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Learn the differing definitions of play, recreation, leisure, and flow

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Recreation and Leisure, Second Edition by Human Kinetics.

What If?

What if there were an aspect of life with promise and potential to empower people to grow and thrive; provide communities with facilities and services that enhance quality of life; connect people both locally and globally; preserve and protect our natural, historic, and cultural heritage; and contribute to a prosperous economy? What if there was an aspect of life so central to human existence that people spent more time engaged in this critical life pursuit than working or attending school combined? What if there was a category of the economy that accounted for substantial expenditures and appeared to be an ever-growing economic force? What if there were a variety of career opportunities associated with this essential aspect of behavior and major component of the economy that created opportunities for personal growth, professional flexibility, sense of purpose, and resourcefulness on the part of the professionals in that field?

Welcome to the World of Parks, Recreation, and Leisure

Welcome to the opportunities, options, pursuits, and possibilities of parks and recreation. The shortened term for this profession, which encompasses myriad pursuits and passions such as sports, events, tourism, health and wellness, adventure recreation, environmental preservation and management, is generally parks, recreation, leisure, and tourism.

The challenge in learning more about this field as a personal pursuit, professional career, or a combination of both is to grasp the size and significance of the world known as parks, recreation, and leisure. This field is powerful because its activities and pursuits are truly everywhere, touching the lives of all human beings, and occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the 52 weeks of a year. The potential and promise of parks, recreation, and leisure are simultaneously challenging to grasp and critical to the well-being of individuals, communities, societies, and the world. The benefits of this field ensure that we have sufficient clean air and water to sustain life, opportunities to live purposeful and pleasurable lives, memories of happy times with friends and family, and options and opportunities for health and well-being throughout our lives.

Definitions of Play, Recreation, Leisure, and Flow

People often use four terms interchangeably—play, recreation, leisure, and flow—but they do not refer to the same actions or conditions. We often hear people speak about children going out to play or adults looking forward to the weekend and the leisure time that it promises. People who meet for the first time ask one another what they do for recreation. Even within the field of parks, recreation, and leisure, experts offer differing definitions or explanations of these four terms.


Definitions for play date back to previous centuries. These descriptions cite a number of related purposes including biological, physical, cognitive, and social development of children. Theories abound around play; self-expression, surplus energy, arousal, and recapitulation are some of the desired outcomes cited.

By the late 20th century people understood that a better and more comprehensive definition of play included a set of circumstances rather than one specific definition. For play to be a true play experience, it must be voluntary, spontaneous, intrinsically rewarding, and absorbing.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, renewed interest and attention is focused on play and the effect of the lack of unstructured play on the positive development of today’s children. Contemporary psychologists have raised the critical need for children to play, and both parents and professionals in the field have been listening. Health officials have suggested that growing levels of childhood obesity and the epidemic of adult onset diabetes among children can be related to lack of play in contemporary life.


Another relevant term is recreation. Aren’t play and recreation the same thing? Not if we adhere to the more accepted definitions of the two terms. It is widely accepted that recreation refers to activity, as in participation in recreation or a recreation activity. Although participation in a recreation activity can be play, not all recreation is play. A recreation activity that has a structured timeframe or lacks true voluntary participation may or may not be play.


The term leisure has a myriad of meanings. Leisure can refer to any or all of the following: unobligated time, state of being, and consumption patterns. One widely accepted element of leisure is that it is not work but rather an antidote to a person’s working life. The irony of the leisure definition is that when Cziksentmihalyi studied flow, he found that most people reach flow while at work rather than while at leisure.


For much of his academic career Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied flow, a state of being in which a person is fully engaged in an activity that results in feelings of energy, focus, and success that often turn out to be the optimal life experiences for that individual.

Through his studies Csikszentmihalyi has identified eight conditions needed to reach flow, the optimal human experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). For flow to occur, the undertaking must

  1. require skill,
  2. merge action and awareness,
  3. provide clear goals and feedback,
  4. require concentration and absorption of attention,
  5. provide an individual with personal control over the act,
  6. create a loss of self-consciousness,
  7. cause a person to lose all track of time, and
  8. provide intrinsic rewards.

Why Do These Differences Matter?

Although the variations among the definitions of these terms might seem relatively small or inconsequential, that assessment is not accurate. A person working in the field of parks, recreation, leisure, and tourism will be called on to implement a number of activities and provide various experiences for people. At that point the variations of these terms become clearer. An organized soccer league for 10- and 11-year-olds is definitely recreation, but it is not likely to be a play experience. Adults have time available for leisure, but they don’t necessarily pursue recreation activities during that time. Consider the differences between a tourist and a traveler; tourists are generally interested in the activity of going to new places, whereas travelers are most often seeking to become immersed in a culture through travel.

Learn more about Introduction to Recreation and Leisure With Web Resource, Second Edition.

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