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Leisure Scholars : Cal State Northridge Students Discover That Learning About Recreation Requires Hard Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Studying leisure and recreation is not all fun and games.

Consider the varying theories one must weigh when deciding whether an activity can be elevated to play: Is the motivation intrinsic? Is there a suspension of reality? Is there a locus of control?

These are just some of the concepts that students grapple with as they pursue their bachelor’s and, yes, master’s degrees from the department of leisure studies and recreation at Cal State Northridge.

It’s a major whose very name often prompts a “you-gotta-be-kidding” look from the leisure-ignorant. And the department’s 100 undergraduate and 35 graduate students say they have a hard time convincing their peers that they really don’t go bowling as homework. Or that at least when they do it’s because they are conducting primary research.

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But as leisure studies professor Jan Tolan explained, there’s nothing frivolous about recreation, especially because it directly affects the quality of life.

Most people’s lives, she said, are not fulfilled by work alone.

“We have 30-year-olds having heart attacks and teen-agers committing suicide,” Tolan said. “We have all these people saying, ‘This isn’t fun anymore.’ We need to have that balance in our lives.”

Achieving balance is one of the topics Tolan addresses in her class for non-majors, “Play and Human Potential.” The course starts with a quiz that is a typical summer-camp activity. Students join hands and form a human knot, then try to wiggle free.

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The event is the jumping-off point for a two-hour lecture on the meaning of playtime. “Is play an activity?” Tolan asks.

“No,” answers one of her 25 students. “It’s a behavior.”

In other words, play is defined by how a participant feels during an activity, not the activity itself. A professional basketball player, for instance, is at work during a game, but if he joins a weekend pickup game, he’s at play. Play, Tolan said, makes work easier.

“If I know that I have time every day to do something that I just love to do, I probably will do what I have to do with more enthusiasm.”

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Tolan spreads her it’s-OK-to-play message to the masses through her general education course. And her weighty syllabus drives home the seriousness of the leisure field.

There are 270 pages of articles to read, papers to write, journals to keep and 20 hours of volunteer work required for this one class.

“We require a lot of papers and conceptual thought,” Tolan said of all the department’s classes. “That’s surprising to a lot of students.”

It shouldn’t be. After all, the department is trying to mold future park managers and recreation supervisors as well as train professionals in the growing field of therapeutic recreation.

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By most accounts, there is work to be found in leisure. The publication Occupational Outlook projected a 37% increase in jobs for recreation workers between 1992 and 2005.

Jobs in therapeutic recreation, in which therapists teach handicapped or injured patients how to pursue recreational activities, are expected to increase by 40% in the next decade, the publication said. Between one-third to one-half of undergraduates in leisure studies and recreation are enrolled in a track to prepare for state and national certification exams in that field.

Although the leisure studies major is tailored to our high-stress age, it’s been at CSUN for more than 25 years.

Health, physical education and recreation used to be lumped together, said department Chairman Robert Winslow. Now many universities, including Cal State schools at Chico and Dominguez Hills, teach recreational studies. CSUN’s department, which is part of the school of communication, health and human services, has seven full-time tenured faculty members and one part-time professor.

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The study of leisure dates back to Plato, said Prof. George Welton, who teaches the “History and Philosophy of Leisure,” but the modern movement was spawned by the National Playground Assn., which began in Boston in the late 1800s.

Tolan added that as the United States industrialized, people realized they needed to set aside urban space for children to

play.

The field also got a boost from the Red Cross, which used recreation to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers after World Wars I and II--the beginnings of formal recreational therapy.

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Moonyeen Brubaker, 31, got her bachelor’s degree in recreation from CSUN in 1992 and now is a recreational therapist at Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. She works with patients who have suffered everything from strokes to spinal cord injuries. But when she introduces herself to patients, they don’t always know what to make of their new “recreation therapist.”

“They say, ‘Honey, I’m not here to recreate . I’m sick ,’ ” Brubaker said.

But like many graduates of recreation, Brubaker must often explain her field to co-workers. “I’d tell them it’s a four-year degree, with a 600-hour internship, and with a state and federal certification,” she said. “People are just blown away.”

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While not all her patients buy into her objectives, many do see the value in her job.

“They’re in the hospital and they think they’re never going to be able to do the things they did before,” Brubaker said. “Recreation therapy opens a window.” Regular recreation also helps combat depression, she said, which can land a patient back in the hospital.

Brubaker says that some of the classes she took at CSUN were heavy on abstract theory, which, while not of immediate value, formed the foundation of her approach to patients.

The more practical part of the CSUN program is the hundreds of hours of volunteer work and internships required, which graduates and current students agree set it apart from recreation programs at other universities.

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CSUN alumnus Audrey Brown, director of community services for the city of Agoura Hills, said field work is as important as classwork. An internship in Brown’s office was particularly helpful for another recent CSUN grad, who was hired as a recreation supervisor after completing the internship.

Brown, too, said she constantly finds herself defending the value of recreation.

“Especially working in government, a lot of people see recreation as a nonessential service, which it’s not,” says Brown, 34.

Recreation facilities not only improve the quality of life and the appeal of a community, but recreation workers are on the front lines of at-risk youth intervention, she said.

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“We go in there before the police,” Brown said.

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CSUN senior Kyle Stonecipher, 32, is in the midst of completing 600 hours of required field work before he can start his 600-hour internship. It’s the work, he said, that has attracted him to the major.

“This way you could get your hands wet, see what it’s like, and see if you have the stomach for it,” said Stonecipher, who is studying recreation therapy. “Working with disabilities can be very uncomfortable for some people.”

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He now works with developmentally disabled people as a recreation leader for the Conejo Recreation and Park District. So far the experience--both in and out of the classroom--has been rewarding.

“I think my frustration will come when I’m a professional out there and realize that most people don’t realize how important recreation is,” Stonecipher said. “They have a work ethic and look at play as something totally useless.”

As he completes the program, Stonecipher has clearly become a disciple of the philosophy of play. "[Play] has a point,” he said. “It just may not be something you can put in your Day-Timer.”

The irony, of course, is that with all this work to do, leisure studies majors don’t always have time to take it easy. Nor do the faculty. Even Winslow, the leisure studies department head, admits he hasn’t found time lately for a relaxing round of golf. “Even though we preach doing that,” he says, “we probably do it as little as anyone.”

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