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Definitions of leisure, play, and recreation

This is an excerpt from The Park and Recreation Professional’s Handbook by Amy R. Hurd and Denise M. Anderson


Defining leisure, play, and recreation provides us as leisure professionals with a strong foundation for the programs, services, and facilities that we provide. While we might disagree on the standard definition of leisure, play, or recreation, we are all concerned with providing an experience for participants. Whether we work in the public, private nonprofit, or commercial sector, all three concepts are driving forces behind the experiences we provide. Table 1.1 outlines the basic definitions of leisure, play, and recreation.

Hurdtable 1.1.png

Definitions of Leisure

There is debate about how to define leisure. However, there is a general consensus that there are three primary ways in which to consider leisure: leisure as time, leisure as activity, and leisure as state of mind.

Leisure as Time

By this definition leisure is time free from obligations, work (paid and unpaid), and tasks required for existing (sleeping, eating). Leisure time is residual time. Some people argue it is the constructive use of free time. While many may view free time as all nonworking hours, only a small amount of time spent away from work is actually free from other obligations that are necessary for existence, such as sleeping and eating.

Leisure as Activity

Leisure can also be viewed as activities that people engage in during their free time—activities that are not work oriented or that do not involve life maintenance tasks such as housecleaning or sleeping. Leisure as activity encompasses the activities that we engage in for reasons as varied as relaxation, competition, or growth and may include reading for pleasure, meditating, painting, and participating in sports. This definition gives no heed to how a person feels while doing the activity; it simply states that certain activities qualify as leisure because they take place during time away from work and are not engaged in for existence. However, as has been argued by many, it is extremely difficult to come up with a list of activities that everyone agrees represents leisure—to some an activity might be a leisure activity and to others it might not necessarily be a leisure activity. Therefore, with this definition the line between work and leisure is not clear in that what is leisure to some may be work to others and vice versa.

Leisure as State of Mind

Unlike the definitions of leisure as time or activity, the definition of leisure as state of mind is much more subjective in that it considers the individual’s perception of an activity. Concepts such as perceived freedom, intrinsic motivation, perceived competence, and positive affect are critical to determining whether an experience is leisure or not leisure.

Perceived freedom refers to an individual’s ability to choose the activity or experience in that the individual is free from other obligations as well as has the freedom to act without control from others. Perceived freedom also involves the absence of external constraints to participation.

The second requirement of leisure as state of mind, intrinsic motivation, means that the person is moved from within to participate. The person is not influenced by external factors (e.g., people or reward) and the experience results in personal feelings of satisfaction, enjoyment, and gratification.

Perceived competence is also critical to leisure defined as state of mind. Perceived competence refers to the skills people believe they possess and whether their skill levels are in line with the degree of challenge inherent in an experience. Perceived competence relates strongly to satisfaction, and for successful participation to occur, the skill-to-challenge ratio must be appropriate.

Positive affect, the final key component of leisure as state of mind, refers to a person’s sense of choice, or the feeling people have when they have some control over the process that is tied to the experience. Positive affect refers to enjoyment, and this enjoyment comes from a sense of choice.

What may be a leisure experience for one person may not be for another; whether an experience is leisure depends on many factors. Enjoyment, motivation, and choice are three of the most important of these factors. Therefore, when different individuals engage in the same activity, their state of mind can differ drastically.

Definition of Play

Unlike leisure, play has a more singular definition. Play is imaginative, intrinsically motivated, nonserious, freely chosen, and actively engaging. While most people see play as the domain of children, adults also play, although often their play is more entwined with rules and regulations, which calls into question how playful their play really is. On the other hand, children’s play is typified by spontaneity, joyfulness, and inhibition and is done not as a means to an end but for its inherent pleasure.

Definition of Recreation

There is some consensus on the definition of recreation. Recreation is an activity that people engage in during their free time, that people enjoy, and that people recognize as having socially redeeming values. Unlike leisure, recreation has a connotation of being morally acceptable not just to the individual but also to society as a whole, and thus we program for those activities within that context. While recreation activities can take many forms, they must contribute to society in a way that society deems acceptable. This means that activities deemed socially acceptable for recreation can change over time.

Examples of recreational activities are endless and include sports, music, games, travel, reading, arts and crafts, and dance. The specific activity performed is less important than the reason for performing the activity, which is the outcome. For most the overarching desired outcome is recreation or restoration. Participants hope that their recreation pursuits can help them to balance their lives and refresh themselves from their work as well as other mandated activities such as housecleaning, child rearing, and so on.

People also see recreation as a social instrument because of its contribution to society. That is, professionals have long used recreation programs and services to produce socially desirable outcomes, such as the wise use of free time, physical fitness, and positive youth development. The organized development of recreation programs to meet a variety of physical, psychological, and social needs has led to recreation playing a role as a social instrument for well-being and, in some cases, change. This role has been the impetus for the development of many recreation providers from municipalities to nonprofits such as the YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. There are also for-profit agencies, such as fitness centers and spas, designed to provide positive outcomes.



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