Gender Identity and Participation in Rural Community Based Leisure

By Tamsin F.

Think back to the prominent leisure activities individuals engaged in within your home community. If you lived in a rural setting, it is likely that the choices that were available in terms of leisure activities were a lot more limited than what would be offered in an urban setting. Within those choices, you could probably identify certain activities that were deemed more suitable for you to participate in than other activities, based on a few key factors.

In my rural hometown, population 2,327, not only were certain activities gendered, but they were also socially classed (Statistics Canada, 2017). If an individual was from a more affluent family, it was almost a given that they would participate in hockey and/or dance, beginning from a young age. It was in these two activities that peer groups were formed, and individuals gained their sense of identity within the community. In terms of gender, hockey was played majorly by males or ‘tom-girls’, and dance was dominated by female participants. As individuals grew older, there were some shared activities between genders, but team sports were always segregated by gender. If a child’s family could afford the time and extra costs of accessing the recreation services in the urban center a half hour drive away, they had increased exposure to more diverse leisure experiences; in the types of activities participated in, and the increased range of participants. This leisure privilege, however, made an individual stand out over their rural peers who did not have the same opportunities. Within the rural community, there was limited flexibility on what was available for individuals who did not fit in the traditional gender identities.

The stereotypical image of a rural community being close knit is not an exaggeration. Within small communities, pressures to conform and fit in are often extreme. Rates of substance use among youth, which can increase the risk of developing mental illness, is experienced at a higher incidence within rural settings than in urban settings (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2015). Fear and perceived risk of going against the gender norm and facing exclusion from the community as a consequence, is a very real concern for many individuals who reside in rural communities. This anxiety may translate to participation in leisure activities that is very limited in diversity and range. A serious outcome of this mentality is the negative impact it could have on children’s and youth’s experiences within sport and recreation activities. Exposure to physical activity opportunities that occur in a caring environment, where the athlete feels supported by their coach and teammates, is considered to be highly influential in the likelihood of the athlete’s continued participation and commitment to the sport (Fry and Gano-Overway, 2010). Thus, it is crucial that programs and community members, adjust their messaging and attitudes around available programs to attract new participants who may not fit the traditional ‘ideal’ participant identity.

While it is easy to focus on the negatives and simply state that there is a problem within rural community recreation structures, advocates for wellness can identify strengths and opportunities for growth within the challenges a community may face. Parents, teachers, and community leaders can all be active role models and facilitators of leisure programs that are welcoming to all individuals, regardless of how they identify their gender. Having mixed gender leagues can be one way to encourage fair play, respect, and cooperation among children and youth in a community. Another strategy used with positive results, is the inclusion of quality physical education programming within the school day so that children have a barrier free opportunity to increase their physical literacy skills that they can then transfer to activities beyond the classroom (Stevens-Smith, 2016). By shifting the attitudes of the youth in a rural community, sustainable changes can be experienced. Additionally, a collaborative approach by community members is a necessity in creating more inclusive and supportive recreation environments for all individuals who live within this setting.


Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (2015). Urban and rural student substance use (report at a glance). Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from

Fry, M. D., and Gano-Overway, L.A. (2010). Exploring the contribution of the caring climate to the youth sport experience. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(3), 294-304, DOI: 10.1080/10413201003776352

Statistics Canada. (2017). Beaverlodge [population centre], alberta and manitoba [province] (table): Census profile. 2016 Census. Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.

Stevens-Smith, D. A. (2016) Physical literacy: Getting kids active for life. Strategies, 29(5), 3-9. DOI: 10.1080/08924562.2016.1205536


8 responses

  1. Interesting post Tamsin!

    I found some of the points you made very interesting and relevant coming from a rural community and currently living in another rural community now. The idea of combining recreation services or sports for both girls and boys is a great idea I believe. This gives children that positive start in playing sport with the opposite gender and not seeing that there should be a divide between girls and boys. This also helps with participation rates. If there was a team that was not able to be functioning due to low numbers then this would help with this. When I was in younger grades our soccer program was both boys and girls together due to lack of numbers and I think we all benefited from this experience. We knew most of the boys who were on our team and this translated into recess at our school when all the boys and girls would play soccer together. Since we were already exposed to this there was never a sense of feeling of a divide or that we should not be playing together which I think a lot of children think today. This can help them later on when playing sports and also engaging in leisure and the eliminating the feeling that a space or sport is only for boys or girls.

    On the other hand, I also agree with the point you made about economic status and the sports that many people played. Many of the wealthier families made sure their boys were in hockey and would take them to many camps and special programs to enhance their ability to play while others who were part of the sponsorship program through hockey were not given that opportunity. Due to this there were many players who loved hockey but quit at a young age because they felt as though they did not belong with the other boys on the team or were able to compete at their level. This can be very discouraging or a young boy or girl and could cause them to drop out of sport at a very young age.

    Again, great blog post. It was very interesting and you also provided some great insight in how to deal with these problems that happen all the time in rural communities but many never think of in trying to help the youth.

    Stephanie W.

  2. Great article Tamsin! I really connected with this article, as I came from a small town. I felt like there were a lot of choices for me when I grew up, in terms of sports. But, since I started University, I realized that there were a lot of options as a child, but not as I grew past Middle School. See, in my town, there were tons of opportunities when you were younger, but as you grew older, you had to make the team, because sports teams had cuts. So, if you were not good enough, or you wanted to try a sport for the first time, it was very difficult to do so. In my opinion, this resulted in some of the bad choices that people my age made around me growing up.

