Youth and Staff Perceptions of Desired Outcomes from Positive Youth Development Focused Recreation Organizations: the Formation of Potential Evaluative Criteria

  • Evan WebbEmail author
  • George Karlis
Original Paper


This qualitative research explores the positive developmental outcomes achieved by recreation organizations aimed at positive youth development (PYD). Specifically, perceptions of PYD outcomes occurring from youth’s participation in recreational programs were sought out from both youth members of PYD focused recreational organizations and the staff delivering these programs. These are categorized as (1) the outputs, (2) the short-term outcomes and (3) the long-term impacts of youths’ participation in these organizations (as seen in the last three stages of a logic model). Outputs included objective measureable indicators of youth’s positive development (e.g., increased grades in school), short-term outcomes included a series of life skills (e.g., leadership skills, social skills), and long-term impacts contain the 4Cs (confidence, competence, compassion, character). This study is also one of only a few that has examined and presents youth’s contribution to their communities (e.g., volunteering) as an outcome of PYD endeavors. These results should be valuable for practitioners in recreation organizations looking for measurable outcomes of PYD interventions that can work as evaluative criteria. Currently, few sources of evaluative criteria for PYD programming in recreation based on empirical evidence exists though they can be useful for those operating in non-profit, grassroots organizations who may not possess this specialized knowledge.


Recreation Youth Evaluation Benefits Life skills Contribution 

1 Introduction

For decades youth have increasingly engaged in risky problem behaviors and acts of delinquency that can continue well into their adult years (Catalano et al. 2002). Risky problem behaviors of youth tend to take place during free time that can be put to good use through positive leisure. More than half a century ago, Nash (1953) constructed a paradigm of free time. In this paradigm, Nash presented the potential of free time to sway towards a positive or negative direction. In Nash’ paradigm free time is positive when it leads to emotional participation, active participation, and creativity. Free time is negative when one is killing time or it leads to injury to self or to society.

What Nash’s paradigm was trying to tell us years ago, is that free time can be put to use in either a positive or negative way. Thus leisure and recreation, activities of choice, during free time can also lead to positive or even negative outcomes. As leisure and recreation activities can help us adjust and even develop through different life stages, the leisure and recreation choices we make, and ultimately the leisure and recreation programs that are presented to us, can be paramount for our positive individual development.

Positive youth development (PYD) is both a vast body of research and an approach to practice aimed at helping youth grow into positive adulthood. It is characterized as an asset-building framework that builds on youths’ strengths, promotes their engagement in prosocial behaviors, and build’s their resiliency towards influences encouraging behaviors which negatively impact their health and future (Roth et al. 1998).

Opportunities for the positive development of youth can be provided through organized recreational activities (Larson 2000). Such recreational contexts capable of promoting positive developmental outcomes in youth include parks and recreation agencies, not-for-profit youth groups, churches, sports and camps (Bocarro et al. 2008). Indeed, society’s recreation programs and services play a vital role in aiding positive youth development (Witt and Crompton 2003). Organizations that provide recreation services for youth serve many purposes ranging from battling idleness in leisure time by keeping youth occupied and “off the streets” as well as helping youth develop positively throughout the various life stages.

The purpose of this paper is to explore what youth and staff perceived to be the outputs, short-term outcomes, and long-term impacts of three separate recreation organizations offering an assortment of activities focused on PYD. The study reported here purports to answer the following research question and the supplemental sub-questions that follow: how do youth and staff perceive youth development as a result of youths’ participation in community based recreation programs? Further, this paper addresses the following questions: (a) what do youth and staff perceive as the organization-specific outputs of community based recreation programs contributing to youth development?; (b) What do youth and staff perceive as the short-term outcomes of community based recreation programs contributing to youth development; and (c) what do youth and staff perceive as the long-term impacts of community based recreation programs contributing to youth development?

This research is important as it highlights specific short-term and long-term PYD outcomes that research participants perceived as resulting from youths’ participation in three successful PYD programs (chosen to be investigated due to their reputation of success in their respective communities). The results of this research may help practitioners understand what factors signify or define success with youth’s positive development in recreational settings. In addition, the findings of this study may help contribute to previous research by specifically outlining short-term and long-term outcomes that define PYD program success in youth recreation and provide a basis for the creation of evaluative criteria, as evaluative criteria for PYD programs within the field of recreation has only scantly been researched.

