Crossing The Recreation Path On Reality TV

Whether we admit it or not, most of us have watched a reality-TV show.

A few years ago, I received a call from the producer of the FOX reality show, “Trading Spouses.” The premise of the show is to have the moms from two different families switch places. After sheepishly admitting I had never seen the show, I nonetheless agreed to turn in the paperwork.

Before we knew it, my husband Allan and I, along with our 15-year-old daughter Sondra, were in Los Angeles being “screened.” This meant three days of psychological testing (I guess we passed), drug testing, extensive background reviews and creativity testing in front of 15 producers.

Evidently they felt we were “reality-show-worthy” because soon I was flying cross-country to live with a family of complete strangers while that mom flew to live with Allan and Sondra. For the first two days, each mom lives the lifestyle of her new family. On the third day, each mom says, “Now, we’ll do things my way!” And, just to answer the number-one question I am asked … no! I did not sleep in the same room with the man of the house!

Spending the week with complete strangers who have a totally different lifestyle was an eye-opening experience. I learned several things that apply to the recreation field:

1. Not every family sees the importance of positive recreational activities.

My “new” family had three children who had never signed up for a parks and recreation program. The family didn’t attend free concerts, Halloween carnivals or even a street fair three blocks from their house. No one attended dance classes, Spring Break day camps or craft classes. In fact, the 8-year-old girl didn’t even have construction paper and markers for simple art projects. Basically, they spent all their time watching videos and TV.

When I brought out my arts-and-crafts projects, the dad cussed at me for the stupidity of my idea. I insisted we go on a family hike and again, the dad used obscenities to express his displeasure at having to take a walk. The kids were so out of shape that a consulting doctor for the show cancelled the hike halfway through. (This was a hike popular with mothers and preschoolers!)

Lesson learned:

There is a huge, untapped market of families who can benefit from recreation programs. These families don’t look at “Leisure Guides” or school fliers describing various programs. The challenge is to reach these families through untraditional avenues.

2. Sometimes you have to be direct.

As recreation professionals, we strive to be polite, tactful and, of course, politically correct. During my 25 years in the field, I’ve held my tongue as I watched parents put undue pressure on their kids at sporting events. I’ve kept quiet when parents berated children, saying, “Why can’t you get that bean bag in the box? You are so uncoordinated.”

After living with a dad on “Trading Spouses” who constantly belittled his children, I realized he needed to hear the truth. When I suggested he spend an hour doing something fun with his daughter, he said, “Why? I don’t like being with her. She talks too much and is hyperactive.” His daughter was seated next to him!

His son wanted to go to a natural history museum but again, the dad said (on camera), “Only sissies go to a museum. Want me to hold your hand like a little girl as we go to the museum?”

While it was outside my comfort zone, I did talk to the dad alone at dinner one night. Calmly, but also directly, I told him how damaging it was to constantly call his “tween” son “sissy,” “girly,” “goody goody” and some unprintable descriptions.

His actions and language were detrimental to his daughter’s self-confidence. When he repeatedly told her, “You are a lousy reader,” it was no wonder she didn’t like to read.

I was blunt, but felt he needed to hear the truth since his wife was scared to talk to him about how he treated her and the kids. He wasn’t pleased with what I said. Yet, in the last scene of the show, he admitted, “I know I need to change, or my kids will hate me, and my wife will leave me.”

Best of all, a year after the show, he’s allowing his son to take drama classes, and is being more positive towards his daughter!

Lesson learned:

At times a blunt approach is needed after traditional reprimands fail. For instance, when an employee is habitually late, gentle reminders such as, “Gee, Terry, it would be nice if you came to the staff meeting on time,” need to be replaced with direct statements and facts.

I once had the awkward job of telling an employee that her habit of putting her finger in her nose, and then in her mouth, was socially unacceptable. She replied, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me that before?” In the case of my reality-TV family, the mom later told me, “I can’t believe you told him those things. He’s such a bully that even his friends don’t stand up to him.”

3. People need opportunities to “sample” activities.

For many people, it’s no problem to sign up for a 12-week fitness class or six weeks of dance lessons. But in the case of my “new” family, any new experience was threatening. I gave them opportunities to “sample” games and activities that didn’t require a long-term commitment. (OK, I insisted they try some activities!) I brought out a parachute and had them play some games with friends. Ten minutes of activities resulted in, “Hey! That was fun!”

Another day, I brought out my crafts, and we made kaleidoscopes. At first the dad simply sat and cussed, but after a few minutes he actually got involved and decorated his kaleidoscope while the kids kept asking for more projects. Thank goodness I had packed my suitcase with all types of craft kits and supplies.

After the dad and I went on a short hike, he said, “I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’ll bring my wife on this hike.”

Lesson learned:

Perhaps recreation programs can be designed as “samples,” where people can try a class or activity before signing up for a longer commitment. One department offered a chance to paddle a kayak in a small pond before signing up for a four-week class. People overcame their hesitancy to take other classes after actually trying out the kayak.

4. A positive attitude can change lives.

On almost every episode of “Trading Spouses,” the camera zooms in on the two moms crying and saying, “I can’t take this pressure. I miss my family. I can’t stand this lifestyle, etc.” In my case, the producers saw I was having too much fun to become upset and cry. They even asked my husband, “What situation would make Silvana break down and cry?” (He rolled his eyes and wished them luck.)

The producers put me in what they thought were stressful situations. They took me to play golf, which I had never done. There was no stress there because I just organized golf-cart races with the kids.

Later the producers took me to the local jail to handle paperwork in releasing prisoners. Yes, I was sitting next to prisoners … but I was also with a cameraman, a sound guy and two armed guards.

When my TV-show daughter spilled a glass of water at a restaurant, she cringed, knowing her dad would yell. Before he had a chance to say anything, I simply said, “Look, some water spilled. Watch what you can do.” I went to a waiter, asked for a rag, and within two minutes, the water was wiped up. It sounds so simple, but for this family, a spilled glass of water usually resulted in harsh words and tears from the kids.

I tried to show that a positive attitude reduces stress. When the son wanted to be involved with drama but felt intimidated by his dad, I took him to a drama class. With positive encouragement from the teacher, the son gained enough confidence in his theatrical skills that he is now starring in school plays and even college productions.

Lesson learned:

As recreation professionals, we all know the importance of being positive, yet it’s easy to forget how life-changing a few kind words or even an enthusiastic high-five can be. For children (and adults) with low self-esteem, just being around a positive leader or coach can give them the confidence to move forward in life.

5. Certain uniforms command respect.

OK, this is a silly lesson, but it sure was fun. A few weeks ago, my husband and I were part of another reality show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Improvement.” Soles4Souls, the charity we work for, donated hundreds of shoes to the family who received a new house. This meant we were on-site all week, and were able to help with construction and even some deconstruction.

At one point, a producer looked at me and said, “Can you work safety?” I had no idea what that meant, but I assumed it was more fun than pulling out rusty nails from molding that I was doing. “Sure, I can work safety!”

Within 30 seconds of donning my fluorescent-orange safety vest, people looked at me with complete respect. Just for fun I walked past a group of volunteers, saying “Step back, please,” and they moved! Wow! For the next three hours I made sure only “approved” volunteers were allowed into the new house. I also controlled when skip-loaders entered the designated work area. Heck! I even told the stars of the show, Paige and Michael, where they could walk. All because of an orange vest!

Lesson learned:

Wearing a simple uniform can give you an undeserved sense of power. Don’t underestimate the power of a recreation professional!

Silvana Clark has over 20 years experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects. She presents keynotes and workshops on a variety of recreation-related subjects. She can be reached at (615) 662-7432 or via e-mail at