Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Relatedness for Youth with Disabilities: Testing a Recreation Program Model

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Relatedness for Youth with Disabilities: Testing a Recreation Program Model

Article excerpt

Introduction

Despite the growing body of research connecting recreation programs to an array of positive youth development outcomes, the specific mechanisms by which these desired benefits occur remain elusive to many scholars and camp professionals. The disconnect between program factors and outcomes has led recreation professionals to rely on what is known as "black box" programming (Ewert, 1983; Baldwin, Persing 8c Magnuson, 2004; Sibthorp, Paisley, 8c Gookin, 2007). The black box contains all of the program elements that are associated with developing a recreation experience (e.g., recreation activities, staff competencies, staff rapport, and differences in program implementation). The connection between specific program processes and measurable outcomes gets lost in the "black box," preventing researchers and programmers from explaining how and why participant outcomes are achieved. While the inner workings of the "black box" may never be fully illuminated, it has not been adequately investigated, leaving recreation professionals with the questions: How do recreation programs foster participant development? How does one intentionally design a recreation experience to foster specific participant outcomes?

One promising solution to this problem is to develop program-level theories of change that attempt to provide researchers and programmers with the "how to" explanation that is often missing from large-scale scientific theory. Program models visually depict the relationships between program mechanisms (e.g., camp activities, facilitation techniques, and staff rapport) and immediate participant outcomes (e.g., problem-solving skills, independence, and relatedness) and often serve as the first step in the development of program theory (Baldwin, 2000; Baldwin, Hutchinson, 8c Magnuson, 2004; Rogers, 2000). In essence, program theory maps out the required steps that programmers must do in order to achieve the desired outcome(s). Researchers can employ program models to theorize and test hypothesized relationships that are relevant to the program structure and population, which allows recreation professionals to develop theorydriven programs that are more likely to lead to desired participant outcomes (Baldwin et al., 2004). Program models that connect specific program elements to participant development will not only inform and advance best practices, but will also help illuminate the inner workings of the proverbial "black box" of programming.

This study serves as an initial step toward developing a program-specific theory of a recreation program that serves youth with disabilities by designing and testing a program model based on relatedness. Grounded within the positive youth development framework, this program model depicts the relationships between five mechanisms that may facilitate a sense of relatedness in youth with disabilities: challenging experiences, peer role modeling, learning new skills, taking meaningful roles, and engaging in informal social experiences. While these programming elements are essential for youth in general (Röth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray, 8c Foster, 1998), youth with disabilities typically have fewer opportunities to experiences these processes in their daily lives (Bluebond-Langer, Perkel, 8c Goertzel, 1991; Groff 8c Kleiber, 2001).

Recreation programs that are specifically designed for youth with disabilities may possess unique processes that are not typically present in their daily experiences. Research suggests that youth with disabilities are less likely to engage in structured recreation activity (King, Petrenchik, Law, 8c Hurley, 2009) and participate in fewer social activities (Stevenson, Pharoah, 8c Stevenson, 1997). At home, many youth with disabilities have few playmates, friends, or confidants who share the characteristics of their unique identities (French-Gilson, Tusler, 8c Gill, 1997). These are experiences that many youth without disabilities may take for granted as they have more opportunities to engage in challenging and social experiences with those who share similar characteristics than their peers who have disabilities (Goodwin & Staples, 2005). …

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