2 Literature Review

2.1 Positive Developmental Outcomes

PYD represents a positive psychology of youth development through its focus on building upon youth’s strengths instead of simply targeting and discouraging problematic behaviors. The following four assumptions help characterize the PYD approach:

(1) Helping youth achieve their full potential is the best way to preventing them from experiencing problems; (2) youth need to experience a set of supports and opportunities to succeed; (3) communities need to mobilize and build capacity to support the positive development of youth and; (4) youth should not be viewed as problems to be fixed, but as partners to be engaged and developed. (Small and Memmo 2004, p. 7)

Various theoretical frameworks exist in the PYD research that underline what outcomes represent positive development in youth. Benson et al. (1998) define developmental assets as “a set of ‘building blocks’ that when present or promoted appear to enhance significant developmental outcomes among youth” (p. 8). Included among these are internal assets which are defined as competencies, skills, and self-perceptions that young people develop gradually over time (Benson et al. 1998). In other streams of PYD research, endeavors aimed at positive development seek to bring about a set of life skills in youth participants. Life skills can be described as abilities which allow for adaptive and positive behaviors that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life (Danish 2002; World Health Organization 1996). There exists a variety of physical, intellectual, and psychosocial life skills (Gould and Carson 2008). Physical life skills encompass those related to fitness, positive health practices, and athletic performance while intellectual life skills can include school achievement and school engagement. A wide variety of psychosocial life skills can also be obtained by individuals including goal setting, work ethic, teamwork, communication, stress management, preparation, leadership, organization, respect, optimism, responsibility, and moral development. The key to promoting the attainment of internal assets or life skills in youth programming is the systematic design of activities around learning and practicing them. However, what makes internal assets and life skills so critical to youth’s success is their usefulness in various aspects of individuals’ daily lives outside of the context in which they are taught and practiced. Thus, a key characteristic of these outcomes is their transferability.

Youth development programs should assist participants in identifying their transferable skills, create opportunities for them to use these skills in different contexts, and provide them with the support and encouragement necessary to enable them to gain confidence in their ability to use their skills effectively in various situations (Petitpas et al. 2005, p. 71).

Research of successful PYD programs including the LiFE Sport Summer Camp (Riley and Anderson-Butcher’s 2012) and the First Tee life skills through golf program (Weiss et al. 2013) have reported youth’s realization of life skills including interpersonal/social skills, self-management, personal skills and emotional regulation. Youth’s transfer of life skills has also been explored in research by Bean et al. (2016). Specifically, they came in useful in contexts which included school, at home, in various collaborative team settings (e.g., school projects, sports) and in circumstances such as social situations, interacting with new people, and achieving goals and aspirations.
The 5Cs framework (competence, connection, character, confidence, and caring; Lerner et al. 2000) is also utilized as a guide for PYD literature to operationalize positive developmental outcomes. Identified are five broad characteristic that youth develop over time as a result of their engagement in positive environments and interactions with responsible individuals (Lerner et al. 2003). The five Cs are defined in Lerner et al. (2000) as:

“intellectual ability and social and behavioral skills (competence); positive bonds with people and institutions (connection); integrity and moral centeredness (character); positive self-regard, a sense of self-efficacy, and courage (confidence); and humane values, empathy, and a sense of social justice (caring)”. (p. 17)

Another component of the 5Cs framework is the inclusion of a sixth C of contribution wherein when youth develop these five characteristics they will also give back to their communities by helping to enhance their society and promoting the positive development of the next generation of youth (Lerner et al. 2000). Each of the 5Cs were supported as robust indicators and measures of PYD (through quantitative tools) for youth from grades five to 10 through longitudinal research conducted in the 4H program (Lerner et al. 2005; Jelicic et al. 2007; Phelps et al. 2009; Bowers et al. 2010). Several of the Cs have been found to be positive developmental outcomes experienced by youth in PYD settings (Fuller et al. 2013; Jones et al. 2011; Vella et al. 2011; Weiss et al. 2016). Research in PYD that examines contribution as an outcome is sparse within the field (Coakley 2011). However, research by Mainieri and Anderson (2015), examining a camp program aimed at inducing a sense of civic engagement in participants, found that youth experienced several outcomes concerning increased contribution to their home communities (e.g., they ‘wanted’ to contribute and felt more capable of doing so).

