in new ideas, many agencies groom current employees to take on more responsibilities over time. These opportunities may arise through formal recruitment strategies that entice numerous internal applicants to interview for a position or through a promotion for which the person does not have to apply.

Success in internal advancements can be facilitated through positive performance evaluations, continuing education, and other indicators that a person is a hardworking employee with potential. An agency's history of internal advancement can motivate employees, because those who are interested in living (and remaining) in a specific geographical area or staying with an agency they love working for appreciate the opportunity to advance without relocation. This type of agency history can go a long way in helping to recruit good employees.

External Advancement

As mentioned earlier, often career progression requires changing employers. A current agency may have no opportunities available for advancement due to size or very low turnover or due to a philosophy that prefers to hire externally for open positions. Networking can certainly be a way of learning about external advancement opportunities in the field, particularly in geographic areas the professional is unfamiliar with.

Information sources that can help professionals look for new jobs include career sites such as the NRPA online career center and listservs that post relevant job openings. In addition, a person may attend job fairs at universities and other locations when looking for a first position or a new position. Conferences can also be a good way to find out about new opportunities because they often feature an area known as a job mart where job postings are listed for attendees to peruse what is currently available on a state, regional, or national level. In addition, there are often representatives from the hiring agency available to discuss the jobs further.

More Excerpts From Park and Recreation Professional's Handbook With Online Resource