Why do some teens get more out of youth activities?

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Teens and youth activities

A University of Illinois study confirms what has long been thought about the benefits of organized youth activities: It's not enough to appear in the yearbook's Pep Club picture or show up for the really big games. To maximize the benefits of any youth activity, teens must invest time and energy in them, participate because they truly enjoy the activity, and take on a leadership role.

"Quite naturally, the kids who go to all the games, become club officers, teach new cheers, make and wave banners, and care passionately about whether their team wins or loses are the ones who get the most out of being in Pep Club," said David Hansen, a U of I assistant professor of human and community development.

But Pep Club? What can you get out of Pep Club? According to the study, engagement in an activity may more important to a teen's development than the activity he chooses, the researcher said.

Why are youth activities so important? "As a rule, participation in organized youth activities predicts college achievement, interpersonal competence, reduced risky behaviors, and adult civic engagement," he said.

"So knowing the factors that enhance teens' participation in youth activities is important to understanding how to improve their development in these groups," he added.

In the study, 1,822 eleventh grade students were surveyed about their experiences in different types of organized activities, including sports, performance and fine arts, academic clubs and leadership, community-based groups (such as Scouts), career and technical organizations (such as FFA), service groups, and faith-based youth groups.

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The teens reported the amount of time they spent in an activity, their motivation for joining, their leadership roles, and the adult-to-youth ratio. In answering the survey's questions, they rated activities for positive experiences in identity development, initiative building, emotional regulation, teamwork and social skills, positive relationships, and adult networks and social capital. They also documented their negative experiences.

"We found that the amount of time teens put into an activity made more difference than the type of activity they were putting their time into," he said.

"And teens' opportunities are broadened if adult leaders are able to inspire kids and are confident in handing teens the reins," said Hansen.

What about the influence of peers or parents in selecting and sticking with an activity" "Peers are important in getting their friends into an activity, but once a teen's in it, it's the activity that keeps them there. They stay because they enjoy it."

"And parents, who know their child's interests and aptitudes, can point out the activities that might appeal to her, but as their teen transitions into high school, a parent's main role is offering support, saying I will help you get to practices and attend your games or concerts," he said.

"By the time kids get to high school, they are voting with their feet," Hansen added. "They are looking for a group that fits their interests and gives them the chance for recognition and responsibility for what happens in the activity."

If a teen shows no interest in any youth activities "Those are the kids we are concerned about, mainly because they are apt to also be disconnected in school and possibly from their families.

"But an adult in a youth activity can be really effective in reaching those kids, so it's important for youth leaders to be aware of these teens, try to connect with them, and find ways to get them involved," he said.

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