Though the 5Cs represent separate factors that differ in meaning, considerable conceptual overlap has been reported in PYD research measuring these as positive developmental outcomes. For instance, Jelicic et al. (2007) mention high inter-factor correlations within the 5Cs (i.e., caring-character and competence-confidence) in the second iteration of results from the longitudinal 4H research project to the point where they could have possibly represented similar constructs. Jones et al. (2011) also found considerable correlations between caring, character and connection along with confidence and competence in a sport setting as a result of confirmatory factor analyses. It is also understood that caring and character tend to not differentiate well in sport research using the 5Cs as measurement variables (Côté and Gilbert 2009; Côté et al. 2010). The possibility that some of the Cs represent various versions of the same concept is acknowledged by researchers (e.g., caring & character could be seen as ‘sportspersonship’ or ‘pro-social values’; Côté et al. 2010; Jones et al. 2011). A collapsed 4Cs framework that integrates caring into character has been put forward as an alternative understanding to the model (Côté and Gilbert 2009) and has also been used as a guiding framework to develop an empirical measure with relevance to the sports context (Vierimaa et al. 2012). This current study utilized the 4Cs framework with its collapsed caring/character factor as a guiding framework for thematic analysis of themes under impacts as it was difficult to differentiate themes between the two due to their similarity in meaning.

2.2 PYD Programming

Recreational staff delivering programs aimed at PYD can fulfill an important role in youth’s positive development by working closely with them, nurturing positive relationships, and developing assets and skills that youth participants need to develop (Perkins and Noam 2007). The use of intentionally designed recreational activities to support the positive development of youth has shown success (Autry and Anderson 2007; Briand et al. 2011; Langager and Spencer-Cavaliere 2015; McMahon and Sharpe 2009; Witt 2001). Recreational activities are inherently fun and interesting to youth while being goal oriented, challenging, and laden with opportunities for skill development making them effective contexts for PYD endeavors. However, this is predicated around them being led by responsible adult leaders to guide youth’s skill development, promote a positive environment, and help bring about their program’s intended goals (Morgan et al. 2014).

3 Methodology

This study utilized a qualitative multiple case study methodology. Three separate organizations offering recreational activities for youth aimed at their positive development were selected as single instrumental cases. Each organization studied helped to provide insight into and advanced our understanding of what positive developmental outcomes are sought out by recreational organizations focused on PYD. The organizations selected had a reputation for success. Specifically, these agencies’ websites and social media pages contain many testaments from individuals of having successfully helped youth within their respective communities. In addition, the study started at Agency A where senior staff were familiar with and recommended Agency B which also had senior staff recommend and in partnership with Agency C. Furthermore, several colleagues within the researchers’ University department had also recommended these three agencies, having published PYD research conducted at these locations themselves. Obtaining findings from organizations that have achieved success allows us to see what PYD outcomes in particular should be sought out in such contexts. Data were collected from three organizations in order to corroborate findings collected from each. Obtaining similar findings from multiple contexts added further rigor to those results. However, unique findings that may pertain to only one or two of these venues are also reported.

Three non-profit organizations were approached for data collection in this study which are all based in eastern Ontario and will be named Agencies A, B, and C. Organizations selected for data collection had to fulfill three criteria: (1) recreational opportunities such as sport, art, camp, education, and volunteering had to be offered; (2) recreation activities had to be available for youth participation, and (3) a minimum of one program had to be geared towards the positive development of the youth participants. When saying ‘geared towards positive development’, the activity or program had to be aimed towards teaching at least one life skill (e.g., leadership, teamwork) or aimed at promoting some sort of positive quality (e.g., civic engagement).

There were several differences between the three organizations. For instance, Agency C does not only cater to youth exclusively as it is a neighborhood recreation organization that offers programs to adults as well. Agency C also had a major focus on youth’s civic engagement encouraging them to ‘give back’ through volunteering. Agency A was a top-down organization in that it was a subsidiary of, and supported by, higher governing administrative bodies operating at municipal, provincial, and even national levels. On the other hand, Agency B and C were grassroots establishments that began in the communities that they operate in and are still run by members of those communities.

Youth members of the recreational youth development organizations and the staff who deliver these activities on the frontlines were recruited on a purposive basis as participants of this research. Youth were selected for their ability to divulge on the positive developmental benefits they have experienced over their time at their respective agencies. Staff were selected for their ability to describe the positive developmental benefits they have witnessed youth participants adopt over their time at the organization. Program directors, acting as gatekeepers in this research, helped with participant recruitment by announcing that the researchers were present and interested youth and staff into being a part of interviews during program operation hours. Program directors also took part in interviews. The amount of participants involved in data collection was a result of exhausting the human resources available at all three organizations which resulted in 48 participants, including youth (n = 26) and frontline staff (n = 22). Interviews began once program directors at each organization provided the researchers with written approval and authorization was granted from the researchers’ affiliated University’s Research Ethics Board.

