Recreation Vexations

It really hit me this week as I worked on yet another proposal. I am just so tired of having to explain and justify the field in which I’ve spent most of my career - recreation and parks. 

Yes, it is a field and a profession. To prove it, I have a degree in recreation and leisure studies from Brock University, and a resume that includes recreation jobs at a Boys and Girls Club, the city of Niagara Falls, a provincial non-profit association, self-employed consulting work, and teaching the subject at Niagara College.

Most of us in the field were drawn to the profession because we understood the role recreation, sports, parks, arts, culture and heritage plays in developing healthy individuals, vibrant communities, and a strong economy and environment. Often from our own experience growing up, we knew that recreation helped us grow our confidence and self-esteem, learn more about ourselves and our values, and increased our sense of belonging and ultimately, our quality of life. This leisure literacy, or ability to use our leisure time wisely, pumped vitality, creativity and positive energy into our lives and our communities.

While passionate about wanting to make a difference, I entered the field in the late 80’s at a time when diminishing local government resources meant that recreation and parks were absorbing major funding cuts. Yet in some ways it was a major wake-up call because even though we intuitively knew recreation was important to individuals, communities, the economy and the environment, it wasn’t something we were able to prove. It was, and remains, especially challenging because recreation and parks contributes to the public benefit economy and the intangible social and community benefits rather than the market economy which measures worth based on monetary return.

Determined to help prove its worth, I got involved in a Canada-wide movement that collected evidence and research to document the benefits or outcomes delivered by recreation and parks. And, while it took me a while to wrap my head around the definition of an outcome, I ultimately learned to see that outcomes are the desired results or impact of a process, program, project or activity. Outcomes are about individual or organizational change and can include change in knowledge, status or condition, behaviours, attitudes, values, or skills.  Probably what was most helpful for me was eventually seeing that an outcome is what stakeholders will have that they didn’t have when they started. Even better, we’ve learned how to use these outcomes that could be delivered by recreation and parks to generate better performance and accountability measures and to illustrate their essential role in both social and community development.

But don’t just take my word for it. Surveys of the general public recently conducted in both Ontario and Alberta show that for the first time the majority of us see our leisure as being more important than our work. Additionally, the average citizen clearly sees the link between parks and recreation and their personal satisfaction, reduced social problems, a reduction in unnecessary spending in health, social services, and justice, and protected environmental spaces.

The two reports also confirm that parks provide a sense of place in the community, allowing for escape, contemplation, discovery, access to nature, interpretive education and recreation. They also provide shelter, wildlife habitat, improve air quality, and serve as buffers between residential and industrial areas. Parks enhance aesthetic quality, increase property values and improve the image and livability of communities.

Recreation, through physical, social and artistic expression, provides opportunities for us to improve our health, socialize and interact with others, learn new skills, have fun and find life balance. Sport and recreation events, festivals and the visual and performing arts provide opportunities for self-expression, social interaction, and are a source of civic pride. They contribute to human happiness, and to the resiliency and adaptive capacity of our communities.

Okay I’ll step off the soapbox now. And yes, I do know the field of recreation and parks might not be as important as brain surgery. But, I’m not going to apologize for it any more either. Instead, I’m the one who will be standing tall and proud and waving the flag for recreation and parks.

Posted on 08-29-10

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