For Serious Students of Recreation, Leisure Time Belongs to Someone Else : Education: University program teaches that play is what makes work easier. And there are jobs in the growing field.


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 master’s degrees from the department of leisure studies and recreation at Cal State Northridge.

It is 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 do not go bowling as homework. Or that at least when they do it’s because they are conducting primary research.


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.

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.”

Tolan spreads her it’s-OK-to-play message 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.

“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.

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 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 a high-stress age, it has been at Cal State Northridge 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. Northridge’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.

Although the study of leisure dates back to Plato, said professor George Welton, 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 that 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.

Moonyeen Brubaker, 31, got her bachelor’s degree in recreation from Northridge 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 do not 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.”

Although 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.”

Brubaker says that some of the classes she took at Northridge 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 Northridge program is the hundreds of hours of volunteer work and internships required, which graduates and students agree set it apart from recreation programs at other universities.

Northridge alumnus Audrey Brown, director of community services for the city of Agoura Hills, said that fieldwork is as important as classwork. An internship in Brown’s office was particularly helpful for another recent Northridge graduate, 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,” said 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.

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

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

Right now he works with developmentally disabled people as a recreation leader for the Conejo Recreation and Park District. He finds the experience 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.”

The irony is that with all this work to do, leisure studies majors do not always have time to take it easy. Nor do the faculty. Even Winslow, the department head, admits that he hasn’t found time lately for a relaxing round of golf.

“Even though we preach doing that,” he said, “we probably do it as little as anyone.”