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Recreation and the Things that Matter Most

Throughout my life I’ve spent countless summer weekends at my parents’ cabin in the Uinta Mountains, where in the early days there was no electricity or indoor plumbing and almost every evening was spent playing games around the kitchen table until the generator would run out of gas.

Although there is now electricity and running water, there is no cell phone or internet service. I treasure the haven of peace and beauty it is.

Painting of a landscape with a river

Growing up, I loved to backpack, fish, camp, ski, and ride bikes. I met Eric, my husband, near the end of my first year of teaching at the University of Utah, almost ten years after graduating from BYU. When after three months of dating Eric said, “Marry me and ski for free,” I knew I’d found the right match! 

Eric and I adopted our four boys from Ghana. Our oldest boys are twins, adopted when they were twenty months old; they are now eleven. About two years ago Eric and I realized we needed and wanted to add more children to our family. In April 2012 we adopted our two youngest boys; they are also biological brothers and are seven and four. None of our boys are true orphans, so we feel blessed to have seen their birth homes and villages, met some of their family, and learned about their culture. 

“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” says that wholesome recreation is one of the principles upon which strong families are built. I also believe it is a principle upon which strong individuals are built. My involvement with recreation and the outdoors, coupled with my professional and academic background as well as the experiences we’ve had in Ghana, has shaped how I view recreation and what matters most. 

THINGS THAT MATTER MOST 

As I think about what matters most, it is relationships with others—my family, my Father in Heaven, my friends, myself—and my wellbeing. I want to focus on the importance of intentionally creating and protecting space and time for recreation that can strengthen relationships with those who matter most. Being intentional suggests we are purposeful, proactive, or mindful. It implies acting rather than being acted upon. 

Recreation is wholesome by definition and has power for good. To me, the modifier wholesome in front of recreation/ is not really needed, but it does imply certain behaviors. If we aren’t engaged in healthy or moral action or thought during our unobligated time, then it likely isn’t recreation. We may just be killing time, passing the time, or worse—none of which are recreation. 

To better understand this, let’s look at one definition of recreation: 

Recreation is an emotional condition within an individual human being that flows from a feeling of well-being and self-satisfaction. It is characterized by feelings of mastery, achievement, exhilaration, acceptance, success, personal worth, and pleasure. It reinforces a positive self-image. Recreation is a response to aesthetic experience, achievement of personal goals, or positive feedback from others. It is independent of activity, leisure, or social acceptance.1

To further illustrate, let me quote from an essay by John Tanner, former BYU academic vice president: 

I like the term recreation as opposed to, say, vacation. Vacation implies an empty, vacant time—a period of loafing, of hanging out, of passing the time. Recreation, by contrast, reminds us, etymologically, that periods of time-out can serve the serious purpose of renewal. At its best, recreation allows us to re-create ourselves in order to return to ordinary life renewed, refreshed, and reinvigorated. The highest function of play is re-creation.
. . . Let us not only remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Let us make time in a hectic, harried 24/7-world for re-creation.2

These quotes explain what recreation should be: an experience leaving us better off than when we started. If we view recreation as good, powerful, and even spiritual, we may think about our individual and family recreation differently. 

There are many reasons play and recreation matter, but I will share three.

1. PLAY IS ESSENTIAL TO HEALTHY PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT 

When Eric and I traveled to Ghana to receive our new boys, we stayed at housing by the Accra temple. 

The thirty hours we had with them prior to returning home were challenging. The oldest was inconsolable much of the time; he was scared, anxious, and sad. On top of that, language was a barrier and food a challenge. That first afternoon and evening the oldest would wear himself out from crying and fall asleep for short respites. My husband had to stand in front of the door so the boys wouldn’t escape.

That evening Sister Heid from San Diego stopped by our room to see how things were going. The oldest was asleep at that moment, and we didn’t say much, other than it was a struggle. As she was leaving she said, almost as an afterthought, “Don’t forget, you can always give them a priesthood blessing tonight while they are sleeping.” 

Sister Heid was inspired. I don’t think I would have thought for Eric to give them a blessing while they slept. Later Eric gave them a blessing. It wasn’t a blessing for them to hear, but it was a blessing for their spirits to hear and for us, as their new parents, to hear. 