The youth recruited had been members of their organizations for several years which provided them enough time to have experienced PYD outcomes in some way. Youth were considered individuals between the ages of 12–17. In order to ensure that the youth selected could effectively divulge on the positive developmental benefits they have experienced, those who were a part of a program at each agency specifically for members who have been at their organizations for a while and have experienced positive development were recruited. Specifically, youth participants at all three organizations were currently a part of programs in which it was implied that they had demonstrated positive development. Specifically, at Agency A, youth recruited were a part of a leadership training program only open to those who were recommended by senior staff after having shown significant positive change during their time at the organization. At Agency B, the youth were members of the highest level of leadership training meaning they had successfully passed two previous levels of leadership training. At Agency C, youth were volunteers at the organization which required that they had gone through a leadership training program which was aimed at promoting several positive outcomes (e.g., behaviour management).

In order to ensure that the staff selected could accurately describe the positive developmental benefits that youth have experienced at their agencies, those recruited had to have (1) worked at the agency for some time and (2) worked directly with the youth. For this reason, staff who have been employed at their agencies for at least two years were recruited. Also, only frontline staff (i.e., staff who specifically supervise youth or deliver their programs first hand) were recruited for interviews. Administrative staff whose responsibilities kept them mostly working in offices separate from the youth programming were not selected for interviews. The staff recruited for this research could be categorized as junior staff or senior staff. Junior staff were responsible for delivering youth recreation activities and programs first-hand with little to no administrative duties but worked very closely with the youth. Senior staff had substantial administrative duties but were also heavily involved in delivering recreational programs and regularly interacting with and getting to know youth participants. Staff recruited had been a part of their organizations for at least two years and thus have witnessed developmental benefits occur with youth members.

A total of 40 semi-structured, one-on-one interviews were conducted, audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. These interviews lasted from 28 min to 1 h and 19 min (i.e., 54 min and 5 s on average). One 42 min focus group with the eight youth from Agency B was also conducted. Data collection at each of the three organizations lasted 9 weeks each. Interviews with youth were supervised and occurred during program operation hours in a quiet secluded area. Interviews with staff were unsupervised and occurred during their working hours in quiet secluded areas. At Agency B there was concern that 1 h interviews with each of the youth would drag them away from important programming which only occurred at this organization once a week as opposed to daily as with the other two agencies. It is for this reason that a single focus group involving all the youth at once was agreed upon as the best approach for data collection with these individuals.

To help uphold the rigor of the data collected for this research, early versions of the interview guides were pilot tested on male and female youth participants involved in recreation programs and male and female adults with experience leading recreational programs who were not a part of the final pool of participants. Pilot test participants were sometimes unclear about the content of the questions being asked of them and the final draft of the interview guide revised these particular questions to enhance clarity (e.g., removing jargon). The codes and subsequent themes in this study were also compared between the two different groups of participants involved: youth participants (aged 12–17) and staff (all adult aged). The final themes are a result of the perceptions and views from both types of respondents, answering nearly identical (but age appropriate) interview questions, on similar concepts which helps verify the reliability of these observations and interpretations across an age gap. Twenty-five percent of the study’s participants were provided with their own transcripts, once completed, to ensure that they were accurate in terms of content and represented what they wanted to say on the topics addressed.

The interview guide utilized for data collection had questions specifically drafted to address this study’s research questions. This guide included questions about what participants perceived as being the short-term (e.g., Youth – What skills do you believe you have learned in this organization? Staff – What skills are you teaching the youth participants through these organizations?) and long-term (e.g., Youth – Have you used any of the skills you learned in this organization in places other than the organization itself?) developmental outcomes of youth’s participation in these programs. Information was also collected from staff participants specifically about what overt, physical, or palpable signs were present of youth’s positive development in these organizations which went into the study’s results into a category called ‘outputs’. Two drafts of the interview guide, one aimed specifically at youth and one distinctly for staff, were drafted and utilized for data collection. These drafts were pilot tested and revised.

Key themes arose from data analysis utilizing a mixed deductive and inductive approach. Existing research and theory guided the deductive approach in which themes conformed to existing concepts explored in the PYD literature (e.g., life skills, the 4 or 5Cs). New and unique themes were also uncovered through analysis utilizing an inductive approach that helped add new ideas to the study of PYD outcomes (e.g., civic responsibility) or added new dimensions to previously existing themes found through deductive analysis and existing concepts in the PYD literature (e.g., various types of confidence youth can develop). NVivo was utilized to organize, examine, and document the qualitative data collected.

