New Terms, Broader Approaches: Recreation and the Social Ecology of Physical Activity

By Henderson, Karla A. | Parks & Recreation, December 2000 | Go to article overview

New Terms, Broader Approaches: Recreation and the Social Ecology of Physical Activity


Henderson, Karla A., Parks & Recreation


Promoting the physical and emotional health of individuals in our communities has always been a goal of parks and recreation programs. Recent reports from the Surgeon General (US Department of Health and Human Services, 1996) have emphasized the need for efforts to promote physical health in a variety of dimensions. With the continuing focus on the benefits movement for programming and management, the outcomes of recreation for physical and emotional health has a great emphasis.

Although much has been done to promote healthy living by staff in parks and recreation departments, more can be done using new concepts regarding a focus on the social ecology of health promotion and quality of life issues. The physical activities advocated and facilitated by park and recreation departments require consideration within a new context, not only by sports and fitness programmers, but also by all individuals committed to the benefits and values associated with parks and recreation.

The purpose of this research update is to examine the concept of social ecology as it might be applied to health and physical activity issues, facilities, and programs in parks and recreation departments. Two aspects are important to consider including how social ecology might be used in a community to address health issues such as inactive citizens, and what partnerships parks and recreation departments can have in institutional, community, environmental, and policy interventions within a social ecological model. The theoretical concepts of social ecology will be discussed along with the specific programmatic and management strategies for practice that might be noted, limitations of the approach, and a brief discussion of how leisure researchers might broaden their research to examine concepts of social ecology.

New Terms

Ecology generally refers to the interrelations between organisms and their environments. Ecological concepts refer to people's transactions with their physical and sociocultural environments. Social ecology is derived from systems theory with people-environment transactions characterized by cultures of mutual influence. The general thesis of ecological models of behavior is that environments restrict the range of behaviors by promoting and sometimes demanding certain actions and by discouraging or prohibiting other behaviors. For example, if an individual does not feel sale walking in a park because of overgrown bushes all along a pathway, he or she will not go to that park. These ecological approaches can add explanatory value above that provided by interpersonal and interpersonal factors that influence people's involvement and participation.

Stokols (1992) suggested that the core assumption of social ecology related to health promotion is that the healthfulness of a situation and well-being of participants are influenced by multiple facets of both the physical environment and the social environment. In addition, the social ecological model incorporates multiple levels of analysis and diverse methodologies for assessing the healthfulness of communities. Social ecology is interdisciplinary in its approach and focuses on the active role played by individuals within communities, the development and testing of models describing the people-environment interactions, and the importance of evaluative studies.

Proponents of ecological approaches have criticized the explanatory models of health and health-related behaviors centered on intrapersonal determinants such as knowledge, attitudes, and skills and suggested they are of limited Value for the understanding of how people live their lives. Programmers and researchers must examine the context of people's lives to understand the barriers and motivations that exist. The context relates to social networks, organizations, communities, and public policies. Richard, Potvin, Kishchuk. Prlic, and Green (1996) suggested that health problems, and we might expand that to also mean inactivity in a variety of leisure pursuits, result from social structure and conditions.

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New Terms, Broader Approaches: Recreation and the Social Ecology of Physical Activity
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