    I loved your post about having mixed leagues, as well as having parents and teachers involved. Having those mixed leagues would bring everyone together, and allow everyone to feel a better sense of belonging. Also, to bring in your previous statement, there is that gender/socially acceptable sport in certain societies. Having the mixed leagues would allow for everyone to try every sport. Or, at least ones that might not be deemed socially acceptable for certain genders, according to society. I loved your post!

    -Danielle H

  3. Like the others i really enjoyed this article and the specific points you brought to light especially for mixed leagues, I as well came from a small community and faced a lot of the similar issues stated in your post but what was much different for me was that we had a smaller group of kids that actually wanted to participate in sport and leisure, usually only enough participants per age group for one team. So, this actually lead to myself and others in my community having mixed genders on one team all growing up until we had to go to schools in town, mind you do to this it could have resulted in less female participation overall but nonetheless our teams were almost 50/50.

    Now that i think of it my situation growing up it sets a good precedent for this issue, our teams were never unsuccessful (actually very successful) and neither gender looked out of place when we played. There are actually numerous females and males from those teams that went on to have very successful careers in their preferred sport. At the same time when i look back i recall parents and coaches of the other teams discrediting our team solely on the fact we had a mixed team. Like you stated and I agree completely with is that this kind of issue can be taken care of with the help of the parents, teachers, and community leaders (that we see more of today) educating everyone that this is acceptable and needs to become our social norm.


  4. Great post Tamsin,
    Coming from a small community myself, I have experienced the low percentage rates of sport teams. During all my school years, gym class was offered in co-ed. We were never given the opportunity to have a separate gym class just for girls or just for boys. Allowing gym classes to be co-ed can be seen as something positive. It could show both genders what the other gender is capable of doing. It could demonstrate to girls that guys can be flexible too and to the guys that girls can be just as competitive.
    Although being in a small school had its positives, eventually I had to move schools. The reason for this is because the current school that I was at didn’t have a enough female students to create competitive sport teams. A lot of rural schools are suffering because they can’t offer sport teams because their low percentage in the student body. I think if students wanted to play sports maybe they should create a league that is co-ed so students are given the opportunity to play sports. Allowing students to be active together will hopefully help eliminate the gender gap.
    -Taylor. H

    • Yo me quedo sin palabras contigo!!Este año porque no he llegado a tiempo… pero ya puedes ir pensando en lo que vas a hacer para el año que viene para el cumple de las niC0;s&#823±aÃreo que tienes unas manos que valen millones!!

  5. Great post! I also came from a small community and when I grew up there everyone knew everyone and had something to say about them. For me playing hockey growing up wasn’t frowned upon by adults as one might think it would have been however I heard many things from other girls my age. They thought it was a boy’s sport and I lost some friends because of it when I first started. I received lots of support from the rest of the community and the players I played with so it didn’t bother me much. As I got older and female participation became more popular and acceptable those who turned me away now were interested in the sport. Small town expectations are some of the barriers people face when trying to participate in a new sport. Action sports such as skateboarding or scooting have become very popular in my town in the last few years or so but when I was growing up the people in the community saw those participants as trouble makers or disruptive to the community. Once the times changed and you started to see those sports more and more on TV and other forms of sport media things started to change however it took a long time and the support of the community to become accepted.

    Brittany. C

  6. Really enjoyed reading your post Tamsin!
    I can personally relate to idea that growing up in a rural community the social groups are formed based on the most popular sport played by the members of the small school in the area. I experienced the same thing as you did with boys playing hockey and girls doing dance. I personally remember excluding people who did not play hockey from things that I was doing as a kid such as not inviting them to my birthday party or refusing to let them play floor hockey with us at lunch. Looking back at this now I regret the way that I acted and realize that I potentially had a very negative impact on their experience with sport as a kid. I now realize that the fact that they did not play hockey (if they wanted to in the first place) most likely was out of their hands entirely, barriers present for participation in hockey in my community were most likely financial based as the cost to play the sport is quite high compared to other options that were available.

    I can also relate to the portion of your post that mentioned substance abuse. I see this very often now in youth when returning to my home town as many of my friends currently struggle with addiction and substance abuse. I have also noticed a problem with substance abuse in leisure and sport settings in my home community when attending activities such as men’s league hockey where drugs and alcohol are often abused in a setting that is very inappropriate.

    Carson. M

  7. This is a great post Tamsin! Especially for New Brunswick when we have so many rural communities, this message is so important. As someone who has also grown up in a small community, I have seen the bias firsthand. Starting an all girl hockey team was extremely challenging because many parents had old fashioned values and believed hockey was too rough for girls. Although we proved them wrong quite quickly, we struggled to find athletes and coaches for the teams because of these old fashioned values. Finally we found one, however the coach had to be female and all the male teams had male coaches. Although she was a great coach, she was only allowed to coach the girls team because God forbid a woman should show a man how to play hockey. Since our girls team started at 6th grade, the girls team was nowhere near as advanced as the boys team and the community blamed it on the fact that they were women taught by a woman rather than the offset of starting times. I believe that if we had a system of gender integration, as you suggested, fair play would have been much more achievable.

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