Adolescent Identity Formation and Leisure Contexts: A Selective Review of Literature

By Kivel, Beth D. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Identity Formation and Leisure Contexts: A Selective Review of Literature


Kivel, Beth D., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


This is the second part of a two-part feature on youth development. In the first part of the feature, Susan Hudson wrote about the concept of youth development and explained how youth workers can help youngsters develop the competencies needed to live a healthy and productive life. Her article was followed by an article by Peter Witt and Dwayne Baker, who outlined strategies for developing after-school programs for at-risk youth.

Those who study adolescents have typically focused on the cognitive, emotional, social, and biological factors that influence adolescent development and identity formation. Recently, however, researchers from all disciplines--psychology, social psychology, sociology--have broadened their focus to include the central contexts that contribute to a young person's identity--school, family, work, peers, and more recently, leisure. Indeed, there seems to be a growing body of research to support the assertion that leisure is an important context for young people in terms of identity formation (Evans & Poole, 1991; Hendry, 1983; Kelly, 1990; Silbereisen & Todt, 1994). Leisure has typically been conceptualized along two lines--objective leisure which is measured in terms of discretionary or "free" time (e.g., Brightbill, 1960) and subjective leisure which is measured in terms of one's experience and/or state of mind (e.g., Neulinger, 1974). Identity formation refers to the development of both personal identity (individual, core characteristics) and social identity (self in relation to others, group membership, and social identification with a group). Leisure as a context for identity formation among youth can be examined from three perspectives: (1) leisure contexts provide young people with opportunities to successfully integrate both personal and social identity; (2) leisure contexts serve as a transition from childhood to adulthood; and (3) leisure contexts provide a space for embedding identities. This article will provide a selective review of some of the relevant research literature on leisure (conventionally defined as free time and/ or experience) as a context for identity formation among adolescents and youth and the implications of this literature for service providers.

Several studies support the assertion that opportunities to participate in leisure and/or leisure contexts can provide opportunities for self-reflection and personal growth (Kelly, 1990; Kleiber, 1985). Since youth have varying identities, Kelly (1990) asserts that it is important "to recognize the variety of leisure interests for youth. They have different social arenas in which to try out their emerging selfhood." (p. 51) He further suggests that the identities of youth "have been molded in their homes and communities." (p. 52). He writes

The significance of leisure in human

development and especially in the formation

of personal and social identities precludes

any definition of leisure as residual. Whatever

else it may be, leisure is not leftover

time ....There is always the possibility that

leisure can be central, determinative of

other aspects of life and a major element

in the process of our self-definitions and

development. (Kelly, 1983, p. 116)

Moreover, research by Csikszentmihalyi, Larson, and Prescott (1977) and Kleiber, Larson, and Csikszentmihalyi (1986) suggests that adolescents have more positive experiences during free time spent in structured activities such as sports, hobbies, and games than free time spent watching television or engaging in other unstructured leisure activities. Such findings suggest that leisure as "free time" is not inevitably positive for young people. Indeed, given the recent Carnegie Corporation Report (1992) indicating that adolescents may have a great deal of unstructured free time--as much as 40 percent--it seems important for youth service providers to develop programs that challenge young people to match their individual skills with external challenges and that require young people to become involved, committed, and engaged in structured activities and programs. …

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