The data analysis process followed four steps described by Giorgi and Giorgi (2008). First, transcribed interviews were read in their entirety, without making notes or constructing themes, in order to gain a holistic understanding of participant’s data before any codes were assigned. Afterwards some potential ideas for codes were devised by the researchers which would be utilized in the next step. The second step involved a second read-through of transcripts in which participant quotes were highlighted and assigned a code when they appeared to contribute something substantial towards this study’s sought after findings. Once all relevant quotes were highlighted and coded, a list of these codes was developed. Third, assigned codes and their associated quotes were drawn together into higher order themes when they appeared to be addressing similar ideas. These higher order themes would also be drawn together under more overarching themes. Some lower order themes and codes were also reassigned to other higher order themes when they appeared to address a concept more relevant to that higher order theme. The fourth and last step was to decide upon the final structure of this study’s main themes which would be essential in representing the experiences being reported and addressing this study’s research questions. The themes chosen to remain in the final structure (Tables 1 and 2) were either (1) mentioned by multiple participants, (2) discussed by one participant but had an in-depth description from them that clarified the theme’s importance, or (3) had theoretical backing from previous PYD research as an outcome sought out by existing PYD programs.
Table 1

Comprehensive list of themes

Regular – 1 agency supports theme; Italics – 2 agencies support theme; Bold – 3 agencies support theme

Table 2

Comprehensive list of themes

Regular – 1 agency supports theme; Italics – 2 agencies support theme; Bold – 3 agencies support theme

‘Outputs’ were results that were understood as objective or physical measures of PYD (e.g., number of rewards earned by the youth). Short-term outcomes (i.e., life skills) were positive developmental benefits of youth’s participation that could be attained within a short amount of time (e.g., sometimes being directly taught within a daily/weekly session). Long-term impacts (i.e., the 4Cs) were developmental benefits of youth’s participation that occur after prolonged amounts of time.

4 Results

4.1 Themes Consistent across the Three Cases

The two themes under outputs that were consistent across all three organizations were youth achievements within the program and youth achievements outside of the program. Under the former specifically, the number of youth becoming volunteers and/or staff at the program and the number of youth earning rewards were also consistent across the three cases as measures of PYD program success.

The presence of several transferable life skills (short-term outcomes) in interviews at all three organizations demonstrated their particular desirability as results of PYD endeavors. These included: leadership skills, social and communication skills, teamwork and cooperation skills, responsibility, problem solving skills (including conflict resolution skills), self-regulation skills, emotional regulation skills, work ethic, listening skills, coping skills, and patience.

Using the 4Cs as the framework to deductively code for long-term impacts, competence (also considered skill transfer), caring/character, confidence, and connected were consistent across the three organizations. Under competence, the transfer of life skills to the school context was mentioned and included academic skills, emotional regulation skills, leadership skills, positive attitudes, social and communication skills, and teamwork and cooperation skills. Themes under caring/character mentioned across the three cases were helpfulness towards others or willingness to volunteer (i.e., developing a propensity to want to help people or take on volunteering inside or outside of their respective organizations), increased respect (positive behaviour towards others in their lives), and becoming a role model for others (demonstrating proper conduct and positive behaviors in front of impressionable youth). Three of the subthemes of confidence were also described as results of youths’ participation in the three agencies over time. First, coming out of shell refers to youth overcoming shyness and developing an inclination to reach out to others and express themselves without being impeded by feelings of self-consciousness. Second, sure of self, concerns youth feeling confident in their abilities and capacities and overcoming fear of failure. Lastly, positive view of self was a general sense that youth felt good about themselves and often manifested as acknowledgement that they had skills and qualities that were not common among peers in their communities. Under connections, youth at all three organizations developed social contacts with individuals who could play a resourceful role in their lives both within the organizations (i.e., their peers, the staff, and the volunteers) and external to the organization (i.e., members of the community).

Youth becoming individuals who contribute (another aspect of the Cs model) was also consistent across the three organizations. In all three cases youth contributed in some way (e.g., volunteering, helping staff, providing input) to the organization itself and towards venues and entities outside of the organization (e.g., in their communities). Also, at all three organizations, those working were often former youth members turned volunteers and staff.

4.2 Themes Consistent across at Least Two Cases

Under outputs, number of registered or enrolled youth members was seen as a measure of program success at Agencies A and C (though less of a focus for Agency B). Attendance numbers were reported in interviews with Agencies A and B as a measure of youth engagement entailing their interest to return. Subthemes under youth achievements within programs also came up in interviews at two of the three cases. These include number of rewards earned by each youth and number of youth moving through sequential programs (e.g., the various levels of leadership training at Agency B and C). Under youth achievements outside of the program,report card grades and school performance were an indicator of youths’ academic success.

