Family Leisure and the Play Desert

August 1, 2014, Department, by Iryna Sharaievska, Ph.D.

Park and recreation agencies could better serve their communities with family-focused programming.It is not surprising to anyone that families who spend more time together are happier, stronger and demonstrate better-functioning relationships. On a similar note, we know that the healthier these family activities are, the more likely the entire group is to live a better, more satisfactory life. Despite the fact that we are familiar with the importance of healthy family time, many families are often left to their own devices and have few programs or settings in which to participate in leisure as a family. While this is not a problem for some families, it might lead to sedentary behaviors — mainly increased screen time — in others. 

As a field that aspires to be on the forefront of health promotion and community building, we rarely provide opportunities for families to recreate together. Look at any community around the U.S. and you will find programs for children, teenagers and youth, senior citizens, women, women with babies, and sometimes families. You will also find that the opportunities that do attempt to foster family leisure are often limited to providing a place for families to be entertained by others — such as at a sporting event, art fair or movie in the park — rather than engaging in activities together. Very rarely can you spot a program that is designed to provide families with opportunities to recreate and have shared family experiences in an activity together. 

It is easy to understand — serving families is a rather challenging task. Differences in age and maturity level between different family members, their level of physical, mental and emotional abilities, problems with scheduling time that would work for everyone, and issues related to pre-existing relationships between family members are just a few problems that recreation professionals serving families will face. We also often assume that family time will happen organically on its own in the backyard or the park down the street. However, research shows that these types of experiences are happening less and less  often for myriad reasons, including two working parents, limited free time and changes in urban settings. Still, there are several examples of programs that can offer family members not only space to recreate but also meaningful activities in which to participate. One such example is family fun runs that invite both parents and children to participate. These races not only encourage healthy lifestyles but also provide healthy competition and rewarding topics for discussion. Moreover, if a family takes the race seriously, it increases the time they spend together in preparation for the event. 

In planning recreational opportunities for families, we should remember that we are trying to foster interaction, teamwork and shared enjoyment. Art fairs are a great opportunity for families to get together and enjoy shared time. However, a fair that offers games and activities for the whole family to participate in will help to create fun and long-lasting memories.

Big events and vacations are important components of family leisure, but every day, cheap and readily available activities are the ones that often “make a family.” Thus, offering regular leisure opportunities for families will help them grow stronger by having the responsibility of developing and following a shared schedule, working on shared goals and celebrating shared accomplishments.

It is often the case that even when families do spend time together, they slip into a pattern of dinner followed by screen time at best. Considering the level of obesity among both adults and children, it is crucial to provide families with opportunities for regular involvement in more active and health-oriented activities. While it might be a challenge to create programs that would accommodate the needs of all family members with different abilities and levels of skill, with sufficient creativity such programs could be both fun and beneficial for health. Turning sedentary screen time into active time should not be a goal only for youth programs but also for professionals serving families in the community. As we know from many examples, more active lifestyles among parents will encourage youth to live a healthier lifestyle. Furthermore, family members could be the most accessible and regular partners for participation in many physical activities. 

It is important to remember that just being in the same room, building or park together is not enough to create a happy family. Families feel more satisfied with the time they spend in shared leisure activities involving interaction with one another. It is important for family members to feel not just the mere presence but also the attention and support of their spouse/parent/child. Due to that, providing families with a context for collaboration, interaction and teamwork should be an important goal for any family program planner. 

All of the above-mentioned opportunities should be offered not only in parks and open spaces, but also in multiple-use facilities that are located close to residential areas and available year-round. Collaboration with schools, churches and commercial organizations would help us establish continuous recreational opportunities for families during cold winters in Chicago or hot summers in Florida. In her keynote speech during the 2013 Carolinas Joint Recreation and Parks Conference, Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, discussed “play deserts” present in many areas of the country. While we often associate play with children, this problem affects the entire family. As one of the recreation professionals in North Carolina stated, “When McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A is the only place for a family to hang out during winter, we have a problem.” Let’s make sure that the family unit is not overlooked by our field. After all, families provide the context for raising future generations, and their health — physical, mental and emotional — defines what our future will look and act like.

Iryna Sharaievska, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University.