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Engaging in family leisure during a new normal

Author: All Things Leisure

Posted on Jun 30, 2020

Category: Insights

Dr. Charlene Shannon-McCallum is a professor in the faculty of kinesiology at UNB who researches family leisure, as well as the relationship between leisure/recreation and health/illness. She explains why families that regularly participate in different types of activities are more likely to become a healthy, stable family and individuals - and what considerations we should take during the pandemic.

As a family-centered leisure researcher, it has been impossible to not spend time thinking about how family leisure is being impacted during the current public health crisis. Most families have experienced and continue to experience an unprecedented amount of time together with schools closed, daycare facilities shut down for all but the children of essential workers, the suspension of sport and recreation activities that normally take us out of our homes, and individuals working from home. Many of us have been home with our families (or some of our family), some are home and away from family with whom they normally engage in leisure, and still others are going to work and come home to family members who have spent more of day at home than is typical. As the way our lives look and feel has shifted, so has family leisure and the meaning of family leisure.

I view ‘family’ very broadly and see family as a set of practices as opposed to a structure (Morgan, 1996). Your family could include children (yours, others’, or none at all), a partner (or not), individuals related to you by blood or law (e.g., extended family or in-laws), and/or those who you have chosen to be part of your life whereby there are relationships of care and support. Every family’s experience with adapting to the lifestyle changes brought on as a result of the pandemic is unique.

Family leisure activities and outcomes

The benefits of family leisure have been documented. Research that has collected both parent and youth perspectives from diverse families (e.g., heterosexual nuclear families, single-parent families, families experiencing a divorce, childfree couples, interracial couples) has found that involvement in family leisure and satisfaction with family leisure were related to healthy family outcomes (Hodge et al., 2015). Further, researchers have found that certain types of activities have the potential to produce specific outcomes.

‘Core’ family leisure activities are the common, low cost everyday experiences such as sharing meals together, taking a walk in the neighbourhood, watching television or playing board games have been found to meet needs for familiarity, stability, and structure. Core activities support family cohesion and identity development (Zabriskie & McCormick, 2003). Given that many folks are at home these days, the opportunity to engage in core family leisure may have increased.

‘Balance’ activities are those which tend to be less frequent, require more planning, provide variety, use more resources and present new stimuli and challenges. Family vacations, going to a concert, taking in a special event, or hosting an annual July 1st (Canada Day) BBQ are examples of balance activities which will help meet needs for novelty and change and contribute to family adaptability.

Core and balance activities can have different levels of engagement (Melton, 2017). Some activities individuals do together with family members may not involve a lot of interaction (referred to as parallel family leisure). A core activity that would be considered parallel is watching television together. You and your family member(s) may be in the room together and taking in the same experience, but there may be limited interaction (e.g., “pass the popcorn”). On the other hand, a core joint activity would be having a meal together when family members take advantage of that time together to talk about the events and share their experiences or thoughts.

Those family experiences that tend to happen less frequently (balance activities) can also involve varying degrees of interaction. The annual camping trip that the family offers opportunities for interaction as you set up the campsite, go on a hike together, or enjoy the campfire treats. A balance parallel activity would see family members participating in an activity they do not do regularly, but without much interaction. For example, a couple may decide to take a virtual paint class. The couple is participating in the same activity, but are focused on creating their own painting. Similarly, that same couple may do a fun run where they run together, but have limited interaction during the activity.

Families that regularly participate in different types of activities are more likely to meet their individual and family needs in becoming a healthy, stable family (Melton, 2017).

Avoiding the idealization of family leisure

We are often exposed to images of family playing together or on vacation in which parents and children are smiling and seemingly enjoying themselves (Shaw, 2008). Such images tend to idealize family time and family leisure. In reality, even when families are not living through a pandemic, family leisure does not always meet everyone’s needs, is not always enjoyable, and may not lead to the positive outcomes that are often associated with family leisure (Shannon, 2019; Shaw & Dawson, 2003). Family leisure, at times, includes frustration, disappointment, conflict, and work. At the same time, working through those less than ideal family leisure experiences that support the strengthening of family (e.g., bonds, cohesion, adaptability).

