Adolescent Experiences from Participating in Extracurricular and Community-Based Activities
There is little debate remaining in the field of youth development that participation in extracurricular and community-based youth activities (sports, school and community organizations, arts groups, etc.) provides a rich context for positive youth development. Research has found that structured youth activities encourage positive youth development. Now we need to examine critically why and how as well as what types of developmental changes occur within the context of youth activities (Benson & Saito; 2000; Roth et al., 1998; Dworkin, Larson & Hansen, 2003).
So far, we know that activities provide a unique setting for adolescents and that they consistently report experiencing high concentration and both high and low motivation (youth activity deveolpers are faced with the challenge of finding out what motivates youth to participate) as well as indicating emotional and cognitive engagement. Since in all likelihood, adolescents are actively involved in constructing their own personal growth, they are likely to be producers of their own development within the context of activities (Larson, 2000; Silbereisen et al., 1986).
Research has identified six developmental processes that may occur during youth activities:
1. Identity work. By trying out different youth activities, adolescents are using these activities to explore their identity (Youniss et al., 1999).
2. Initiative development. Youth identify and acquire skills that will help them direct their attention and effort over time toward a challenging goal (Larson, 2000).
3. Emotional competency. The development of emotional skills such as controlling impulses, managing feelings and reducing stress have been identified as objectives for prevention in positive youth development programs (Catalano et al., 1999).
4. Forming new social connections and learning about peers. By joining a new team, club, or activity, adolescents are adding to their peer friendship network (Brown, 1990).
5. Development of social skills. Youth activities provide opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills, learn to work with others, and increase their social competencies (Catalano et al., 1999).
6. Acquiring social capital. Relationships with adult leaders provide social capital such as knowledge (Dubas & Snider, 1993), career awareness and access to jobs (McLaughlin, 2000), and valuable connections to community members (Jarrett, 1995). For example, students who had parents that expected high achievement and talked with their children had higher 8th grade test scores, larger gains on test scores from grades 8 to 12, and were less likely to drop out of school (Israel and Beaulieu, 2003). Adult leaders can provide missing connections for youth as well as support for personal growth.
A recent study utilized focus groups to explore whether and how adolescents experience these six developmental processes and other domains of growth experiences (Dworkin, Larson & Hansen, 2003) . Ten high school focus groups were conducted with 55 adolescent participants who were identified by school counselors as being articulate as well as active in extracurricular activities. The mean age was 16 (range 14-18) and 56% were self-identified as White, 22% as African American, 4% as Asian and 18% as biracial. Participants identified the types of activities they were involved in as: 72% sports, 60% performance or fine arts, and 83% clubs or organizations. Participants engaged in a discussion of the types of growth experiences (those that taught them something or expanded them in some way) that they had in one youth activity of their choice.
Reprinted with the permission of the University of Florida. © 2008 University of Florida.
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