Organized Recreation and Youth Groups

Efforts to organize children's play have predominantly arisen within the last century. It was not until the early twentieth century that children's use of their free time became an issue for anyone but the child. Throughout much of history, children's PLAY was essentially a time for aimless frivolity, left over after the pressing demands of survival had been met. Sweeping societal changes in the late nineteenth century focused attention on what children were doing in their free time and how they were doing it. This scrutiny led adults to believe that it was important for them to organize children's play and to provide structured opportunities and resources.

From Free Play to Organized Recreation

By the last half of the nineteenth century, industrialization brought about sweeping changes in Europe and the United States. As the industrial labor force organized into craft unions, working conditions improved, levels of pay increased, and hours of work were cut back. Children, who had worked long, hard hours in factories, mines, and big-city sweatshops, were freed of this burden through CHILD LABOR legislation. Increasing numbers of children and youth now had significant periods of unoccupied free time available, and they were lured by the attraction of adults' recreations, including drinking, gambling, and boisterous lawbreaking. The misuse of free time by children came to be viewed as a widespread social problem and the provision and regulation of wholesome play activities became an instrument of social reform. A number of reformers sought to develop agencies and institutions to solve the emerging social problems created by this new era in which children now had too much unsupervised play time. Public demands for increased structured play opportunities and supervision became more frequent and vociferous. The PLAYGROUND MOVEMENT grew out of the public concern, especially in large cities, that children needed a protected, stimulating, and safe place to play. Increasingly, organized recreation programs were promoted by churches, law enforcement agencies, and civic associations in an attempt to help children resist street play and commercialized forms of play such as amusement arcades. By the 1880s and 1890s, church leaders widely encouraged "sanctified amusement and recreation" as alternatives to the undesirable play forms they were witnessing. Settlement houses also provided a variety of organized occasions and facilities for supervised play. Similarly, various ethnic associations organized athletic and gymnastic clubs such as the German Turnverein and Jewish SUMMER CAMPS.

The idea that city governments should organize and provide recreation programs, services, and facilities became widely accepted, and more and more states passed laws authorizing local governments to operate structured recreation programs. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, a number of important nonprofit organizations serving youth were formed. The National Association of Boys' Clubs was founded in 1906, the BOY SCOUTS and the Camp Fire Girls in 1910, and the GIRL SCOUTS in 1912. By the end of the 1920s, these organizations had become widely established in American life and were serving substantial numbers of children and youth. A number of urban school boards initiated structured after-school and VACATION play programs as early as the 1890s, and this trend continued throughout the twentieth century. Education for the "worthy use of leisure" was vigorously supported as an important goal for secondary schools throughout the United States. Between 1910 and 1930, thousands of school systems established extensive programs of extracurricular activities, particularly in SPORTS and hobbies.

Government Plays a Role: The Institutionalization of Organized Recreation

From the end of World War II to the turn of the twenty-first century, recreation programs evolved from a relatively minor area of government and nonprofit agency responsibility to an enormous, complex, profit-seeking enterprise. In the years immediately after World War II there was a dramatic rise in the birth rate, with millions of children and youth flooding the schools and recreation centers. Within a few years, many of these new families moved from the central cities to homes in surrounding suburban areas. In these suburban communities, recreation for growing families became a significant concern. Most suburbs were quick to establish recreation departments to develop organized programs to serve children of all ages. At the same time, the population within the inner cities changed dramatically. An important development of the 1960s was the expanded role given to organized recreation as an important element in President Johnson's War on Poverty. In the mid-1960s, destructive riots erupted in a number of major American cities, and in many cases they stemmed from the overall lack of recreation facilities and programs in inner-city neighborhoods as compared to wealthier sections of the city. In an effort to prevent further rioting, many of the antipoverty programs of the mid- and late 1960s placed their emphasis on serving minority groups in urban slums through organized recreation programs. A new wave of legislation, including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1964, and the Model Cities Program of 1967 provided funding for locally directed organized recreation programs to be conducted in depressed urban neighborhoods. Hundreds of millions of dollars were granted each year to local governments to provide recreation services aimed primarily at youth, including sports and social programs, cultural programs, and trips.

In addition, thousands of governmental and nonprofit organizations also expanded their organized programs for children and youth in response to these trends. While youth sports programs have existed in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century, they played a relatively minor role in organized recreation. In the latter half of the twentieth century, organized sports programs for children and youth surged. Founded in 1939, Little League Baseball, with a televised World Series, has grown to be widely recognized. It was incorporated under a bill signed by President Johnson in 1964, and it is the only youth sports organization with a charter granted by the U.S. Congress. An estimated four million children from preschoolers and up participate in a variety of youth sports each year, organized, structured, and governed by a number of agencies, including municipal park and recreation departments, Little League baseball, Biddy Basketball, American Legion Football, Pop Warner football, U.S. Ice Hockey Association, American Youth Soccer Organization, Boys and Girls Clubs, Girls Incorporated, Boy Scouts of America, YMCAs, and YWCAs.

The Shift to Private and Commercial Sectors: Organized Recreation as Big Business

The organized recreation movement faced a serious threat in the 1970s and 1980s as the mounting cost of government led to tax protests and funding cutbacks in states and cities across the United States. In the mid-1970s a number of older industrial cities in the nation's "rust belt" began to suffer from increased energy costs, welfare and crime problems, and expenses linked to rising infrastructure maintenance costs. Along with some suburban school districts confronted by skyrocketing enrollments and limited tax bases, such communities experienced budget deficits and the need to freeze expenditures. By the end of 1979, statutory provisions had been approved in thirty-six states that either reduced property, income, or sales taxes or put other types of spending limits in place. This resulted in major funding cutbacks for organized recreation services for children and youth.

The demand for organized recreation programs and services for children did not diminish, however, and it was addressed in a dramatically new way. Replacing earlier publicly subsidized recreation programs was a growing sector that provided an entrepreneurial, market-oriented approach to organized recreation. Organized recreation became an industry, and it was made up of a mosaic of thousands of businesses directly or subtly woven into the American economy. It was argued that in order to compete effectively, public recreation agencies had to adopt the philosophy and business- like methods of successful companies. This meant that at every stage of agency operations–from assessing potential target populations and planning programs to pricing, publicizing, and distributing services–sophisticated methods of analysis and marketing had to be used.

As a second type of response to the era of austerity that began in the 1980s, many organized recreation providers resorted to privatization–subcontracting or developing concession arrangements with private organizations–to carry out functions that they could not themselves fulfill as economically or efficiently. This has become a major thrust in American life as the role of government has been challenged. Numerous public departments have contracted with private businesses to operate swimming pools, golf courses, tennis complexes, marinas, community centers, and other facilities under contractual agreements that govern the standards they must meet and the rates they may impose. Organized recreation has now moved from the public sector to the private, as profit-making businesses now provide structured opportunities for children's play and recreation. Many have decried this shift, arguing that the bottom line is no longer the healthy and safe provision of play, but rather how much profit can be gleaned from providing recreation to youth.

See also: Indoor Games; Street Games; Theories of Play.


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