CFLE in Context: Family Life Education through Recreation

by Sarah Taylor Agate, M.S., CFLE
Content Area
Internal Dynamics of Families

I love my family. I love all families. As I considered what to study as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I knew that I wanted to do something to help families. I believe that a strong society is a result of strong families, and felt that this was the most important area in which I could be involved. After completing my bachelor's degree in Home and Family Living, I planned to continue on to graduate school in Family Studies. One day, by chance, I came across a graduate program entitled "Youth and Family Recreation" which seemed a perfect fit for me. Helping strengthen families through recreation…I loved the idea and enjoyed studying recreation as a means of helping families. I am now a doctoral student at Clemson University in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management department, with an emphasis in community and family recreation. Through both the research and teaching opportunities I have had, I have explored ways to help families experience the benefits of family recreation and have also had the chance to participate in some exciting recreation programs aimed at strengthening families.

The benefits of family recreation have long been studied by researchers, but recreation has sadly been under-utilized in attempts to strengthen families. Over seventy years of research has consistently reported positive relationships between family recreation and a variety of positive family outcomes when examining recreation

and leisure patterns among families (Hawks, 1991; Holman & Epperson, 1989; Orthner & Mancini, 1991). Recent research has demonstrated that family recreation and leisure are associated with several positive outcomes in family interaction, satisfaction, and stability (Driver, Brown, & Peterson, 1991), such as increased satisfaction with family life (Zabriskie & McCormick 2003), increased collective efficacy (Wells, Widmer, & McCoy, 2004), improved communication (Huff, Widmer, McCoy, & Hill, 2003), and increased family cohesion, adaptability, and overall family functioning (Agate, Zabriskie, & Eggett, 2007).

Family recreation plays an important role in the lives of many families. Shaw and Dawson (2001) have stated that family leisure is purposive in nature, and that parents "consciously and deliberately" plan and facilitate family activities to improve family relationships. Recognizing the disintegration of families and many parents' attempts to preserve their family relationships, they emphasized the importance many parents place on family recreation by stating that it is often with a "sense of urgency" that parents try to spend time together with children participating in family activities. Couchman (1988) claimed that leisure is perhaps the single most important force in developing cohesive, healthy relationships between husbands and wives and between parents and their children, and Holman and Epperson (1989) stated that both families and professionals see joint leisure time as an important element in promoting marital and family quality. Helping strengthen families through family recreation has become the goal of my teaching and research, and I have consequently had many exciting opportunities to see what family recreation can do for families in real life situations.

I have taken (and am currently involved in) a few different approaches to strengthening families through family recreation. One of these approaches has been through my teaching. For the past four years, I have taught Program Management courses, Research Methods courses, and Family Recreation courses. In all of these undergraduate classes, it has been exciting to be involved with my students as they have both planned and carried out recreation programs for families and as they have carried out research projects examining different aspects of family recreation and identifying ways to help more families experience the benefits of these experiences.

In my Program Management class, my students spend the semester learning the different components of planning a recreation program, and then plan and conduct a program of their own. Many of the students from that class planned and carried out recreation programs for families. Students have targeted their programs toward many groups, including single-parent families, families with young children, families with children with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged families. It has been exciting to see parents and children enjoy positive recreation experiences together, and to see my students discover that they have the knowledge and power to provide and facilitate such experiences for families.

Research Methods has historically been a daunting and even an un-enjoyable class for many undergraduate students. Many of the students in my classes, however, have taken the opportunities to use their research projects to help families and professionals who work with families. My students have completed research projects on topics such as satisfaction with recreation and marital satisfaction, recreation in single-parent families, leisure of mothers with young children, and ways of improving family programming at family camps. Many of these undergraduate students presented their research at national conferences (including NCFR) in an effort to help make practitioners who work with families aware of the potential benefits that family recreation can have for different types of families and society as a whole. Again, it has been rewarding to see my student realize that they can make a difference in helping to strengthen family relationships.

Family Recreation is a course taken by both recreation and family science students. In this course we discuss the importance of family recreation, potential benefits and possible negative aspects of family recreation, constraints families face when it comes to participating in activities together, and what can be done to help families negotiate those constraints to family recreation participation. Students in this course complete a final project in which they are challenged to come up with a means of helping families experience the benefits of family recreation. Students have done a wide variety of projects, including teaching families the importance of recreating together, planning programs for families to participate in at the community-level, and contacting senators and members of congress to solicit their support to provide opportunities for family recreation for disadvantaged families.

