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Modern Concepts of Leisure

by Allen Sapora, Ph.D.

The concept of leisure in our present civilization is difficult to interpret, just as it has been in all civilizations of the past. The behavior of people during time when they are not engaged in work or survival activities has in the past received little scientific attention. It has been only recently that the study of leisure behavior has become a legitimate area of investigation. A specific body of knowledge has developed directly related to work as well as nonwork behavior, to the effect of changing behavior patterns related to mental and physical health, adjustment, and the attainment of self-actualization.

The economic and cultural development of ancient civilizations was augmented by slave labor, by military dominance, and exploitation of resources of one group by another. This production and economic wealth provided affluence and time for leisure activities for a relatively small segment of the population.

In our Western civilization, and particularly the United States, there has developed for the first time on such a national scale, a tremendous industrial economy and a general standard of living heretofore unattainable. These developments have made more free time available for many people.

The machine has robbed millions of people of their creative identity and turned their work into automatic activities that lead to boredom and little or no personal expression; the fast moving tempo of urban life has caused an alarming increase in mental illness, and many people "never seem to be able to relax." Life in the home has changed, and there is increased pressure upon the school, the church, and other community agencies to assume greater responsibilities than ever before to meet the changing needs of all age groups. Many of our urban areas no longer contain open spaces and natural scenic areas which are safe for children's play or challenging to adults.

To understand the modern concepts of leisure in our complex social and industrial system, one must consider the historical development of the philosophy of leisure or non-work behavior, and indeed the total life style of people from earliest times, including work. It is unmistakably clear that non-work time (or non-obligated "free time") behavior has had a significant influence on the rise and fall of the various civilizations that have preceded us. While some attribute very little importance to this influence, others consider it ever more significant than the influence of those activities directly related to work or "purposeful" functions.

One has only to examine the hieroglyphics of the Egyptian civilizations, the evidence of attention to non-work creativity of the Aztec and many other civilizations to realize the place of leisure activities in the life styles of people. The information about these activities in the Greek and Roman civilizations is more precise.

As a matter of fact, the Aristotelian concept of leisure as a "condition or state of mind," or "state of being" free from the necessity of labor, more than ever forms the basis for our concepts of leisure today. The Aristotelian concept of leisure does not exclude labor, but it does exclude the absence of the obligation or the necessity to perform labor as a primary condition of life.

The development of the life style of western civilization was a direct product that grow out of the Judaic-Christian philosophy and the industrialization of the western world. The leisure class of Europe and early United States included people who were able to establish wealth and power which enabled them to reach that state of being where work in their lives was not a necessary obligation to their survival. They had time and resources for education and learning of social roles, play and development of a variety of cultural pursuits involving creativity and personality development, as well as to engage in societal control processes in a relatively free state of mind.

In the United States, different concepts of leisure were evident in the years before the Civil War. In northern U.S. and particularly New England, the so-called Puritan work ethic developed in the industrialized cities and in areas where strong religious and cultural mores and economic competition defined play, recreation and leisure patterns in the life style of people.

In the South, the leisure class of Europe persisted in a predominantly agricultural society supported by slave labor. The western frontier areas represented a severe work-ethic philosophy as a result of religious and cultural taboos against play and leisure pursuits and the difficult struggle against the harsh physical environmental conditions that left precious few hours and limited resources for pleasurable activities.

The rapid development of the industrial revolution following the Civil War revolutionized the concepts of leisure in the U.S. By 1885 it was evident that the unfavorable social conditions brought on by increased immigration, crowded and inadequate housing in urban areas, child labor, long working hours and the intensity of the competitive economic system must be alleviated.

Workers received minimal wages and had to learn to purchase their total life-style needs from these funds, including many of their non-work social and cultural needs. Time off from work soon earned the title of re-creation time—not time for fun or play, but time for physical rest to refresh oneself so one could return recreated to one's tedious and time-consuming industrial work, which became the overriding and central value of the socio-economic system.

This leisure concept, still held rigidly by many people today, developed a clear dichotomy between work and leisure. Work was the

Illinois Parks and Recreation 24 May/June, 1975

antithesis of leisure. Joseph Lee, Jane Addams and other pioneers in the (play) (recreation) leisure movement attempted to relate leisure in a more meaningful way.

Work and productive capacity as a basic value, reinforced by the vast economic depression of the 1930's remained as the central core and goal of society. Recreation and leisure pursuits were to be developed as limited public resources would allow; and commercial recreation through the Prohibition days and the advent of World War II was a portent of the mass development in leisure services that was to take place after 1950 and develop into a 150 billion dollar business.

Since 1950 the concept of leisure has undergone considerable change. The rapid development of technology, transportation, mobility and communications has increased considerably the satisfaction of the lower echelon needs (except in our poverty areas) as described by Maslow (physical, safety, belonging and love, and esteem needs). This affluence has brought greater attention to the humanization of the industrial and technological world in which we live. This is very evident in the present philosophy of our youth.

Greater attention now centers around Maslow's fifth basic need— self-actualization. People are neophylic animals. Once their lower needs are met, they seek experiences to challenge their abilities and test their adapability. The phenomenal economic growth since 1955, coupled with our political freedom and our vast opportunities for choice of life styles, have provided the setting for the development of the modern concept of leisure.

