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Culture and recreation : links to well-being

Key Message

Recreation and play are particularly important for healthy childhood development − promoting the acquisition of motor skills, social skills and creativity, and the development of cognitive functions. These activities foster psychological well-being by reducing feelings of depression and anxiety .


Torjman, S. (2004) Culture and recreation : links to well-being. Ottawa, Ontario: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.


This paper explores the importance of culture and recreation for the health and well-being of individuals and communities. It is the eighth in a series of papers written in support of the Vibrant
Communities project.

Vibrant Communities is a four-year national effort to explore promising local solutions to reduce poverty. The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation in Montreal are the primary sponsors of this initiative. The (former) Human Resources Development Canada provided funding for the policy component of this work.

Selected conveners from 14 communities across the country are involved in a Pan-Canadian Learning Partnership in which they come together on a monthly basis to share ideas, resources and strategies. They effectively scale up their individual efforts through this collaborative strategic approach.

In addition, several communities, known as ‘Trail Builders,’ receive substantial funds to support their poverty reduction work. In order to qualify for these funds, they must convene a multisectoral steering group that takes responsibility for the initiative and helps create a communitywide vision as well as a strategic plan with detailed actions. This steering group must include representatives from at least four sectors: business, government, anti-poverty groups and the voluntary sector.

Community-based approaches to solving pressing social and economic problems are not new. Voluntary action by citizens and organizations was alive and well long before government programs. What is new is the methodology that appears to be emerging at the local level – which is far more strategic than before. Funders, policy-makers and program designers have been exploring a range of approaches to revitalizing distressed neighbourhoods and to tackling other complex problems, such as unemployment and poverty. This new generation of efforts is known in the field as ‘comprehensive community initiatives.’ These initiatives are described in more detail in a related paper [Torjman and Leviten-Reid 2003]. Briefly, they seek to engage diverse sectors in working together on a collaborative basis, over the long term, to tackle a range of interrelated issues. Comprehensive community initiatives have emerged both in response to recent practices that have proven ineffective and as a reformulation of approaches to community development that have been tried in the past. They also reflect views on the changing role of government and the place that communities can play in promoting economic and social well-being.

Research evidence from a variety of fields is pointing to wide ranging benefits − in the areas of health and well-being, skills development, social capital and economic strength − from investment in these areas.

This work is also consistent with thinking on sustainable development, which focuses on the intrinsic links among economic, social and environmental well-being. While it is essential to think in three-dimensional terms, even this broad conceptualization may not be sufficient to capture the full scope of the social component of sustainable development. Culture is so embedded within personal identity that to leave it out or subsume it as part of the social dimension is to minimize its importance.


It is clear from this paper that the benefits of culture and recreation are extensive. The evidence is simply too strong and wide-ranging to ignore. Culture and recreation contribute immeasurably to the health of individuals and of communities by keeping them alive − and well.

Some of the more recent evidence given were:

Recreation and play are particularly important for healthy childhood development − promoting the acquisition of motor skills, social skills and creativity, and the development of cognitive functions. These activities foster psychological well-being by reducing feelings of depression and anxiety [Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families 2001].

Recreational programs can provide safe, developmental opportunities for latchkey children after school. In addition to building healthy bodies, involvement in recreational and cultural activities can help prevent emotional and social problems. Participation in recreation and regular physical activity has been linked to improved self-concept and self-esteem, reduced depressive symptoms, decreased stress and anxiety, improved self-acceptance, changes in anti-social behaviour and enhanced psychological well-being. Young people ages 15 to 17 who participated in organized sports, for example, were more likely to report being very satisfied with their level of selfesteem compared to youth who did not participate in organized sports (46.5 percent versus 37.0 percent) [Harman, Jackson and Roberts 2001: 26].

The impact of providing recreational services alone resulted in a 10 percent greater exit from social assistance compared to the parents of children who did not receive this service [Browne et al. 2001]. Twenty percent of parents who received recreational services for their children exited from social assistance after one year. Only ten percent of parents without services exited from social assistance after one year [Haldane 2000]. Subsidized recreation for children living in poverty appears to have a significant positive impact upon a community’s social priorities and its associated investments.

Skills Development
Recreation plays a vital role in learning and skills development. Organized sports, in particular, provide children with an opportunity to learn from coaches, instructors and mentors. Children who participate on teams learn important leadership skills and improve their social abilities, such as sharing and cooperation.

Culturally based programs in the areas of art, drama, music and dance provide a different, but equally important, means of building skills in creative thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. They foster social skills including co-operative work, negotiation, conflict resolution and tolerance for difference as well as personal skills such as individual responsibility, perseverance, self-management and integrity. Learners have been found to attain higher levels of achievement through their engagement with the arts. One study of the impact of the arts found that students with more exposure to arts instruction had scores averaging 20 points higher than their peers on measures of creative thinking, fluency, originality, elaboration and resistance to closure [Burton, Horowitz and Abeles 1999].

Other studies have found that learning in and through art can help ‘level the playing field’ for youth from disadvantaged circumstances. A study conducted with 25,000 students reported that students with high levels of art participation outperformed ‘arts poor’ students on virtually every measure [Catterall, Chapleau and Iwanaga 1999].

Sustained involvement in certain areas of arts, notably music and theatre, is highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading. The Chicago Arts Partnership in Education, for example, developed arts-integrated curricula in 14 schools in high-poverty neighbourhoods. The results found dramatic improvement in academic performance in these schools [Catterall and Waldorf 1999].

Social capital refers to the relationships, networks and norms that support collective action. It is created when people come together out of a shared purpose or goal that goes beyond individual benefits and incorporates the idea of connectedness. Social capital is built through participation in associations or social structures of cooperation – e.g., religion organizations, political parties, neighbourhood associations, sports or cultural clubs, and active participation in civic activities, such as volunteering or voting [Putnam 2000; Helliwell 2001].

The healthy development of children depends in large part on the social context in which they grow up. Neighbourhoods with high levels of social capital tend to be good places to raise children [Putnam 2000: 307]. Connections through trusting networks and common values enforce positive standards for youth and provide them access to mentors, role models, educational sponsors and job contacts. Culture and recreation provide the means to build social capital. They can take the form of arts or recreational programs, and community events or celebrations such as festivals, parades and block parties. Community events, in particular, help keep neighbours in touch with each other and reinforce the relationships that make neighbourhoods strong. Participation in cultural and recreational programs have been found to promote social connectedness in communities and shape civic behaviour later in life.

In one study, for example,  respondents who played in organized team sports as children were almost twice as likely as an adult to be a member of a board or committee − 11.3 percent compared to respondents who did not participate in organized sports (6.0 percent) [Harman, Jackson and Roberts 2001: 24].

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Leadership Provided By:

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

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  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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