Special Reports

Teach students benefits of positive leisure time use

Throughout their undergraduate experience, students make decisions about time and ways to use it.

Every day, these young people weigh their schedules deciding what time to devote to academics, how many hours to allocate to sleeping and personal maintenance and what to do with their leisure or free time.

Research shows that college student free time ranges from less than five hours per week to more than 100 hours per week.

So who cares about college student use of free time? With so many other important problems in Centre County and beyond, isn’t examining student use of leisure time frivolous when the real issue is getting students to study more?

First, let’s look at a misconception about leisure. Leisure or free time is often narrowly thought of as kicking back, relaxing, taking it easy. But leisure is far more.

Leisure is self-determination, identity development and empowerment. Think of how great you felt after hitting a home run in Little League baseball or after coaching participants for the Special Olympic Summer Games.

Leisure is social engagement and social support; time with loved ones, friends and family filled with healing banter and laughter.

Leisure is designated time. Camping weekends and annual beach holidays come to mind, replete with anticipation, shared memories and important time for reflection.

Leisure is distractions like lunch with friends and jokes around the office coffee pot, times that foster positive emotions, improve mood, encourage optimism and help us cope with daily hassles.

Leisure is ritualized and life affirming, like a wedding or college graduation. And leisure is years of life satisfaction from collecting memorabilia, training dogs or perfecting a fly-fishing cast.

Most important, leisure is a lifelong font of mental, physical and social health; time to foster wellness, to protect from life’s bumps and bruises and to contribute to quality of life. And, if this does not convince of leisure’s merits, leisure is big business — by some measures the world’s largest industry.

Take as an example, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. With tentacles in tourism, transportation, food, clothing and student enrollment, Thon is integral to the local and regional economy, part of Penn State’s national and international identity.

The key point, however, is that annually thousands of students give hundreds of hours voluntarily and passionately to a worthy cause in their free time.

Herein lies the important challenge of leisure for college students. On one hand, positive use of leisure is linked to identity development, increased coping skills, stress reduction, activity innovation, increased physical activity, socialization, academic and community engagement, well-being and health.

On the other hand, there is a flip side to leisure. Free time can be used negatively. Negative use of free time is coupled with eating disorders, stress, limited coping skills, physical inactivity, social isolation, aggression and violence, academic and community disengagement and excess alcohol consumption and other substance abuse.

Empowering students with the knowledge that during their free time they can take personal and positive control of their lives is, therefore, of critical importance.

It is time for Penn State and the broader community to step beyond simply providing recreation programming, encouraging volunteering, fostering collegiate sports and promoting club membership.

We need to help students understand why it is beneficial to engage in positive leisure pursuits and how to put their values toward positive use of free time into action.

Leisure has the remarkable capacity to bring individuals and communities together, or to tear them apart. The choice is ours.

Careen Yarnal is an associate professor in the department of recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State. She can be reached by e-mail at cmy122@psu.edu.