I remember only a few specifics from each blessing, but two statements in the oldest boy’s penetrated my soul. First, he was blessed that he would very quickly feel comfortable with us. Second, he was blessed that he would “learn what it feels like to be a child and to play.” Hearing those words

confirmed not only that the placement was correct but also that Heavenly Father values play and family fun. 

No doubt our new boys played in Ghana. But I suspect the oldest’s play was overshadowed by work and a feeling of responsibility to help provide for his family. I’ve felt that often it wasn’t free play but burdened play he experienced. I am grateful he knows about work. Without question, work is good for individuals and unites families. But the immediate and critical task for us as parents was to ensure he knew childlike joy and had ample opportunities for unfettered play. 

Painting of a mountain landscape

On our first morning home our older boys got out some bicycles, and within a few hours our new boys felt the excitement of mastery. Not long after, I saw genuine smiles, heard laughter, and witnessed excitement; I knew the salve of play was helping to soothe sadness, assuage fears, create bonds, and develop trust. 

According to Peter Gray, a psychology professor and contemporary expert on play, “Free play is essential for normal emotional development.” He writes: 

Children love to play in emotionally exciting ways. Little ones delight in being tossed into the air or swung around by adults. . . . Somewhat older children enjoy somersaulting, . . . cartwheeling, and other forms of spinning around; . . . swinging high . . . ; climbing trees . . . ; leaping from heights onto water or snowbanks; and zipping around. . . . Children of all ages seem to have a sense of their limits in such play. . . . They take risks in moderation. The joy of play combined with a modicum of fear is the exquisite sensation we all identify as thrill. . . .

. . . In such play, children dose themselves with just the level of fear that they can tolerate, a level just below the threshold of what might cause them to freeze up. In this way, they learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them. They learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can control and overcome through their own efforts. It is practice such as this that allows them to grow up able to manage fear rather than succumb to it.3

2. PLAY AND RECREATION ENGENDER PERSISTENCE 

Persistence is defined as “voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement.”4 It is one of twenty-four character strengths identified by psychologists related to an authentically happy life. Persistence helps us become our best selves. 

We learn persistence quite logically by doing hard things; without challenge, perseverance isn’t needed. The act of much play and the demands of many recreational pursuits naturally include elements of challenge, problem solving, and complexity. Play and recreation also provide the element of choice—continue on or call it quits. Hard work, focused concentration, and diligence are often required when a toddler stacks blocks to build a tower or a child learns to ride a bike. 

I hope my boys are starting to realize if they can do hard things while at play and when they recreate, they can transfer those skills to school and life.

3. FAMILY RECREATION CAN HELP SHAPE HOW MOTHERS AND WOMEN ARE VIEWED 

Consider your mother or other women and the influence they’ve had on you. My mother skied on Utah State’s ski team. My mother taught my father to ski. Together they taught six children to ski. My mother taught me to fish. My mother reads every day. She studies scriptures and other doctrinal texts. My mother earned her bachelor’s degree in 1948 from what was then Utah State Agricultural College. 

My mother created simple traditions and experiences that still draw us home. She supported our interests and encouraged us to pursue adventures. My mother hiked with us. Growing up, these things helped me to view her as a woman of competence and confidence. Because of what I saw my mother do and be, I saw what I could do and be. I wasn’t taught fear from my mother. I was taught the world was a place to which I could and should go. Indeed, she prepared me to go and be. 

Gaining some competence in various outdoor recreation activities as well as other areas of my life has helped me to feel the truthfulness of 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Through our involvement as mothers with our families, specifically in outdoor or other challenging activities, our children will come to see that we are women without the spirit of fear. 

Through active participation in family recreation, we influence the way daughters see and value themselves as adult women, future wives, and mothers and the way sons see and value women as their future wives or co-workers. We can teach our children how to treat women and how to be treated as a woman: respecting and seeing others’ potential as well as viewing a woman as a capable partner who can solve problems, persevere, excel, and meet challenges.

INTENTIONALLY CREATING AND PROTECTING SPACE AND TIME FOR RECREATION 

Recognizing recreation’s power for good has set the stage for us to consider four ways we can more intentionally create and protect recreation. First, to make recreation, play, or family fun a priority, we have to believe it matters as much or more than whatever else we may choose to do with our “free time.” Simply put, we need to make it a priority and protect time for it. If we believe it matters, we will do it. 

Second, we can create space and time for recreation by minimizing distractions from media and technology. Often they fill time that could be used for more meaningful interactions. 

