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Leisure, also known as recreation or play, is an important category of doing that can significantly and positively affect people’s health and wellbeing. There is a growing body of research that illustrates the benefits of engaging in leisure. For example, participating in leisure may help people better manage stress, provide pleasure and relaxation, engage people’s creativity, and help them maintain important social connections that are supportive. Occupational therapists have a valuable role to play in assisting people to find and participate in leisure activities.

Sadly, the importance of leisure as a restorative and therapeutic endeavour is sometimes overlooked by contemporary service providers and funders. There are a number of reasons for this. Over time, ideas about the role of leisure have changed and currently it may mistakenly be seen as a luxury rather than as a necessity for health.

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In the time of Aristotle, leisure was about contemplation and education – a modern interpretation of this type of leisure may be the notion of self-development and self-actualisation. As concepts of work changed and there were dramatic developments in society and technology, the concept of leisure has evolved to become one that is focused on more passive pursuits such as being entertained (for example, watching television or being a sport spectator) and consuming leisure products (for example, shopping and tourism as leisure activities).

In the area of health, leisure may be seen as something additional or extra but not the core work of therapists – helping a person return to productive roles and assisting people to be independent in looking after themselves are given much higher status as therapeutic goals. However, for some peoplefull participation in work may be an unattainable goal, this includes some people with disability, people disadvantaged by poverty or homelessness, and people disadvantaged because of their geographical location (such as people living in remote and rural communities). Therefore, participation in leisure may fill the void that is left because access to work activities is blocked.

In addition, as we are an aging society, there are an increasing number of people who no longer need or want to work and yet they still need to be meaningfully occupied: participating in activities labelled as leisure is one possibility for meeting this aim. However, we may need to change our concepts about what leisure might look like when we think about the needs of people who spend the majority of their time engaging in leisure.

The leisure needs of people who spend most of their time working versus the leisure needs of people who spend most of their time participating in leisure are likely to be very different. For example, it may be quite plausible for people to passively watch television after a tiring day of working, and yet watching television all day is likely to be an unsatisfying and ultimately boring activity for people who are not working full-time. Going on holidays, attending entertainment events, or shopping as leisure might be activities that could be engaged in for lengthy periods of time, but most people lack the financial resources to sustain such a lifestyle. Indeed, for people who work none or only a few hours in paid employment, even modest engagement in these activities may be unsustainable.

The type of leisure that may be most suitable when it is a person’s main type of occupation may be learning and self-improvement. This requires active and effortful engagement. There are many types of leisure activities that fit this profile: playing sport (rather than just spectating), dancing, making music (rather than just listening to it), making art and craft (rather than just buying/shopping for products), writing and sharing stories, or learning a new language or skill (for the pure enjoyment of learning and sense of satisfaction of accomplishment). Occupational therapists can assist people to engage in this range of activities.

People can face barriers to participation in leisure activities for a variety of reasons. People may experience physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges that affect their participation (for example, low vision, movement problems, mental illness, or learning difficulties).They may lack awareness, knowledge, or skill in occupations they would like to do. There may be environmental challenges to participation such as lack of universal access to buildings, lack of access to activities at a convenient time, social stigma, or lack of affordably-priced activities. Occupational therapists have the problem-solving skills to assist people with overcoming such challenges and enabling their participation.

Occupational therapists have a valuable contribution to make by advocating for the leisure needs of people and facilitating people to be active leisure participants. They can do this as part of routine occupational therapy positions by ensuring that they assess and treat problems of engaging in leisure occupations alongside problems of doing self-care and work activities. They could also specialise in helping people to engage in leisure activities.

There are opportunities for occupational therapists to develop the scope of occupational therapy through helping people participate in leisure. For example, in the burgeoning area of aged care, occupational therapists have a lot to offer in helping older people age well through participating in leisure occupations in their retirement. Occupational therapists might also be able to assist people with planning for retirement. Deciding what to do and finding ways to participate in the activities that one is interested in can be daunting, even for people without impairments, and occupational therapists may be able to assist.

There is also a role for occupational therapists to help design, develop, and problem-solve regarding participation in leisure as part of community development, health promotion, and town planning. Geographically isolated communities can lack access to a range of leisure occupations and to redress this issue, occupational therapists could work with communities to help galvanise and organise them to develop their own local solutions, based on the interests of each community. In the area of health promotion, engaging people in leisure activities could be part of the solution for coping with the incidence of problems such as obesity and drug abuse. Occupational therapists could also contribute to town planning by ensuring that facilities and grounds in which leisure occupations are undertaken are fully accessible to the broad range of people who need access to them.

Leisure is good for body, mind, and soul. Even though it is fun in nature, health professionals may need to consider it more seriously as an important factor in helping individuals and communities achieve health and wellbeing. There is great potential for occupational therapists and other health professionals to include addressing leisure needs as part of their daily work practices.


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