Breaking Down Barriers: Understanding the Barriers Low-Income Families Face

Families living in poverty face many barriers that limit their recreation participation – this is nothing new. But a better understanding of some of these barriers allows ROC to continue to reduce them using effective approaches and helpful advice from ROC parents. Many of the barriers faced by ROC families are closely connected to each other. The information in this post was gathered using observation reports, pre-assessments, interview data, and staff reflections. Below are the eight most common barriers ROC families face. 

  1. Finances. A limited income was the most common barrier noted by parents and many children. This is directly related the limited recreation experiences families have prior to joining ROC. With the income they do have, parents must often make difficult choices about which necessities to provide this month and which will have to wait. Recreation activities for the children is rarely viewed as a necessity. If there is room in the budget for an activity there are many things to consider since most community-based leisure activities have additional costs beyond the registration fee. There is often equipment, supplies or materials that need to be purchased as well. Certain activities may also require membership fees, uniform fees, and volunteer and/or fundraising securities.

  2. “I don’t know what to do”. ROC parents regularly feel unsure about what activities to do as a family or what their children enjoy. They are unaware of what recreation options are available in their community and do not know of the resources that would have the necessary information or ideas. Parents who are unaware of their children’s interests often allow the children to choose their own home-based and low-cost activities which are usually on a screen. Parents have shared their frustration with the amount of time their children use electronics but are at a loss with how to replace the screens. Limited knowledge of available recreation activities and family interests is a barrier faced by many ROC parents, regardless of background, family size, age of children or location.

  3. Transportation. Transportation is often required for recreation activities that take place outside the home and comes with high costs that many ROC families struggle with. Access to private transportation has many requirements – a valid driver’s license, being able to afford the costs associated with obtaining a driver’s license, managing vehicle insurance and maintaining a vehicle. Families that lack access to private transportation have two choices; regularly asking friends and family for rides (which requires a civil relationship with several people) or active transportation. But active transportation is only realistic when the all the stars align – the home is near the activity location, the weather is fair and the family has prepared enough time to walk/cycle (if they have a bike) to and from the activity. This can be a daunting thought for some families and completely out of the question for others.

  4. Location. For some families, living in a rural location prevents them from participating in recreation activities. Small communities and villages far from towns and cities often have fewer options for recreation activities; this forces the families living in rural communities to travel, sometimes over an hour, to participate in activities in which they are interested. The families that are required to travel struggle with the transportation costs, whether they were traveling to participate in an activity or acquire the necessary supplies for home-based activities. The cost of supplies in rural communities is often higher compared to towns and cities and parents consider these costs when making decisions about their family’s recreation.

  5. Discrimination. Parents regularly describe the discrimination they feel in their communities when accessing recreation. They describe feeling unwelcome in community spaces and experiencing degrading treatment from others. This type of treatment can happen during the registration process when facility staff make negative assumptions based on a family’s address, skin color or language skills. It can also happen during the class by treating ROC children differently based on where the registration cheque came from or choosing poor communication methods with the parent regarding the child’s behavior. Families have avoided certain community spaces and events because of the discrimination they experience.

  6. Low confidence. More children than parents identified low confidence or shyness as a barrier. This influences their recreation participation as well as other areas of their life. Shy children can be hesitant to try new activities or meet new people. Several factors may contribute to low confidence in a child such as living in poverty, absence of the father since the majority of parents living in poverty are single mothers, maternal depression or poor-quality parent-child relationships. These factors combined with the lack of recreation experience creates apprehension to try new activities or be away from home for an activity. Parents with low confidence face social anxiety and/or feel they have inadequate skills needed to facilitate family recreation.

  7. Equipment. When parents and children are asked what stops them from participation in the activities they would like to try, lacking the necessary equipment or supplies is a common answer. Families often ask for bikes, sports equipment, instruments, and arts and crafts supplies. Luckily, this is a barrier that ROC is usually able to overcome quickly and successfully.

  8. Stress. Both parents and children commonly identify stress as a barrier that limits their recreation participation. Facing just one of the barriers listed above is enough to make some people stop pursuing a recreation interest. But it’s typical for a ROC family to face all these barriers plus a few others, like a parent’s health struggles, a child’s mental illness, searching for a job or learning English. It’s not a surprise the stress felt by both parents and children inhibits not only their recreation activities, but all other areas of their life as well.

Other barriers our ROC families face:

  • Lack of available childcare 
  • Language or cultural barriers 
  • Children have no one to do activities with 
  • Child’s behavior is disruptive 
  • Parent needs more social support 
  • The registration process is challenging 
  • Family stability 
  • Parent’s health challenges 
  • Children don’t have any hobbies/interests 
  • Activities are not challenging enough 
  • Work/chores/homework takes up too much time 
  • Child is lacking motivation 
  • Family pride 
  • Parent’s reluctance  


At ROC, we do our best to help families overcome these barriers. Some are more challenging than others and all are closely intertwined with each other. We are honored to have close, trusting relationships with the parents and children we work with as they let us into the details of their lives. Although we may never be able to completely reduce all the barriers our families regularly face, we believe positive and meaningful recreation can help families cope and remain close when they experience bad days.