Putting Research into Practice
Validation of the Impact of Recreation for the Unemployed
by Lisa C. Pesavento Raymond and Mark E. Havitz
At the National Recreation and Park Association Conference held in Minneapolis last fall, an innovative and exciting
discussion took place. Park and recreation researchers and practitioners met to discuss pressing social problems, develop possible solutions, and examine successful programs already in
One of these problems was that of unemployment and the
impact of leisure and recreation on it. Whether your agency
currently serves numerous unemployed people or not, forecasters indicate that periods of unemployment, multiple career
changes, corporate downsizing, job searches and poverty will
impact lives of many Americans in the future.
MAJOR RESEARCH CONCLUSIONS
A number of major research conclusions were established
at the conference as well as field applications, or impact, and
questions were explored that yet remain to be answered. Overall, there were 10 major research conclusions drawn from North
American and European studies with unemployed persons.
They are as follows:
1. Recreation Participation Rates Decline
U.S. adults who are not employed participate at lower than
expected rates (based on their percentage of the total population) for all physical, educational, and arts related activities
surveyed. Post-layoff participation in organized recreation declined at least slightly in 33 of 41 activities studied. Participation dropped further as length of unemployment increased and
participation in "expensive" activities declined the most, but
participation in "free" activities also decreased. Likewise, unemployed Canadians reported overall recreation participation
declined in nine of nine activity categories. The greatest decline/highest percentage of discontinuance was in travel and
sports/entertainment. Unemployment tended to reduce unemployed people's ranges of recreational activities and their levels of leisure spending.
Parks and recreation agencies should do needs analysis
surveys that request sufficient confidential information from
their clients. Asking specifically if they, or members of their family, are temporarily out of work, seeking employment, or
underemployed and for what period of time is helpful. Individuals experiencing seasonal layoffs may be less affected than
those with structural employment. Free or inexpensive activities should be available for the individuals, and well publicized.
If this is not possible, a sliding pay scale at your facility is in
order at off-hour times of the day.
2. Unemployed Populations are Diverse
The unemployed are not a single target group, nor are they
evenly distributed among all segments of the population. The
unemployed exhibit considerable socio-demographic and geographic diversity.
Here, again, needs surveys are important. Take nothing
for granted and do not assume that top-down activity selection
or times will work. Ask the unemployed population what they
think is best and will work.
3. Age is an Important Variable
Unemployed youth in the U.S. reported generally high levels of leisure and life satisfaction. Respondents felt best about
themselves when involved in interactive activities and worst
about themselves when uninvolved or alone. However, over
80% of unemployed adolescents (not in school) viewed unemployment as an unpleasant and unsatisfactory situation—an or-
Unemployed persons who are young are not all the same.
Unemployment affects people differently. Numerous sport provisions for the unemployed have failed in Britain due to the
failure to appreciate this fact. Programs that offer activities
leading to social interaction, co-ed participation, skill acquisition and potential job opportunities, such as instructors, camp
counselors, referees and coaches, are valuable.
4. Gender and Ethnicity are Important Variables
Unemployment disproportionately affects women.African-
American and Hispanic-American populations in comparison
with other socio-demographic groups. Unemployed women
had less free time and less active leisure lifestyles than did un
Illinois Parks & Recreation* May/June 1995* 43
employed men. Unemployed Hispanic-American females participated in more public recreation programs than did unemployed African-American females. Family structure and residence type also appeared to shape participation patterns. Unemployed males participated in more leisure activities than did
unemployed females, and males were more likely than females
to report that recreational activities helped cope with the negative effects of unemployment. Parks were a primary location
for children's play, the gathering of young mothers caring for
children, swimming, fitness activity, crafts and hobbies.
Advertising is important. Traditionally under-served populations may feel that recreation programs do not meet their needs
(monocultural), are inconvenient (no child care), are stereo-
typic, and too expensive. Mass mailings to homes, housing
developments, churches and schools, or publishing activities
and fees in local neighborhood newspapers with pictures of
clients having fun are necessary. Family activities should be
encouraged as well as innovative cultural and mixed-sex events
that de-emphasize competition aimed only for young men. Special programs for preschool children need to be supported.
