Primarily Speaking

Recreation must be action-based--even competitive--to qualify as a legitimate way to spend one’s resources (time, energy, money). While softball, soccer, volleyball and tennis leagues and tournaments promote teamwork, respect for opponents and goal-oriented thinking, the development of true friendship and camaraderie among participants may be only a happy coincidence, not the intended result. When the attitude is “Just win, baby,” the competitive aspect trumps an activity’s social potential.

In contrast, the concept known as “social recreation” (Ford, 1974, in Edginton, et al., 2004) emphasizes relationship-building outcomes, using recreation as the vehicle for achieving social goals. In other words, the participants’ well-being and eventual fulfillment take precedence over the game, not the other way around.

For example, in tournament bridge play, table talk is not only discouraged, but illegal. Even the bidding is accomplished by writing on paper to minimize clueing between partners. At a bridge party, however, a hand may take a half-hour to finish, as the players have side conversations while the tricks play out.

Planning for social recreation programs differs from competitive formats as well because the structure or sequence is not as highly influenced by the rules of the activity itself. Figure 1 illustrates the five steps comprising Ford’s original Social Recreation Curve model, while the letters A, B and C represent necessary additions.

The 1, 2, 3’s Of Social Recreation

Steps 1 through 5 illustrate the typical sequence, beginning with participants entering the activity area, intermingling, actively participating, “cooling down” and finally leaving the area. During each of these steps, the programmers concern themselves with ensuring that participants feel welcomed, comfortable and appreciated.

· As the first participants enter (and someone has to be first), available staff should be on hand to greet them warmly--and promptly--to eliminate any possibility of awkwardness or hesitation. The entryway should be clearly marked and appropriately decorated, with room enough to appear inviting without being either too empty or too cramped. Formal registration tables should be positioned in full view, but outside the primary circulation pattern.

· When additional participants arrive, staff should personally introduce the newest to those already present, and provide conversation-starters to eliminate awkward silences. Staff should mingle among participants continuously, as opposed to congregating in their own clique. When people begin to fill the entryway, staff should usher participants into the closest activity areas, careful to keep participants near each other to facilitate conversation and interaction. If the activity area is particularly large, it should be partitioned tastefully to contain the participants in close proximity, and progressively enlarged as the crowd grows.

· After the majority--or sufficient number--of participants has assembled, the staff can facilitate more structured activities (mixers or ice-breakers), or proceed directly to the main activity. Likely, this stage will be the most structured, but only to the extent that the activity requires. In the bridge party example, participants can be assigned to tables, but each foursome can control the pace of play and the amount of interaction. As tables finish, participants can visit with others who also have finished, visit the buffet table, or partake of an alternative (short) activity. If a time limit is necessary (a social doubles tennis round-robin, for example), attention is drawn more to “who is playing together next” rather than on what the score happens to be (if score is being kept at all).

· After the main event comes to a close, the passive recreation stage allows participants to interact on the basis of the interpersonal connections formed during the activity stage. This stage may be held in a separate space, with the staff continuing to circulate among the participants, serving their needs. Again, the area should be just large enough to comfortably contain the group. If seating is involved, the number of chairs should closely match the number of participants; too many chairs may encourage “splintering” and clique-forming.

· Staff involvement during the ending stage is crucial. Personal farewells, a hearty thank-you--and a parting momento if appropriate--are essential. However, as the anecdote goes, it’s not over until it’s over, and it doesn’t begin until it starts. This is where the ABCs come into play.

And The ABCs

What the original Ford model didn’t discuss are the elements that both precede and follow the Social Recreation Curve. Neglecting to account for these three components diminishes a programmer’s potential for successful implementation and the ability to sustain the activity over time.

· “A” is for awakening potential participants’ awareness. Obviously, if no one knows about the activity, no one will cross your doorstep. Successful programmers have determined beforehand (through identification and assessment) both the need for the proposed activity and the (social) network utilized to spread the word.

· Social recreation especially is amenable to “B,” the “buzz,” so heightening anticipation and expectation benefits programmers and participants alike by injecting excitement and motivation into the mix. As a result, more people will show up--and arrive less fashionably late--not wanting to miss a minute. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.

· “C” stands for creating meaning. While success might be measured by smiles on participants’ faces during the activity stages, the ultimate goal of social recreation--like that of all leisure programming--is to evoke among the participants a feeling of fulfillment derived from the sense of connectedness to other human beings: making a positive difference in each others’ lives. Before the activity truly is over, an opportunity for participants to reflect on and express their fulfillment ensures that meaningfulness has been achieved (and those who have found meaning will return seeking more).

Although competition-based activities are parks and recreation programming mainstays, a perceptive manager remembers that the “social” aspect inherent in recreation is the glue that holds programs--and the communities in which they occur--together.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at

Work cited:

Ford, P. M. Informal recreational activities. Bradford Woods, Indiana: American Camping Association, 1974.