My research has also provided me with another avenue to strengthen families through recreation. While a graduate student at both BYU and Clemson, I had the opportunity to participate in several research projects examining different aspects of family recreation, as well as the impact of recreation in various types of families. Research that I conducted with some of the faculty included investigating recreation as it relates to family functioning in single-parent families, exploring fathers' view of family leisure, understanding the ways that outdoor adventure activities impact marital satisfaction, building family resiliency in military families through family recreation, and the influence recreation has on family functioning in general. All of these projects (some colder than others…the outdoor adventure couples' study including sleeping in snow caves)have helped me not only to gain further insight into the positive aspects of family recreation for families, but allowed me to present my findings to those who work with families and teach them about new avenues for helping families.

While some of my teaching and research has been geared towards providing family service and recreation professionals with information to help families, it has been a wonderful experience to also actually work with families and couples and see the change that can come into their family relationships through participating in recreational experiences together. For example, some of the students from one of my Program Management classes facilitated an activity for families with children with disabilities. It was Halloween time, so they held a Halloween party for some families in the community who had a child with a disability. Parents and children who frequently are un-involved in community activities were able to come and participate in activities that were suitable for a wide range of age groups and abilities with trained staff. Beyond participating in an enjoyable activity for all family members in which they were able to enjoy being together and strengthening their relationships, parents were also able to connect with other parents in the community who were in situations similar to their own.

Another one of my favorite experiences was when I was conducting research examining the impact of outdoor adventure activities on marital satisfaction. The professor with whom I was working and I took several couples on outdoor adventure activities including cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and cooking outside, and building/camping in snow caves. It was interesting to not only observe the couples interact in the various activities, but especially to hear them reflect on what they were learning about communication and problem-solving both from doing these activities and from each other in the focus groups that we held. Although we were doing a simple study, it was amazing to watch the change that was occurring for these young couples over the course of a few months as they were learning to handle challenging outdoor experiences together, and then translate those skills into dealing with challenges in their marriage and everyday life.

In my current dissertation research, I am working on developing a framework for family recreation programming to help all family members enjoy and experience the benefits of family activities. Often times, family recreation is more work than recreation. This is especially the case for mothers (Trussell & Shaw, 2007). I am examining what family members and recreation service providers can do to decrease the stress and work experienced by parents, or possible boredom of various family members, so that all family members can enjoy the family recreation experience. The goal of my research is to help families overcome constraints to participation in family recreation activities so that all family members can more fully enjoy the benefits of these activities together.

The phrase is often tossed around, "The family that plays together, stays together." Although this may seem a silly and over-used phrase, I believe that there is immense potential for positive outcomes through family recreation. I have seen it not only in my own family, but in countless families I have come in contact with through my teaching and research opportunities. Using family recreation to strengthen families is the avenue I have chosen to help families in my little sphere of the world, and I hope to be able to spend the coming years helping many families deepen their relationships through meaningful experiences together.


Agate, S. T., Zabriskie, R., & Eggett, D. (2007). Praying, playing, and successful families: An examination of family religiosity, family leisure, and family functioning. Marriage and Family Review, 42(2), 51-75.

Couchman, R. (1988). Leisure: A dynamic of family life. Visions, 1(3).

Driver, B.L., Brown, P., & Peterson, G. (Eds.), 1991. Benefits of Leisure. State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

Hawks, S. R. (1991). Recreation in the family. In S. J. Bahr (Ed.), Family research: A sixty year review, 1930-1990 (pp. 387-433). New York: Lexington Books.

Holman, T. B., & Epperson, A. (1989). Family and leisure: A review of the literature with recommendations. Journal of Leisure Research, 16, 277-294.

Huff, C., Widmer, M., McCoy, K., & Hill, B. (2003). The influence of challenging outdoor recreation on parent-adolescent communication. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 37(1), 18-37.

Orthner, D. K., & Mancini, J. A. (1991). Benefits of leisure for family bonding. In B. L. Driver, P. J. Brown, & G. L. Peterson (Eds.), Benefits of leisure (pp. 215-301). State College, PA: Venture.

Shaw, S. M., & Dawson, D. (2001). Purposive leisure: Examining parental discourses on family activities. Leisure Sciences, 23, 217-231.

Trussell, D. E., & Shaw, S. M. (2007). Daddy's gone and he'll be back in October. Journal of Leisure Research, 39(2), 366-387.

Wells, M. S., Widmer, M. A., & McCoy, J. K. (2004). Grubs and grasshoppers: Challenge-based recreation and the collective efficacy of families with at-risk youth. Family Relations, 53(3), 326-333.

Zabriskie, R. B., & McCormick, B. P. (2003). Parent and child perspectives of family leisure involvement and satisfaction with family life. Journal of Leisure Research, 35(2), 163-189.

Sarah Taylor Agate, M.S., CFLE, received her bachelor's degree in Family Science and her master's degree in Youth and Family Recreation at Brigham Young University. She is currently a doctoral student at Clemson University in the department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.