It is easy to use TV and movies as a crutch when children need something to do. For example, movies while riding in vehicles provide the illusion that we all love traveling together in the car. But movies—or earbuds—replace real communication requiring listening and responding, the opportunity for ingenuity, and the chance to learn to get along. 

In early May we were getting ready to go to my parents’ home in Ogden. A few months earlier we’d bought a portable two-screen DVD player for occasional use, and Eric asked me if I was interested in bringing a movie for the drive. 

Without hesitation I said, “No.” He quickly replied, “Good, neither am I.” Right after that, the oldest of our new boys came upstairs and asked me if I would write for him. We were hurrying to leave, so I told him to get a pencil and paper and I would write for him in the car. When we got in the car he passed up the paper and pencil to me. During the next twenty minutes he’d tell me something to write, stop and think, and then share another thought. His English was limited. As his thoughts emerged, I felt immediate gratitude that we hadn’t defaulted to a movie. This list was the first window into his heart and mind we’d really had as he told me what he liked about his new life in America. Thankfully we had created the space to allow that interaction to occur. 

Due to their pervasiveness, personal technology devices pose a much greater source for potential distraction to quality time with others than TV or movies do. We owe it to ourselves and our spouses, children, and friends to honestly evaluate our use of personal technology and communication devices and make changes as needed. 

A landscape painting with animals drinking from a lake

Third, by thinking of recreation not only as activity but also as a state of mind allows us to seek and value the rejuvenating power of brief moments of freely chosen experiences. Due to work, school, church, and family, we truly may not have much unobligated time. Often on days when I get home and am still feeling a bit stressed, before going into the house I walk down our driveway to look out at the Wallsburg valley and rub our horses. I take a few deep breaths, often express thanks to my Father in Heaven for this beautiful world, and truly feel rejuvenated by those short moments. 

Fourth, a simplified life allows more opportunities to be intentional with our time to pursue things that matter most. The time we’ve spent in Ghana as well as in villages in Samoa and Fiji has shaped our view of life—specifically how we view “stuff.” For example, at church in Ghana I noticed the children didn’t have a bag from which they could pick several toys or a small buffet of snacks. Yet somehow they got through church. 

I was also struck by the many children I saw running along with a stick hitting a rock or playing soccer with a threadbare ball on a rough, uneven dirt field without real goalposts. Their energy and zest signaled happiness to me. Recently I listened to the tender words spoken by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland describing a trip to West Africa. He said: 

These people do not believe you have to have a lot of material goods to be happy. They seem to have been able to separate in their mind that those things, goods and acquisitions, don’t have anything to do with being happy. It is an element of their faith that we would do well to copy and remember and teach. They are very happy people without much.

A simpler, less hectic, less material-based life will not leave us feeling less happy or less fulfilled. As we simplify, there will be more time and more money for things that matter most. 

CONCLUSION

In June I took our boys for a short trip to my parents’ cabin; my sister joined us for the two-night trip. While there we took a short hike to a creek. At one point the oldest of our new boys found some downed dead trees to walk on like a balance beam. They were piled higher and higher on top of each other in a U shape. At one point, when he was about five feet off the ground, limbs from a pine tree impeded his path, high enough for him to question his course. He stopped, glanced at me, and looked at the needled limbs. I was about to suggest he turn around when he squared his shoulders and sang out with conviction, “I will go! I will do!” and proceeded to step over the limbs and reach the top of the logs. 

He had a simple goal, experienced an obstacle, stopped to consider his options, and found his conviction. I hope we will intentionally use our recreation time in such a way that we enhance those relationships and aspects of our lives that matter most. I hope when distractions and challenges of technology and time, priorities and professions, media and minutia get in the path of our intentional recreation, we will stay the course to leverage the good in recreation to its full potential in our lives. 

_

Speech given by Patti Freeman

ABOUT THE SPEAKER 
Patti Freeman is chair of the Marriott School’s Recreation Management Department. This text is adapted from her BYU forum address given 17 July 2012. 

NOTES:

  1. David E. Gray, “Exploring Inner Space,” Parks and Recreation, December 1972, 19.
  2. John S. Tanner, “Labor and Rest”; https://rsc.byu.edu/notes-amateur/labor-rest
  3. Peter Gray, “Free Play Is Essential for Normal Emotional Development,” Freedom to Learn, 21 June 2012; www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201206/free-play-is-essential-normal-emotional-development.
  4. Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004), 229.

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