These programs would allow women with child care responsibilities to not only involve their families, but would free them
to concurrently attend classes. These chances to meet safely
and enjoyably with friends should be promoted at your park
5. Stages of Unemployment are Identifiable and Meaningful
Four identifiable stages of unemployment were apparent:
2) Active job search
3) Pessimism, anxiety and distress
4) Fatalism or "broken" attitude
Unemployment can, and in present-day industrial societies, often does lead to deterioration in physical and mental health.
Perceived leisure needs of respondents varied with length of
First is the concept of acceptance and support. Unemployed
individuals need to know that they are not being judged by the
leisure providers with whom they interact. Rapport is crucial.
Understanding the anger, hurt, frustration, sense of loss and
status is also necessary. Second, by focusing on the total individual, the opportunity exists to collect and share information
on a leisure interest scale. A holistic approach to leisure decision making is then facilitated by the leisure provider. Education for various cultural or physical activities and their availability, at your existing community or leisure service agency, is
6. Leisure Activity May Erase the Effects of Unemployment
Leisure activities offer independent physical and psychological benefits. As a result, if and when such activities are
sustained or developed despite unemployment, the otherwise
detrimental effects of joblessness are reduced. Respondents
felt best about themselves when involved with interaction with
people who cared about them and worst when uninvolved or
alone. Modem people have deep-seated needs for structuring
their time use and perspective, for enlarging social horizons, for participating in collective activities where they feel useful,
for knowing they have a recognized place in society, and for
being active. Meaningful categories of experience normally
provided by employment are often missing among the unemployed, and so many unemployed people struggle to ward off
feelings of boredom and isolation. Leisure programs for the
unemployed should not be limited to the leftover periods of
relatively unorganized activity. It must be serious and structured so that people may develop their potential and feel that
they are contributing to society.
Unemployed people with strong work ethic and work involvement are more likely to seek out, and benefit from, leisure participation. The nature of the activity had little bearing
on the experience of that activity with respect to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation was positively associated with subjective well-being. Since sport participation declined among
unemployed respondents who were unable to secure stabilizing factors in their non-work roles, these opportunities should
be encouraged. Needs for approval and affiliation can be obtained through team, league or group activity. Leisure rarely
acts as a complete functional alternative to employment and
may not normally resolve all the problems associated with unemployment. Therefore, leisure cannot be seen as a complete
replacement for work yet may have an important role to play in
the lives of the unemployed. Leisure providers can facilitate
the selection of rewarding leisure choices that are not based on
the concept of leisure being reward for work. Activities which
help to structure time should be offered during the day when
the unemployed find it most difficult to occupy time meaningfully and also to continue activities they were doing before becoming unemployed.
7. Some Leisure and Social Settings are More Effective
than Others for Erasing Effects of Unemployment (for mitigating negative effects of unemployment)
Goal-oriented community activities, volunteer work, classroom training, and hobby activity produced positive effects for
most respondents. Family relationships produced both positive and negative outcomes. Most unemployed individuals
tended toward introspection and withdrawal from the social
world. Those who coped best over the long term had good
support networks whereas dedication to sport may be uniquely
capable of maintaining well-being during unemployment.
Unfortunately, recreation agencies in the U.S. make few policy
distinctions for access based on the unemployed. Fees aren't
generally reduced for those in temporary need.
Emphasis on the above activities and pursuits is paramount.
Action from leisure providers includes informed leisure participation, enjoyment and modification were needed. Above
all, leisure should not be seen as remedial in nature but as a real
source of meaning and satisfaction.
8. Little is Known about the Daily Leisure Activity of
Active leisure comprised one hour per day in the schedules of unemployed respondents in Britain. Remaining free
44 • Illinois Parks & Recreation* May/June 1995
time was primarily spent at home. However, not much is known
about the day-to-day schedules of the unemployed in the U.S.
Identifying psychological needs that were provided by
unemployment may now be partially satisfied by leisure. Regularly meeting leisure activities in a park, school, or community
center may offer a formal setting for the need for structure.
