The Relationship between Out-of-School Activities and Positive Youth Development: An Investigation of the Influences of Communities and Family

Article excerpt

Despite growing evidence that participation in constructive leisure activities facilitates positive development, little developmental research has been conducted on constructive leisure compared to other contexts. Research on youth tends to fall into the realm of "how do things go wrong" versus "what is going right." As a result, we have a multitude of research on how to curb drug use, violence, teen pregnancy and other problem behaviors, but we lack a concrete idea of how to promote positive youth development. In general, studies of adolescent behavior are dominated by naming, measuring, and predicting problem behaviors (Pittman & Irby, 1998; Scales, Benson, Leffert & Blyth, 2000; Zeldin, 1995). This research is useful in prevention work with youth; however, as is oft-quoted in the literature, "Problem free is not fully prepared" (Pittman & Irby, 1998, p. 160). The territory of positive developmental outcomes, as contrasted with that of risk behaviors, has been less explored (Scales et al., 2000); more information is necessary to move beyond prevention and toward preparation for adulthood. More studies need to be designed to expand the developmental knowledge base about various developmental phenomena such as resiliency or role modeling (Oden, 1995). Further exploration can strengthen our understanding of positive activities and the aspects of those activities that protect youth from risk as well as aiding in the determination of how to increase the competencies that adolescents need for the transition to adulthood (Larson, 2000).

Those studies that have looked at positive outcomes (rather than the presence or absence of risk behaviors) tend to look at school achievement or college enrollment (e.g., Eccles & Barber, 1999). While there does appear to be consensus on what outcomes could be considered positive and necessary for a successful transition to adulthood, there is a gap in the literature regarding these outcomes. Additionally, youth outcomes defined by Zeldin (1995, p. 47) as "developmental and career preparation outcomes" have also been overlooked. These include a positive sense of self, a sense of connection and commitment to others, and the ability and motivation to participate fully in community life.

The current study attempts to bridge several of the gaps in the current literature on positive youth development. Rather than focusing on academic achievement that is so often studied, we examine the effects of participation in structured activities on pro-social behavior. Pro-social behavior is characterized by attitudes and behaviors conducive to helping others such as caring, kindness, and altruistic behavior (Roker, Player, & Coleman, 1999). In addition, the roles of community and family as they affect the types of youth activities is examined. Youth live their lives in a variety of contexts and environments--many of them overlapping--such as family, peers, school, work, and community. Circumstances from each of the different environments have an impact on youths' preparation for, and success at, navigating the transitions inherent in their development (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). This study attempts to look at the paths between family, community, and activities as they affect positive youth development.

The results of this study and the discussion that follows can be applicable to a variety of sectors in the positive youth development field such as educators and educational institutions, youth-serving organizations, families, and policy makers. Implications for both continued practice and change are discussed, along with recommendations for continued research in this field. We focus on the value rather than the shortcomings of youth with the belief that this emphasis can provide useful starting points for continuing the valuation of our nation's future.

Community and Family Influences

Families and communities are primary venues for youth development, yet the capacity of families and communities to support such development varies greatly (Newman, Smith, & Murphy, 1999). …