Recreation is the word used to describe any activity we choose to do during the time that is not dedicated to work, school, and our main sleep. In families, it is broken down into three types of recreation: independent, parallel, and joint. To help explain these three areas and how they change over time, I will give personal examples from my life.
Independent recreation refers to activities done separately from the rest of the family. As a kid, I would come home from school, strap on my roller blades, pull out my pretend light saber, and have imaginary Jedi battles in front of my house. (I never realized how silly that sounded until just now. Everyone knows Jedi’s don’t use roller blades.) As I grew older, I began running on my own time to prepare for track meets.All of this was before cell phones and internet access was limited. I had nowhere else to go except my imagination or the woods in my backyard. Whether we like it or not, times change. Facebook came out when I graduated high school and the whole world took a big turn. When I want to spend some time alone now, I can go running, read a book, or take a nap, but I often find myself surfing through my Facebook page and pressing “share” one too many times. Looking back on all of this now, much of the independent recreation I did was positive. It grew my imagination, strengthened my body, and challenged my mind. Unfortunately, the hours I spent obsessing over my new look, writing lyrics about hating the government, and avoiding my family probably weren’t the best. Time alone can recharge batteries, but when it becomes the majority of our recreation, it can be used to mask pain and hide emotions.
Parallel recreation refers to activities done with a group, but without interaction. My family didn’t watch television very often and we hardly watched movies, but every Christmas we would go to the theater to see a new release. These times brought us together and gave us something to discuss the whole holiday. The key here is that we discussed it afterwards. Sunday afternoons were usually filled with the playing of musical instruments or reading. These can be done simultaneously with my family, but I don’t have to communicate or interact at all. Again, the key is that we would come together later and share what it was we did. Parallel recreation becomes dangerous when it is used as an excuse to be together in location, but foments no discussion or interdependence. This occurred as I grew older and everyone began to have smart phones.  Now we can all enjoy each others’ company while we forget that we are all in the same room.  Once the shift was made from being together for an experience and sharing/opening up to using the excuse that we are in the same room and therefore participating together, there was no going back and it became parallel recreation.
Joint recreation refers to activities done as a family that require a high level of communication and interdependence. My family had other families over for dinner every Sunday growing up and that meant that we always pulled out the home videos, board games, or musical instruments. If the guests included a young female, my father would insist I play my guitar. If there were no kids, we played card games until bed time. On the rare occasion that teenagers were involved, we pulled out home videos in an effort to embarrass them as much as possible before they went off to college. These activities allowed us to talk, laugh, reason, and connect. Once I was the last kid at home, these limited themselves. It is very hard to find an example of joint recreation that is not positive because for the most part, they require the forging of bonds and the building of memories. One poor example I can think of is a friend whose parents used recreational drugs with their children. At the time, the child thought it was great because mom and dad allowed them to smoke pot with them in the house. It became a problem when they began to steal money to buy harder drugs and went from smoking the joint to being in the joint. They took “joint recreation” too literally.  True joint recreation should be used to instill positive values in our lives and teach us lessons. Wholesome joint recreation should bring the family back together, not give them new ways to drift apart.
My life is not a perfect example of recreation, but the wholesome recreation I did have is what made me who I am and has given me the base upon which to build my life. It has helped teach me which values I want in my personal family and what I think is important to teach my children. Recreation is more than just having fun. Since it is something we choose to do without being paid, it defines who we are. Your family should have a healthy balance of independent, parallel, and joint recreation, but remember that the end goal of each is to give the family a reason to come back together.
– written by William Heaps, CTRS, Recreational Therapist