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Access to Recreation for Low-Income Families in Ontario: The Health, Social and Economic Benefits...

Key Message

A large body of scientific evidence substantiates the health, social and economic benefits of broad participation in recreation programs for low income families, such as:
• Increased appropriate access to existing social, health, and community services;
• Enhanced physical and psycho-social health of families;
• Increased attendance and achievement at school;
• Decreased number of behavioural/emotional problems among children;
• Increased self-reliance and enhanced life management;
• Decreased use of emergency services (emergency medical services, child welfare, police) and increased proactive use of health promotional services;
• Reduced future costs in emergency services;
• More efficient use of existing resources; and
• Increased ability of agencies and organizations to work together across sectors.”

Source

Totten, M. (2007). Access to Recreation for Low-Income Families in Ontario: The Health, Social and Economic Benefits of Increasing Access to Recreation for Low-Income Families; Research Summary Report. Toronto, Ontario: Ministry of Health Promotion.

Purpose

Growing up poor in Ontario is very expensive – we all pay the costs of having twenty percent of our children and youth live in poverty. Improving access to recreation is a smart way to reduce the health and social costs we all incur because our neighbours don’t have enough resources. Most of us don’t suffer from the profound negative health outcomes experienced by many lowincome individuals in Ontario. It’s about time we acted on pragmatic, achievable initiatives to improve the health of all Ontarians.

A large body of research on human development shows that health and well-being is linked to financial resources. Children and youth from low income families are more vulnerable:
they generally experience more physical, behavioural and mental health problems; they are more likely to be overweight and obese; they suffer more neglect and physical violence; they do less well at school, are more likely to drop out; and they experience less labour market success than people from more affluent family backgrounds. Low-income children and youth who have a positive family environment, positive community supports (e.g. regular involvement in structured, skill building recreational activities that develop self-esteem; an adult mentor who provides unconditional support and models healthy behaviour), access to quality health and social services, positive school experiences, or particular individual attributes create some protection against these risks. The problem is that many low-income families do not have the required resources and supports to promote the healthy development of their children.

Individual bio-physiological and psychological characteristics, combined with family, school, peer group, neighbourhood and community resources all determine the health of Canadian children and youth – they are health determinants. In addition to poverty, certain populations across socio-economic lines have inequitable access to these determinants: girls and young women, racial and ethnic minorities, and disabled people. These groups are doubly disadvantaged if they are poor. Arguably, poverty is the greatest barrier to achieving physical and mental health. The complexity and multi-faceted nature of these barriers calls for a public health approach to improve access to recreation for low-income families. This approach identifies risk and protective factors, determines when they commonly occur and how they operate in peoples’ lives, and helps to design prevention programs that reduce risk and promote protection.

Diverse outcomes are possible for children who grow up in poverty; individual, family, school and community factors can mitigate the risks to which these young people have been exposed. Improving the resiliency of low-income children, families and communities is a key method to reduce risks. Resilience is the ability of individuals living in adverse conditions to achieve positive outcomes.

Evidence

Ontario has a patchwork of piecemeal policies designed to increase incomes for poor families. In comparison, countries like Sweden and France have universally subsidized childcare, family allowances, parental leaves and parenting courses. One proven strategy to buffer the negative effects of poverty in the absence of income strategies is to invest in community supports such as recreation for low-income families. A large body of scientific evidence substantiates the health, social and economic benefits of broad participation in recreation programs, such as:
• Increased appropriate access to existing social, health, and community services;
• Enhanced physical and psycho-social health of families;
• Increased attendance and achievement at school;
• Decreased number of behavioural/emotional problems among children;
• Increased self-reliance and enhanced life management;
• Decreased use of emergency services (emergency medical services, child welfare, police) and increased proactive use of health promotional services;
• Reduced future costs in emergency services;
• More efficient use of existing resources; and
• Increased ability of agencies and organizations to work together across sectors.

The Psycho-social Benefits of Participation in Recreation for Low-income Families:
There is a broad body of research highlighting the importance of recreation activities in developing the psychological and social competencies of low-income children and youth. Active living is a key determinant of health status. Participation in structured recreation is a key protective factor which can act as a buffer against risk factors many young people face.

Engagement in structured recreational activities outside the home promotes healthy child development, attachment to a positive peer group, self-esteem and skill development, and is a critical method to prevent emotional and behavioural problems. Children from low-income families face many barriers to participation in school and community-based activities. Most activities have significant user fees. There has been a sharp increase in these fees for sports, arts and musical programs in schools, forcing the exclusion of many vulnerable students. Four benefits of participation of recreation for low-income families are discussed below.

4.1 Increasing academic, social, interpersonal competence:
Children and youth who have good academic, social and interpersonal skills are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviour. Participation in school-based physical activities can result in considerably healthier social and academic self-concepts, positive moods and pleasurable experiences. Participation in extracurricular activities has been positively related to later educational, occupational, and status attainment. Positive civic outcomes have also been linked to participation in physical recreation. Studies show that participation in long-term skillbuilding activities promotes positive mental health, feelings of belonging, and self-worth.

Structured relationships with caring adults can give these adolescents positive, alternative adult role models. The best formula for school-based physical education programs is one that is inclusive of the diverse capabilities of children (many options are offered so that no child is excluded or marginalized), based on cooperation, and non-aggressive.

4.2 Reducing risky behaviours (substance abuse, school drop-out, unsafe sex):
Athletic activities can act as a deterrent to antisocial behavior for the general child and youth population. Youth participation in athletics has resulted in a decreased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors. A number of studies have shown that individuals who participated in at least one extracurricular activity were less likely to drop out of high school and abuse substances than those who did not participate in any school-based activities. Female and male athletes are more likely to use birth control than non-athletes. Compared to non-athletic girls, female athletes have substantially fewer sexual partners, engage in less frequent intercourse, and begin having sex at a later age.

4.3 Reducing isolation and mental health problems:
Participation in extracurricular and community recreation activities promotes heightened selfesteem, feelings of happiness, and pro-social behaviour. Participation provides an opportunity for children and youth to gain confidence from skill development and caring relations with peers, coaches and program staff. These activities foster a sense of belonging and supportive social networks. They provide young people with routines and structure in their lives.

4.4 Reducing youth crime:
In community-based settings, research has shown that young people who have higher participation rates in recreational activities typically display fewer criminal behaviours. Children and youth who participate in structured sports have reduced rates of criminal arrest and antisocial behaviour. Structured recreation activities can also provide safe, developmental opportunities for latch-key children. These young people have reduced opportunities for physical activities and socialization due to a lack of parental supervision. Latch-key kids who live in poverty are at heightened risk to engage in crime in the absence of participation in after-school programming. Youth crime peaks in the after-school hours, and structured play activities benefit young people in situations where supervision would be otherwise absent.

Additional Information

EXSUM | public access

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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