Research finds purpose in making the power of play accessible to all
Recreational spaces such as parks, swimming pools, playgrounds and sports complexes are integral to a community’s overall health and well-being. Countless research papers and studies back this up. Unfortunately, there are often barriers to accessing these spaces that disproportionately affect marginalized populations.
Josephine Godwyll, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, is passionate about breaking down those inequitable barriers to access as both an academic researcher and an advocate.
“I think that we should all have the opportunity to live out our best potential, irrespective of the colour of our skin, abilities or orientations we identify with,” she says.
“For me, doing research that contributes to that in any way, shape, or form is research that is worth doing because I know that it influences lives.”
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Growing up in Ghana, Godwyll saw that recreational spaces were often viewed as accessories rather than necessities. “It’s not that people didn’t enjoy recreation. It’s that they didn’t have the opportunity, based on all the things they were grappling with, to prioritize recreation and to benefit from it,” she says.
It’s a common perspective in the western world as well, particularly among marginalized populations, according to Godwyll.
“If people are concentrating on putting food on their table and making sure they have their basic needs met, there are certain things that would be critical to their health and well-being which are important but would be pushed to the other end of the spectrum, because they’re just focused on making it another day,” she explains.
She also emphasizes that intersectionality is a key consideration often overlooked when evaluating barriers to access. Some barriers are common to everyone living in a certain area, such as a lack of parks in a neighbourhood with many high-rise buildings and insufficient green space. But others are unique to particular populations – and the complexities of how various barriers interact must be considered when planning recreational resources and spaces.
“Intersectionality thinks about the barriers people face as being compounded by the multiple layers they have to go through by virtue of belonging to marginalized or minoritized communities,” she explains. For example, while poverty is a barrier faced by many populations, Godwyll highlights that one in five racialized Canadians is likely to live below the poverty line, as opposed to one in 10 non-racialized Canadians. Certain people are disproportionately affected.
“It’s important to deconstruct the conversation beyond, ‘We all have barriers and we all face challenges’ to, ‘What are the specific needs and barriers that we tend to face if we are at the intersections of these groups?’”
Her own experiences as a double minority – black and female in the field of geospatial engineering – have given her a valuable perspective that informs her research.
“I think my lived experience positions me to better understand these things beyond just the academic.”
Godwyll knows the significance that recreation and leisure can have in shaping not just a person’s well-being but their overall path in life.
As a child she played soccer and basketball, which, in the context of where she grew up, were activities typically reserved for boys. Girls weren’t expected to be curious about or participate in these sports. The freedom to engage on the soccer field or basketball court made her fearless when pursuing other interests.
“It’s sad that sometimes we don’t make those connections between playful activities and the trajectories we end up going on. They’re all connected. For me, it started with playing soccer and not being questioned, and then choosing to study engineering because I didn’t understand that I couldn’t, and then coming to a predominantly white-dominated field and not seeing why I couldn’t pursue that if that’s what I’m interested in.”
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geomatic engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. But she says her passion for engineering was cultivated much earlier, from a source very close to her – her father, who undertook a postgraduate degree at the University of Twente’s Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation.
“My dad was the first person who exposed me to surveying, which is a key element of geomatic engineering,” says Godwyll. “I remember reading his books and asking questions and getting a lot of encouragement to pursue that specific field of engineering.”
“A lot of times we grow up seeing engineers and scientists not looking like us, and a lot of times it could narrow the options you provide to yourself or the things you think you’re capable of.”
Her particular research interests led her to Arizona State University, where she was supervised by Christine Buzinde, the first black female department head of the School of Community Resources and Development.
“That again was a very positive example in my life because I could see somebody who looked like me who had climbed to the very top.”
Now at the University of Alberta, Godwyll uses her knowledge and expertise to engage in research and consulting work and educate the next generation, helping shape a future where recreational spaces and programming will be more accessible to all.
“Positions of passing down knowledge do not come in a pre-supposed template of a particular skin tone or race,” she says. “It comes in people who have worked hard and gotten the opportunity to share whatever insights and knowledge they have.”
Godwyll is also involved in reducing barriers to accessing virtual recreation spaces through Young at Heart Ghana, a non-profit organization she founded in 2013.
Godwyll and her fellow volunteers were teaching in a Ghanaian village and noticed student attendance skyrocketed during their two-week stay. They realized it was because their volunteer team was able to bring laptops to help with their lessons. The students were enthralled with the games and stories they could engage with, which could then be linked to topics being taught in class.
“These are usually devices seen as a recreational tool, but it’s serving as an educational tool in this context and motivating students to learn,” she explains.
They quickly got to work finding a way to provide students in these remote villages with access to digital devices of their own.
While they could find a way to provide the devices, the lack of electricity to charge them posed a challenge. So they created a custom solution, the Lab and Library on Wheels System. These portable tech labs provide access to digital devices, kits, books and e-learning resources, all housed on a solar hybrid charging cart.
After researching the concept of gamification, they also created an app, Ananse the Teacher, which uses African folklore to teach science, technology, engineering, arts and math, making pedagogically rigorous material accessible with the tap of a button.
The format of the portable system means new programming and content can easily be made available, such as Skills for Her, a program that targets skill development and training for young women.
Godwyll recently received a Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award for her work with the organization, which she hopes will eventually be able to expand beyond Ghana to all communities that would benefit from access to the system.
“This cart can be a way of using already existing spaces and converting those spaces into fun recreational venues where learning can be done at the same time.”
Whether physical or virtual, knowing the impact recreation and leisure resources can have drives home the importance of breaking down barriers to accessing them, Godwyll says.
“The potential my research has to trigger systemic change, thought processes, conversations I have through the consultations I do with community recreation services – for me, it’s very practical as much as it is academic,” she says.
“It gives me purpose and meaning and a sense of working for people in order to positively have an effect on the way they experience recreation in the different spaces they engage in.”
| By Adrianna MacPherson
Adrianna MacPherson is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.
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