Participants from at least two of the three organizations mentioned positive attitude, initiative, decision making, trust, goal setting, and honesty as life skills (short-term outcomes) youth developed coming out of their programs. Also, several sub-themes categorized under skills stated in the previous section were mentioned in interviews at only two of the three organizations. These include devotion to school work and homework, school performance (under academic skills), time management (under self-regulation skills), handling disappointment and flexibility and adaptability in the face of unforeseen circumstances (under coping skills).

Interviews at two of the three organizations concerning long-term impacts explained that youth had transferred their skills (under competence) to external sports and athletic contexts (e.g., social and communication skills; leadership skills; positive attitude; teamwork and cooperation skills), at home with families (e.g., social and communication skills; emotional regulation; leadership skills), jobs and employment including job interviews (e.g., social and communication skills, responsibility; teamwork and cooperation skills), towards the community as volunteers (e.g., social and communication skills; leadership skills; positive attitude; responsibility; teamwork and cooperation skills), and towards building connections with other people in their lives (e.g., social and communication skills). Under caring/character, two of the organizations reported that youth showed behaviors coded as kindness, empathy & selflessness, and a reduction in trouble making and problem behaviors. Lastly, under confidence, interviews mentioned youth having a positive view of their future in that they had a good idea of what they want to do as adults and feel confident in their ability to achieve those goals.

4.3 Themes Mentioned by One Case

Under outputs, Agency A considers the following measures of success: number of youth participating in at least one program, number of youth moving from ‘problem child’ status to ‘well behaved’ status (both under youth achievements in program), how often youth complete their homework, number of youth employed in part-time jobs, number of youth graduating secondary school, and number of youth intent on post-secondary education (all under youth achievements out of program). Agency B gauges how many youth are enjoying the program (under youth engagement) which can be measured through questionnaires and directly asked of youth during programs. Agency C was interested in: how many youth understood the concepts taught each day (under youth achievements in program), time youth spend volunteering external to the organization, and number of volunteer opportunities youth take on external to the organization (under youth achievements out of program). The first is easily gauged through discussions with youth during daily programs. Meanwhile, the latter two are reflective of the importance Agency C places on encouraging youth to contribute to the nearby community.

With regard to life skills (short-term outcomes), interviews at Agency B mentioned emotional literacy and self-reflection/assessment. Emotional literacy was described as youths’ ability to understand their emotions and the emotions of others while being able to appropriately express their feelings. Self-reflection/assessment refers to youth’s ability to judge themselves and understand their strengths, weaknesses, and where they can improve. Skills described in interviews at Agency C included behavioral management, ingenuity, and networking skills (i.e., the ability to develop social bonds). Behavioral management is understood as the ability to control one’s own behaviour as well as developing and shaping good behaviour in others. Furthermore, subthemes under self-regulation skills indicated by participants of only one of the three organizations included organization skills (Agency C) and focus (Agency A).

Several subthemes under the 4Cs were reported by participants from one of the three agencies. For example, interviews at Agency B contained descriptions of youth persevering through challenging life circumstances using qualities developed during their years as a member. This was coded as strength and categorized under caring/character. Meanwhile, interviews at Agency A contributed to the theme connected as youth’s positive development included qualities that allowed them to enhance their relationships with family members, peers at school, and teachers. Youth at Agency C, many of whom engage in community outreach through its various programs, had developed an enhanced sense of community and greater community awareness (also categorized under connected). These outcomes were also attributed to youth having created relationships with community members through these outreach endeavors.

5 Discussions

The addition of outputs is unique to this research but provides effective measures for recreational practitioners to quantify PYD during program evaluations. Due to the more tangible nature of these outcomes they could be particularly useful for communicating program success to stakeholders and funding bodies. Several of the short-term outcomes, understood as life skills (i.e., social/communication skills, teamwork and cooperation skills, responsibility, initiative, listening skills, positive attitude, emotional regulation, goal setting, leadership, self-regulation, and academic skills) are consistent with findings of previous empirical research (Bean et al. 2016; Camiré et al. 2009; MacDonald et al. 2011; Mainieri and Anderson 2015; Morgan et al. 2016; Neely and Holt 2014; Riley and Anderson-Butcher 2012; Vella et al. 2011; Weiss et al. 2013). In addition, there appears to be no mention of ingenuity (i.e., coming up with original and inventive ideas) and emotional literacy (i.e., the ability for youth to understand and express their feelings) as potential life skill outcomes of PYD programs in previous research. These two life skills are unique to this study and can be useful in real life circumstances experienced by youth.

