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Urban Recreation Study Presents Significant Findings on African-American Consumers

by Ladd Colston, Ph.D.

Recreation represents the activity/service realm of play and leisure. The latter are foundations of human growth and development that span both the life cycle and the psycho-social value system of society.

Across the country, one of the primary target markets of public-supported urban recreation is the African-American Community. Their increased access to once segregated recreational services (i.e. organized center programs, parks, and playgrounds) during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s has been orally conveyed as playing a critical role in many of their lives. Until now, there has been no written documentation to substantiate the worth and value of urban recreation for this consumer population.

Historically, there appears to be a number of parallels between what occurred in America 100 years ago and today. The problems of urbanization and congestion during the 1890s (growth of slums, inadequate sanitation, idle youth, gangs, and tuberculosis) have now resurfaced in a more dramatic fashion during the 1990s (hopelessness, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, gun violence, and AIDS) creating a more intensified public need for accessible recreational facilities and programs. The reform-conscious 1890s led to a significant number of public, private and charitable groups supplying the leadership and support for the rise of public-supported urban recreation. Although bound with several related fields such as social work and education (i.e. physical education, kindergartens), it was this network of concerned agencies and institutions that led to the hastened growth of what was then referred to as municipal recreation.

The urban recreation program has traditionally served as a community support system to many youth residing in the urban core. Over the years, it has become one of the few remaining viable alternative programs for urban youth who live a life of crime, substance abuse, incarceration and hopelessness. The severity of problems in the urban core is slowly taking its toll on what is often a depleted work force and a basic social service delivery system. Many American children, a significant number of then African-Americans, have become the victims of alcohol and drug abuse, hopelessness, family breakup, poverty, child abuse and a lack of federal program funds. A 1989 report from the House Select Committee on Children Youth and Families affirmed that judges, probation officers and social workers are being overwhelmed by the volume of children they must handle. Since that report, the number of children forced to live in detention centers, hospitals, foster homes and mental health facilities has increased dramatically and is expected to reach epidemic proportions (840,000) by 1995.

Recreation represents the activity/service realm of play and leisure. The latter are foundations of human growth and development that span both the life cycle and the psycho-social value system of society. Through participation in group games and sports, children establish social relationships and are able to learn social norms, rules, expectations as well as how to get along well with others. It is through these experiences that the child develops a sense of limits, fair play, self-control, honesty, creativity, and the ability to assert one's self appropriately within one's environment. The need for structured recreation in the home and within a community framework is integral to the process of child development. Moral development, personality formation and social orientation are all affected by structured recreation. Although many educators and social scientists have acknowledged the importance of structured recreation in child development, little support has been given to those who currently have no access to facilities, programs, services and trained personnel. As a direct result, preparation of the child (physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially) for adult and community life has become discouragingly dysfunctional.

30 Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995

Funded by the National Recreational Foundation through the National Recreation and Park Association, a recently completed research study reveals over 20 significant findings pertaining to the impact of urban recreation in the African- American Community. Data collection includes a survey of over 650 African-Americans across the country. Their responses clearly showed that urban recreation significantly influenced their lives and in some instances, their professional careers. In specific, many agreed that urban recreation program involvement, activity structure and trained personnel were instrumental in their human growth and development

Urban communities across the nation are presently being hit with an unprecedented reduction of federal, state and local funding for recreation and parks programs, centers, and personnel. In some communities, major youth-oriented programs and services are being eliminated. Many of these budget cuts are done without political officials being apprised of the critical impact that urban recreation plays in the lives of those most deprived. A critical void in the literature has left many city administrators with little factual data to justify continued budget support of recreation in urban municipalities. Chicago, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan, are two examples of this current trend. As a result, many urban youth have little hope of satisfying unmet human needs and are relegated to a life of environmental stress characterized by substance abuse, depression, incarceration, financial dependence and relief through an untimely (early) death.