Parents often have a variety of goals in mind when engaging in family leisure (Shaw & Dawson, 2001). They may see family leisure as a chance to model positive values such as being physically active or seek to broaden cultural horizons of their children. Sometimes, it is about repairing relationships (Schänzel & Jenkins, 2017), helping children stay out of trouble (Harrington, 2015), or supporting coping during a time of transition (Werner & Shannon, 2013). As a result, family leisure may not fit with way we think of when we think of ‘leisure’ – something that is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and enjoyable. Parents may prioritize short-term or long-term outcomes they believe are linked with spending time together as a family over what they may find enjoyable or that which they would choose for themselves.

Of important note is that women are often engaged in considerable behind-the-scenes work related to family leisure (Shaw & Dawson, 2001; Trussell & Shaw, 2009). They tend to be the individuals planning, scheduling, and organizing family leisure. They also tend to supervise and direct family leisure – especially when children are involved. Women may be particularly impacted by the transitions to more at-home life (intensification of nurturing roles; more facilitation of meaningful family leisure) or more requirements/considerations as families head back out into communities (e.g., masks, hand sanitizer, monitoring the need for hand washing).

Things to consider related to family leisure at this time

First, it may be important to recognize that different family members are having different experiences with stress, anxiety, and loss (e.g., social contact, participation in beloved activities, death) at this time. Individual experience will influence individual needs that may seek to be met through family leisure. Some family members may be excited to get together or to go out in community to parks or restaurants. Others may be fearful or anxious. As much as possible, be aware and sensitive to where others in family are at during this pandemic experience.

Keep in mind that the core activities (playing games, watching a movie at home) offer familiarity and stability during this time of uncertainty. Do not undervalue these home-based, low cost experiences with your family members. Family leisure that you plan to engage in regularly (evening walk, Friday night game night) can add much needed structure during a time when normal structures are absence or in flux. Also, consider whether you can incorporate regular virtual connection with family members who you normally have experiences with in person. For example, thanks to a bit of creativity and FaceTime – I have enjoyed weekly board game playing with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces who live in another province. This is a new core family leisure activity for all of us that has come about as a result of all of us being at home more.

Having novel family leisure experiences may require more creativity at certain times during the pandemic (e.g., during a lock down). Plans to head to a new vacation spot or sign up for a new activity may have been quashed. New experiences can still be created. This past weekend, my sister and her family camped in their backyard for the first time. Exploring a new trail or park in your community may offer new stimuli and variety in the way that travelling to another province/state to a park to hike may have. Planting and maintaining a garden could also be a novel experience that meet the needs of some family members.

Consider that not everyone in a family has the same needs or interests. One family member may want to be outside and active while another would enjoy something that taps into their creativity and supports self-expression. Look for experiences that may offer “something for everyone”. For example, some family genre movies (e.g., Toy Story, Monsters Inc.) seem to be created characters that both children and adults can relate to and enjoy. If it is too difficult to settle on one activity that meets everyone’s needs, do your best to choose family leisure activities that are diverse enough to meet varied needs across time.

Be aware that facilitating family leisure can feel work-like as it involves activities such as preparing and organizing the opportunities and then supervising or guiding participation (depending on who is involved and what the activity includes). Consider how the responsibility for family-focused leisure can be spread around. Can individuals take turns generating the ideas? Preparing? Cleaning up?

Finally, do not be afraid to talk about or debrief the family experience. What did individual family members enjoy about the experience (provides insight into what needs may have been met)? What would have made it better (helps with planning for next time)? Was there a “stand out” moment; what might become a favorite memory of the experience? By debriefing family leisure experience, there is an opportunity to extend a balance-parallel family leisure activity (going to watch a play) into a balance joint family activity.

For more information on references and studies in this article, it was originally published on All Things Leisure.