Regular walking, exercising or reading may be an informal
means of creating a day-to-day schedule.
9. Unemployment is not Necessarily a Negative Experience
Unemployed youth are not a homogenous "sad and mad"
group. Some value and constructively use blocks of free time.
Unemployed African-American and Hispanic-American youth
reported generally high levels of leisure and life satisfaction.
For some unemployed people, meaningful activity is not synonymous with work. Unemployment is not necessarily a negative experience, and those who cope well tend to have high
activity participation levels and an ability to structure time.
The selection of leisure choices should not be based on the
concept of leisure as a reward for employment. Emphasis on
lifelong activities such as fitness, tennis, golf, swimming and
hobbies is important. Minimize constraints wherever possible.
Programs that will give individuals a better chance to compete
for jobs or enter programs of training and education, i.e. GED,
ESL classes, may lead to full or part-time job opportunities as
leisure and physical educators, recreation leaders and/or officials.
10. Response of Leisure and Recreation Professionals to
Unemployment has been Slow to Non-Existent
Most unemployment/leisure research has occurred in Europe. Only one percent of recreation agencies serving large
U.S. cities offer recreation programs specifically for unemployed residents. Fewer than half of the agencies offer price
discounts for unemployed residents.
This bleak support by leisure service agencies must change.
There are too few successful stories of progressive programs
that provide for the leisure needs of persons without a job. Some
of the activities done well by park district personnel for the
retired elderly may be modified for the unemployed individual,
i.e. inexpensive day bus trips, volunteer programs, music and
art classes, etc.
REMAINING UNANSWERED ISSUES
1. Supply side issues remain problematic. Most organized recreation agencies have not acknowledged the need to
segment unemployed clients from broader groups of potential
participants (e.g., low income residents). In addition, communities with high unemployment rates often cannot afford expanded recreation program offerings given accompanying budget constraints. Research is needed to better understand how to
address these conflicting issues.
2. One intervention that has the potential for helping the
unemployed to develop constructive coping skills is leisure
counseling. The therapeutic benefits of recreation remain to be
3. Little is known about the extent to which leisure sustains and improves levels of leisure and life satisfaction (i.e.
self-development resulting in feelings of confidence, recognition and social belonging).
4. The need for further research (sampling diverse unemployed populations in diverse geographic locations), longitudinal studies of the unemployed and studies of access to leisure services for the unemployed are necessary.
5. The unemployment problem compounded by school
leaving, early parenthood, and the lure of drugs and their economic rewards seems overwhelming. The use of qualitative
and quantitative methods of research with the unemployed to
provide an accurate assessment of how leisure behavior and
attitudes change over time is strongly recommended.
6. Women are different. Continued research is necessary to determine how they can be reached through comprehensive leisure counseling measures which offer encouragement through programs geared to getting them out of home-
based existences and into affordable, fulfilling leisure lifestyles.
7. Continued research to explain the variables of gender,
race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, geographic location,
etc., as they impact leisure participation, expenditure, satisfaction, services and family leisure is important.
8. Research is needed to explore interagency and agency-business cooperative arrangements, utilized to nonexistent with
respect to programs for the unemployed.
9. Controlled field experiments should be conducted in
order to assess the merits of programs targeted to unemployed
clients. Field experiments should be conducted both within
and between cities. The field experiments could measure variables as diverse as behavior, attitudes, life satisfaction, and self-
Social problems can be solved where there is action, hope
and a willingness to do the right thing. Leisure professionals
can serve as leaders in the community action movement to recognize the effects of under- and unemployment and possible
solutions through recreation. Recognizing these issues can represent an important first step!
* References for this article are available upon request from
Lisa C. Pesavento Raymond is a Professor and Chairperson for the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Chicago State University. She formerly served as
Interim Deputy Superintendent of the Chicago Park District.
Mark E. Havitz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of
Waterloo-Canada. He was formerly employed with the City of
Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the Special Facilities Division of the
Department of Parks and Recreation.*
Illinois Parks & Recreation* May/June 1995* 45