FACULTY FOCUS: Pei-Chun Hsieh champions the power of play

Note: Faculty Focus is a monthly series that highlights faculty whose compelling passions, innovative ideas and various areas of expertise help weave together the fabric of Brock University’s vibrant community. The full series is available on The Brock News.

Pei-Chun Hsieh wants people to know recreation and leisure is an area of research and teaching that offers more than just fun and games.

As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and Associate Professor in Brock University’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, Hsieh focuses her research on therapeutic recreation, a form of health care that uses leisure and recreation activities to help people improve physical function, boost mood, strengthen social connections and increase community engagement to maximize their overall well-being.

This focus on helping others through recreation and leisure has always been a significant part of Hsieh’s life. Growing up in Taiwan, her family valued community service. She spent much of her free time volunteering with programs focused on supporting children through recreation and leisure.

Hsieh continued her service into her university years by volunteering at a camp for children with developmental disabilities. She recalls working closely with a child who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He was non-verbal, sensitive to touch and often didn’t sleep or eat well. After participating in leisure activities with Hsieh, though, the child’s eating and sleeping improved and he even reached out to hold her hand.

“It was a very successful moment in my life,” said Hsieh. “I found it incredibly rewarding and I could see how recreation can contribute to someone’s physical, psychological and social well-being.”

Her experience at the camp paired with her interest in the research methods learned while obtaining her undergraduate degree led her to apply to a master’s program in the U.S. It was there she discovered the field of therapeutic recreation.

“It combined my passion for helping others and my interest in teaching and research,” she said.

When Hsieh’s grandfather experienced a stroke during her graduate studies, her mother put her career on hold to act as his primary caregiver. She was inspired by her family’s experiences to pursue research on the role of leisure in supporting healthy aging and how leisure can help family caregivers cope with stress.

“I remember my mom seeming stressed and burnt out — she devoted all her time to caring for her children and my grandfather,” Hsieh said. “I wished I could help caregivers like my mother find ways to prioritize their own well-being and maintain a healthy balance between their caregiving responsibilities and personal leisure pursuits.”

Since then, Hsieh’s research has expanded to explore how therapeutic recreation promotes community engagement and a sense of belonging in individuals with disabilities.

“Some people, especially people with disabilities, may experience a range of barriers preventing them from leisure participation, such as inaccessible environments, negative attitudes from others or a lack of skills and knowledge,” she said. “As a recreation therapist, I believe it’s important to help others find ways to incorporate leisure into their lives, whether its finding ways to make activities accessible and meaningful or advocating for policy changes to create more inclusive and accessible leisure opportunities in the community.”

For those with newly acquired disabilities, Hsieh believes it’s critical to have a recreation therapist on their health-care team and she would like to see changes in the overall health-care system to make their inclusion an important consideration more often.

She offered the example of a person injured in an accident.

“Physical therapists can help them get back on their feet and climb stairs. Occupational therapists will help them perform daily activities. But eventually, they have to get back to their community and the things they enjoy,” she said. “Recreation therapists can help them do that.”

A brick-built flowering plant on top of a set of drawers that is part of a hallway bench set near stairs leading up to the second floor of a house.

Pei-Chun Hsieh finds building LEGO sets to be relaxing and satisfying. The brick-built flowers from the botanical collection add colour to her home and office.

Whether people are pursing professional help or taking up hobbies in their free time, Hsieh emphasized that leisure is “more than just having fun,” and that it’s an important contributor to people’s physical, psychological, cognitive, social and spiritual well-being.

“I hope that just like we pay attention to our diet, we are mindful about how we use our leisure time,” she said. “We must reflect on whether we are engaging in activities that promote different well-being domains, enrich our lives and allow us to flourish.”

In her own leisure time, Hsieh enjoys walking her dog, playing Pokémon Go and building Lego creations.

While Lego seems like an individual activity, Hsieh has found a community of people who also enjoy building.

“Even solo activities can help people find a community and obtain social support,” she said.

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