Presently, America is in the midst of a crisis. Our society's progress in eradicating the problems of today's urban youth is much too slow. Although there are many youths succeeding and moving toward self-sufficient and productive lives, far too many are slipping through the cracks, their lives ruined by illiteracy, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy and unemployment. Many of these problems are directly related to urban youth not knowing how to use their leisure time wisely and their lack of access to structured recreational resources (centers, programs and trained personnel). Leisure time activities of African-American youth now appear to be focused primarily toward physical activities (i.e. late night basketball, traditional team sports) at the expense of reducing one's interest in hobbies such as collecting and reading; cultural activities such as music, art, and theater; and other activities that provide the foundation for adult activities and professional life.

In order to pave the way for youth in America to achieve a successful future, American society must recognize that one proven way is through strong urban recreation programs. Urban recreation is goal-oriented and purposive. Its goals are focused toward meeting the needs of the community through growth-producing experiences that are specifically designed to improve the quality of life for its residents. In the urban core, this role and function has been traditionally delegated to public-sponsored urban recreation programs and services. The tax base created to financially support its mission is federal, state and local governments has unfortunately changed over time and resulted in redirected budget allocations and decreased revenue dollars. At the same time, urban recreation is being faced with an increasing demand by the general public for its programs and services. What appears to be occurring is the return of deplorable urban environmental conditions that will inevitably require social reform.

This study clearly documentsAfrican-American consumer responses to the worth and value of urban recreation programs and services during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In addition, respondents make major implications about the projected worth and value of urban recreation today. Many past participants, or childhood consumers of urban recreation, have since grown into adulthood, achieved success and are now employed in positions of leadership and recognition. For many African-Americans, one of the major contributing influences in their lives was repeatedly identified as urban recreation.

Perceptions and attitudes of study respondents (past participants) were directed towards four outcomes: (1) to identify a demographic profile of African-American participants in urban recreation, (3) to determine if urban recreation had an influence on one's personal and social development and (4) to examine current attitudes and perceptions regarding urban recreation in the African-American Community. Study results showed highly sig- nificant findings based upon gender, birthyear, participation in urban recreation during the 1950s and 1960s employment in recreation, marital status, having children under 15 years, and those who are registered to vote.

The need for structured recreation in the home and within a community framework is integral to the process of child development. Moral development, personality formation and social orientation are all affected by structured recreation.

Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995 31

Outcomes of this study can be applied to the recreation profession for current and future planning. For example, study findings show that (1) African-American women were significantly more likely than African-American men to be influenced by urban recreation in their personal and social development, (2) African-American children born between 1946 and 1960 were significantly influenced by public recreation workers in their personal and social development, and (3) recreation tends to have more significance for African-Americans who are registered to vote than those who are not registered to vote. The major outcome of this study is a documentation of urban recreation's impact upon African-American consumers during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In this study, the attitudes of past participants in urban recreation were used as a strategy to collect feedback from the past, provide information on the present and gather public opinion for the future. In the 1950s and 1960s, urban recreation was found to be a major source of education, inspiration, and community support for urban youth. Urban recreation was reported as having a major role in personal, social and cognitive development. Currently, the need to collect consumer information is critical to the survival of urban recreation. There is a growing trend in many municipalities to cut urban recreation out of city budgets as a cost saving measure. Many legislative decision makers are unaware of the role and function of urban recreation in the personal, psychological and social development of children and youth residing in the urban core. Early recreation literature (Rodney, 1964; Meyer and Brightbill, 1964; Ibrahim and Martin, 1978) convey that urban recreation programs provide an outlet for recognition, achievement, affection, security, harmonious social relations, new experiences, and adventure. All of these human factors currently represent unaddressed needs of today's youth, especially those residing in the urban core.

The projector's investigators, Drs. Ladd Colston and Lydia Pettis-Patton, have compiled the results of this national study in a publication entitled The Critical Impact of Urban Recreation on the African-American Community - Past and Present. Copies can be ordered through NRPA Publications ($17.00 for NRPA Members and $25.00 for Non-Members) by calling (703) 820-4940.

Dr. Colston is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. There he serves as the Program Coordinator for both Recreation and Leisure Studies and Sports Management. Professionally. Dr. Colston has over 20 years of experience in the leisure services field having worked in clinical, transitional, community, associational, and educational settings.

32 Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995

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