In the modern concept of leisure, the work-leisure (play-work) dichotomy no longer exists. Leisure is not time, but a state of being in which the individual has the resources, the opportunity and the capacity to do those things that contribute most to self-actualization and to the recognition of one's responsibilities and relationships to one's fellow man. Many people find leisure expression in work or in functional, goal-directed activities often looked upon in our early history as work, while others now work at what was actually play.

"We strived first to be saved by technology, now we strive to be saved from it." Thus one does not necessarily have to be playing badminton or bridge to be at leisure; one can be in a leisure state while engaging in a stimulating and refreshing challenge provided by work, and likewise it can be said that one can be in a laborious state of work while engaging in a game of bridge!

The work-leisure dichotomy then, has distorted the real meaning of both work and leisure in our society. It has in fact demeaned the value of work, set it off as something to be somehow tolerated, minimizing its dignity and its potential value and role in self-actualization and satisfaction. Likewise, people learned to believe that one had to be "doing some identifiable activity" like sport, music, drama, art, or some similar organized behavior to be in a leisure state.

Many substitute activites have been invented (many poorly designed playgrounds are examples of these) to herd people into somewhat strange and often undesirable situations. We have tended to box in personal expression and self-actualization in separate packages—into compartments—just as we have our educational system, religion and other social interactions. Actually, satisfaction attained in the leisure state is personal, intrinsic, and an individual happening; one must discover for oneself in what situations these states of mind occur. And society has an obligation to provide an adequate program of leisure education and wide variety of opportunities for the individual to reach these expressive conditions.

Providing worthwhile leisure opportunities for the masses of our population is a task unique in history. Today and in the future, we face more complex conditions than previous civilizations, but at the same time we have more resources such as communication systems, computers, and technology never before available to deal with the socio-economic variables that condition our use of leisure. Our knowledge of this behaviour and what we can predict about it for the future are crucial to the decisions which will be made about the amount, type, location and character of leisure choices and opportunities.

Leisure behavior research, until a relatively few years ago, has been somewhat limited. Our concepts of leisure have been far too narrow. Between 1890 and 1930, those providing leisure services were kept busy planning organized, structured

Illinois Parks and Recreation 25 May/June, 1975


activities that were intended to meet critical social needs. More information is needed about what happens to people as a result of various leisure as well as work experiences. Recently a significant amount of research related to leisure behavior, and the resources and the environment most closely related to this behavior, has been completed by practitioners and researchers in the field of recreation and park administration and by individuals in several related disciplines. This research provides us with helpful information to clarify objectives and to formulate basic concepts of leisure.

For example, our concepts of children's informal play activities before age six have been radically changed. We know that parents who provide a rich, creative play environment for children enhance the creative abilities of children; that children are not born with fixed intelligence, and that the amount and character of play experiences in early childhood significantly affects the intelligence and personality of the child, and consequently the child's potential for development in adult life.

Many modern playgrounds have equipment that promotes stereotyped behavior and does not foster developmental, creative play. The modern concept of leisure involves providing creative play situations and education settings for children which are stimulating and definitely allow for both mental and physical development consistent with the child's individual abilities. Where the narrow work-ethic, utility concept of life dominates the experiences of the child, whether in the home, the school, the church or in the playground, the experience falls far short of maximizing the child's total physical and mental developmental potential.

As previously noted, people involved in planning and providing leisure services have been too busy planning and organizing structured, substitute activities for people in constricted environments to consider what is happening to participants. Many professional practitioners do not have adequate funds or trained personnel to do anything more. Recent studies by Alexander Szalai indicate that people find themselves in the state of leisure in a tremendously wide variety of daily life-style situations which provide potential for fulfillment, development, and self-actualization. Szalai's data also points out that a greater variety of choices does not imply clearly discernable growth and existence of the autonomy of leisure choices.

Social determinants (group associations, local customs, habits, cultural mores) are more significant factors than variety of choices in shaping leisure uses. Individuals seek positive satisfying experiences with friends and associates to avoid boredom and the tensions of life. Although people in the U.S. since World War II have been bombarded with leisure choices, in reality they are still looking for activities to engage in that relate more to their common goals and personal interests. Education, occupation and economic levels are known to have definite effects on leisure choices.

Obviously, then, the modern leisure concept implies social planning for leisure opportunities. The utilization of time for leisure pursuits and problems connected with satisfying these demands are very complex. There is a critical need to further study the leisure behavior of people and the physical resources and the environment most often utilized during this behavior. Since the sole purpose of the recreation and park profession is to improve the quaility of life through leisure services, the professional recreator must play a major role in this study of leisure behavior, education for leisure, and the integration of the scientific data from other disciplines that will provide direction and goals for leisure services not only now but in the future.

The professional recreator and park manager, and a variety of other persons in our social system, have the responsibility to provide novel, worthwhile and stimulating opportunities and favorable environments for leisure activities. Professional recreators are no longer only effective managers, directors and organizers of traditional play and recreation activities practiced during leisure—they are basically leisure behavior scientists who strive to understand the total behavior of people, to serve as consultants to community leaders, planners, and educators.

They must serve as catalysts who possess observing, listening, inquiry, reporting and group process skills to help individuals and groups to achieve self-actualization through a variety of activities consistent with the total life style of the people served. Anything short of this philosophy, either in the preparation of professional leadership, in leisure behavior research, or in the dispensing of leisure services, does not recognize the basic concepts of leisure today, nor recognize the significance of increased time and resources for self-actualization and socialization, factors that are bound to become more crucial elements in the development of the life style of people in the future.

Illinois Parks and Recreation 26 May/June, 1975

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