Impacts, were understood as the long-term outcomes of youths’ engagement in PYD organizations that are not immediate but occur over time. The 5Cs model served as an adequate guide initially for analyzing and coding for themes that included the wide of range of positive behaviors reported by study participants in addition to the transfer of life skills taught in programs into youth’s everyday lives (categorized as competence). Admittedly, it can be difficult to separate lower order themes and codes between the Cs as they represent different versions of similar overarching and intercorrelated concepts (Jelicic et al. 2007; Jones et al. 2011) with particular difficulty discerning caring and character (Côté and Gilbert 2009). The 4Cs model, which combines the two into one concept, helped ease the process of separating codes under each C (as separating codes between caring and character was particularly difficult) and thus was used as the guiding framework for analyzing impacts in this study.

Each of the Four Cs came up in interviews with participants at all three organizations. For instance, youth in this study reported transferring some of the life skills (i.e., competence) they described to contexts (i.e., school, sports, at home/with family, at their jobs/employment and job interviews, within the community and through volunteering, and with other people) outside of the PYD organizations themselves. The following came from a youth member from Agency A describing himself stepping up to a leadership role on his struggling basketball team:

I have been in a basketball game where like I’m down by 4 or 5 in the last quarter and there’s a lot of pressure and then someone has to be the leader and step up. And I felt like I was the leader and I stepped up on the team, and said “this is what we have to get done” and then, well like it was like that last 10 minutes and we were down by 5, and then we stepped up and then we ended up winning the game by 10.

A staff member from Agency B, in contact with youth’s parents, also described evidence of increased responsibility by youth within their own homes:

We see lots of kids being more responsible in the home…ummm…parents saying you know ‘it made such a difference in their behaviour at home or being more responsible at home, helping out’.

The contexts indicated in this study are unsurprising as youth between the ages of 12–17 still attend school, commonly play sports, and are also becoming legal working age. Though ‘through volunteering’ may seem like a unique context for youth populations: (1) in Ontario high school students must complete 40 h of community service to graduate and (2) community contribution is highly encouraged of youth at the organizations approached in this study.

Research has determined that youth involved in a sport based PYD program reported significantly higher scores than a comparison group of youth from outside of the program on transferring the skills: meeting and greeting, managing emotions, resolving conflicts, appreciating diversity, and getting help from others (Weiss et al. 2016). Qualitative research with youth involved in a recreation based PYD program also revealed a variety of scenarios where participants described them having been able transfer life skills that they learned in the program to their everyday lives. The skills described included emotional regulation, focus, goal setting, respect, responsibility, and social skills which youth were able to effectively utilize at school, at home, in sports, and in social situations (Bean et al. 2016).

Caring/character (a combination of two Cs from the original 5Cs framework) was another of the adopted positive behaviors participants reported at all three agencies. One particular staff member at Agency A had discussed how a youth member exhibited increased capacity for caring/character:

Ummm, there’s another one who’s a little bit older, he’s one of the seniors who use to be a little bit of a trouble maker, would kind of instigate things, and really recently he broke up a fight of his own kind of…people were kind of egging these two guys on and he stepped in to make sure that nothing bad happened. So I’m really proud of him there…He was taught in [Agency A] that these are the values and this is how we deal with these things…And that fight did not happen on our property. That fight happened off of our property, he decided to step in anyways and break it up.

This theme was characterized by descriptions of youth showing increased helpfulness towards others and willingness to volunteer; kindness, empathy, and selflessness; general respect towards others; willingly being a role model for younger youth; strength (i.e., persevering in adverse circumstances); and a general reduction in trouble and problem behaviors.
Youth’s descriptions of themselves coming out of their shells (i.e., feeling more comfortable expressing themselves in front of people), being sure of themselves (i.e., knowing that they are capable individuals), having a positive view of themselves (i.e., being generally favorable of who they are), and having a positive view of their future (i.e., knowing they are capable of success) contributed to the theme confidence. One of the youth participants at Agency B offered a good example of ‘being sure of himself’ with regard to their ability to speak publically and linking this to their time in the organization’s advanced leadership program:

I probably would never be able to give a speech before I came to [the advanced leadership program], I wouldn’t be able to give a speech but right now on Monday I have to give a speech to sort of the end of the campaign and we find out who wins. But, umm, I probably would never be able to do that.

