Avoiding Purple Leisure

by Mary Hrovat

Patricia Ardovino's background is unusual for a graduate student: she has twenty two years of experience in planning and implementing programs for people with mental retardation who are considered at risk or who have been criminal offenders. Her work experience includes seven years in Ohio and fifteen years in Memphis, where she provided recreation programs for children, young adults, and elderly individuals who are mentally retarded. When she left her job to return to school, she was directing the Raymond Skinner Center, which provided recreation opportunities to people of all ages with a variety of disabilities. Ardovino, currently in her third year in the doctoral program in human performance in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Indiana University Bloomington, is majoring in leisure studies with a minor in criminal justice. Her background gives her insight as she explores the question of what role leisure activities play in the lives of potential offenders who are mentally retarded and people who are mentally retarded who are incarcerated.

Ardovino describes the link between mental retardation and risk of delinquency as indirect. There is not so much a link between the retardation itself and criminality, as there is between lower income levels and unstable family situations and both retardation and criminality. Mental retardation adds another level of risk to young people's lives, making it even more vital for them to receive support to keep them from drifting into trouble. An important task for people who work with youths who are at risk is to find activities to substitute for so-called "purple" recreation (harmful or thrill-seeking behavior such as vandalism). In Memphis, Ardovino worked with people who are mentally retarded and who had been convicted of crimes ranging from sex offenses and homicide to drug use and drug dealing, and occasionally vandalism and underage alcohol use.

Ardovino's ideas about how to help people stay out of trouble revolve around two concepts. First, it is important to ask what people who are mentally retarded want to do with their time. Caregivers tend to assume they know what's best for the mentally retarded, Ardovino points out, but individuals who are mentally retarded need to be allowed to express for themselves what they want, rather than have caregivers always decide for them. The key to avoiding purple recreation is to "go with something an adolescent enjoys and build around that," she says. The second crucial point, once an area of interest is found, is to promote mastery in that area. In such an activity as bowling, this mastery might include elements like using public transit to get to the bowling alley and negotiating the rental of equipment.

An advantage to the discipline of leisure studies, Ardovino feels, is that it can include any field in which a person has an interest, from bird- watching to astronomy to anthropology. The important thing is to use existing areas of interest so that a person can find meaningful activities to fill leisure time. Often young adults who are mentally retarded lose touch with social networks that can help provide stability; after about the age of sixteen, many leave school and become disconnected from opportunities for positive activity. In her work in Memphis, Ardovino says, she found sports to be useful because they are something many people enjoy, and they can help provide stability in people's lives. Training, practice, and competition offered a structure in which the therapeutic recreation specialists could see the mentally retarded several times a week making it easier to ensure that they maintained contact with people who could help them.

Ardovino's research and classwork at IUB draw upon three disciplines: study of the mentally retarded, criminal justice, and recreation studies. A great deal of research has been done on each of these three fields, as well as the areas where any two of them overlap. She is blazing a trail, however, in the study of where all three intersect. She is still taking classes and working on a literature search, but already the professors with whom she works are enthusiastic about and supportive of her efforts to tie the three fields together. Ardovino hopes her work will eventually help people responsible for planning programs for the mentally retarded and be useful to scholars in all three fields of study. When she has completed her doctorate, she thinks she would like to teach at the undergraduate level, especially if she could combine that with work on a recreation program for the mentally retarded in an urban community, blending elements of her past work experience with the scholarship and teaching experience she is gaining at IUB.

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