Participation in School-Based Extracurricular Activities and Adolescent Adjustment

Article excerpt

Leisure provides adolescents with unique developmental opportunities. Unlike other social contexts, most notably school (Eccles, Lord, & Buchanan, 1996), leisure is a context in which adolescents are encouraged to manage their own experiences by exerting personal control over their environments and acting autonomously (Brown & Theobald, 1998; Silbereisen & Eyferth, 1986). Leisure also provides opportunities for identity exploration and skill building (Kleiber, 1999) as well as both social differentiation and integration. This paper examines one class of adolescent leisure: school-based extracurricular activities. School-based extracurricular activities provide highly structured leisure environments, in which adolescents can exert control and express their identity through choice of activity and actions within the setting, but which do not normally facilitate experimentation with roles and activities that are not sanctioned by adults. Because of these characteristics, participation in school-based extracurricular activities provides many of the positive developmental opportunities offered by other forms of leisure, but may provide more protection against experimentation with problematic activities such as drug or alcohol use than unstructured social leisure settings (Caldwell & Darling, 1999; Shann, 2001). In addition, participation in school-based extracurricular activities may provide adolescents access to social networks, activities, resources, and equipment that would be otherwise unavailable to them.

Mahoney and Stattin (2000) characterize highly structured activities as including "regular participation schedules, rule-guided engagement, direction by one or more adult activity leaders, an emphasis on skill development that is continually increasing in complexity and challenge, activity performance that requires sustained active attention, and clear feedback on performance" (pp. 114-115). These characteristics, according to Bronfenbrenner and Morris (1998) and Larson (2000), facilitate the development of initiative and lead to healthy adolescent development. Many school-based extracurricular activities, such as sports, student publications, radio stations, or performing groups, can be characterized as highly structured activities. Although outside of the narrowly defined academic curriculum (e.g., math, science, social studies, and English), extracurricular activities have traditionally been offered by schools as a way to offer developmental and leadership opportunities for youth, and to build school spirit (see, for example, Dewey, 1916). Extracurricular activities are seen as a way of offering academically gifted students a way of excelling within the school environment, a way for academically challenged students to achieve within the school setting, and as a way of creating a sense of shared community within schools. The positive impact that "extracurricular" activities can have on a school's academic mission is sometimes emphasized by use of the term "co-curricular" to describe nonacademic school-based activities (e.g., Hovet & Vinton, 1993; Kezar & Moriarty, 2000; Wren, 1997), although the term "co-curricular" is sometimes limited to activities outside of the classroom explicitly designed to complement student learning.

Extracurricular activities have been touted by their proponents as enabling youths to socialize with peers and adults, set and achieve goals, compete fairly, recover from defeat, and resolve disputes peaceably (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992; Danish & Gullotta, 2000). At the psychological level, Dworkin, Larson, and Hansen (2003) argue that extracurricular activities stand out from other aspects of adolescents' lives at school because they provide opportunity for identity work, develop initiative, and allow youth to learn emotional competencies and develop new social skills. At a more macro level, they argue that activity participation also allows youth to form new connections with peers and acquire social capital. …