Agency C offered an effective setting for youth to develop connections, since the organization has its youth members in its leadership training program and community outreach programs volunteering within the nearby community. The following youth member (now volunteer) discusses how youth at Agency C develop a support network:

I know that if I’m ever in need I can always rely on the community centre and people in my community because I had given my time to them when they needed it and in return I get the same thing…I’ve been coming here my entire life and I’m pretty familiar with some of my coworkers and my bosses because they’ve always been my counsellors.

The connections youth could develop from being members at these organizations were with individuals from inside their organizations (i.e., peers, staff members, and volunteers) and outside of their organizations within the youth’s lives and in the surrounding community (i.e., community members, youths’ families, school peers, their teachers). The benefits of developing these connections were described as bolstering youth’s sense of belonging in the community and their community awareness including knowledge of its amenities and citizens.

This study’s findings listed under impacts (i.e., the Cs) are also consistent with findings from previous research including the themes: caring/character including empathy (Holt et al. 2012), connected (Holt et al. 2012) including connections internal to the organizations (Neely and Holt 2014) and external to the organizations (Mainieri and Anderson 2015), and confidence including positive view of self (Neely and Holt 2014; Jones et al. 2017) and sure of self (Weiss et al. 2016). In addition, research by Fuller et al. (2013) found growth across all the original five Cs in a group of minority males participating in an inner-city sport-based afterschool program. Furthermore, coding in accordance with the 4Cs framework, Vella et al. (2011) found that coaches intentionally promoting PYD sought to develop positive qualities in athletes consistent with character, competence, confidence and connection.

Research by Mainieri and Anderson (2015) also argues the role PYD programs play in delivering outcomes related to greater engagement in communities consistent with the theme contribution. Youth in this study emerged more motivated to contribute, more confident in their ability to do so, and developed a notion that their volunteer efforts were fun, intrinsically rewarding, and appreciated. A staff member at Agency A described a group of youth in the soccer program he coached having volunteered in a recent community endeavor:

I remember last year, we had uhh, there’s the community rep who was building a play structure and they needed volunteers in the community to help out. And I saw some of the kids from my soccer team [at Agency A] and some of the kids from the [Agency A] leadership program and stuff. Instead of coming to soccer they went there to help out their community build the play structure for the younger kids.

Agency C in particular was found to actively encourage contribution while providing youth volunteer experiences through their community action program and leadership training. This finding helps further the call made by Coakley (2011) for research and praxis to focus more on the community contribution components of PYD programs as the end goal of this framework is to promote youth’s civic engagement (Lerner et al. 2000). In conjunction with the research by Mainieri and Anderson (2015), PYD programs with a volunteering component are capable of promoting in youth a willingness and capability to contribute positively to their communities.

6 Conclusion

Results of this study reveal positive developmental outcomes achieved by three successful PYD focused recreation organizations in order to offer evaluative criteria for practitioners intending to measure positive developmental outcomes in their own programs. The themes disseminated are organized similarly to the last three stages of a logic model (Wells and Arthur-Banning, 2008) in order to present the empirical data in a way that is easily translatable to practice. Though recreation provides an effective context for PYD, it should be understood that youths’ engagement in recreation does not ensure positive development. There are many factors to account for when planning and designing PYD programs and practitioners should remain knowledgeable and up-to-date on important research findings, models, and practices that work in the field.

The results of this study should be valuable for practitioners looking for measurable outcomes (i.e., outputs, short-term outcomes, long-term impacts) of PYD programming. Currently, evaluative criteria based on empirical evidence for recreational organizations to identify or measure program success is not present in the PYD focused recreation research. Though some agencies utilize their own evaluative tools (e.g., Boys and Girls Club) many are grassroots organizations run by community members who may lack the theoretical and practical knowledge that exists in PYD. This includes an informed idea of how to recognize and report PYD program success. This study’s results can help provide the basis for the creation of program evaluation tools in PYD aimed recreation organizations by using these themes as criteria.

The results of this study provide the basis for future research to design evaluative material for recreation programs focused on PYD using the themes reported. One approach could be to operationalize these themes into questionnaire items measured in Likert scales and test for reliability and validity. Also, prospective, intervention based research should be undertaken to determine whether an evaluative tool based on the findings of this study works adequately. A future study should consider examining already successful PYD focused recreation programs or organizations to confirm the presence of the outputs, outcomes and impacts listed in this study.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brock UniversitySt. CatharinesCanada
  2. 2.University of OttawaOttawaCanada

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