Many schools and community organizations sponsor clubs for children and adolescents. These clubs provide opportunities for youth to participate in activities, interact with peers in a supervised setting, and form relationships with adults. Some clubs focus on a specific area, thus allowing members to develop their skills and interests in that area. Other clubs provide an array of activities from which children and adolescents can choose.
Researchers have described how often children and adolescents participate in clubs, as well as the characteristics of young people that tend to join clubs. In 2001 Sandra Hofferth and Zita Jankuniene published the results of a study on how elementary school students spent their time after school. Using data from a longitudinal nationally representative random sample of U.S. residents, they found that although quite a few children reported belonging to youth organizations, only about 20 percent of the children actually attended clubs and youth organizations after school. On average, on any given day, these students spent between thirty minutes and one hour and twenty minutes at youth organizations engaged in supervised extracurricular activities.
Studies of high school students show that about 25 percent of adolescents join music-oriented clubs, such as choir or band, and 20 percent join academic or career-related clubs, such as a science club, a Spanish club, or Future Farmers of America. More children from middle-class families than from lower-class families report participating in school clubs. Participation is also higher in rural or small schools. One study found that club participants tended to be females from two-parent families with high socioeconomic status.
Why Participation is Expected to Benefit Youth
There are a number of reasons that both scholars and parents expect young people to benefit from participation in clubs and youth organizations. These reasons have to do with the activities, roles, and relationships available to children and adolescents when they participate in clubs. Activities are important in several ways. For one, participation in a supervised constructive activity limits the time that is available for less constructive activity, such as television watching, or for getting involved in risky behaviors. For another, activities offered by clubs or youth organizations enable members to learn valuable skills. Many of the activities offered by clubs help students to extend and elaborate on the more formal knowledge learned in school.
Club membership provides an opportunity to participate in new roles. The leadership roles that are available in clubs provide a valuable experience that is not generally available to young people. Other roles, such as being a helper in a service club, a soloist in a music club, or an artist making scenery in a drama club, enable identity exploration.
Finally, relationships formed with adult leaders and with peers at the clubs are important. Adults and peers at these organizations can serve as models and as sources of social support, friendship, and caring. Several developmental theories point to the importance of adult mentoring for child and adolescent development. Mentoring relationships are important characteristics of clubs and youth programs. Adolescents who have an after-school relationship with a mentor are far less likely to use drugs or alcohol than adolescents who do not have such relationships. Peer relations might also benefit from participation in clubs. "Hanging out" unsupervised with peers contributes negatively to child and adolescent development. However, participation in supervised constructive activities provides adolescents with opportunities to gain social skills from positive interactions with peers.
Shirley Brice Heath has elaborated on the importance of extracurricular activities in the arts. She points out how arts groups offer young people activities, roles, and relationships that can contribute positively to their development. According to Heath, many youth art programs design environments that prepare youth for problem solving, conflict resolution, and productivity in work, family, and other community settings. Heath highlights the critical thinking, identity exploration, collaboration, organization, and pursuit of excellence that transpires when youth participate in artistic groups. Community arts organizations often help older youths to elaborate their knowledge and skill by bringing younger participants into the group. By dedicating themselves to long-term projects, young people learn to stick with and complete projects, and they have the opportunity to produce creative works for audiences by putting on shows and plays. The racial and socioeconomic barriers that are breached by the work of such organizations is likely to benefit both youth and communities.
Benefits of Participation in Clubs
Researchers and club sponsors have been eager to learn how participation in clubs influences youth development. However, studies of the impact of clubs have been conducted mostly on small, local, and nonrepresentative samples of children and adolescents. Furthermore, many studies that have found differences between participants and nonparticipants in clubs and youth organizations have not examined whether such differences existed before the children and youths joined. It might be that joiners have preexisting differences that lead them to become involved in clubs and participate in youth organizations. Students who are drawn to participate in a science club, for instance, are likely to have been more successful academically prior to joining than nonparticipants. For these reasons, the studies must be evaluated carefully.
Studies of students' participation in extracurricular activities during high school have tended to focus on athletics. However, several studies have examined outcomes by type of extracurricular activity. One conclusion is that participation in fine arts programs appears to contribute to better academic performance and psychological well-being, even when taking prior academic performance and psychological functioning into account. Another conclusion is that young people can derive developmental benefits from participating in well-run organizations.
Jacquelynne Eccles and Bonnie Barber investigated the contributions of participation in school and community clubs to the development of approximately 1,200 adolescents from ten school districts serving working and middle-class families in or near Detroit. The researchers identified how much each adolescent participated in academic clubs (science, debate, math, computer, chess, foreign language) and performing arts organizations (drama, art, band, dance), whether at, or outside of, school. Church groups accounted for most of the activities that were grouped together with community service clubs in the social activity category, so any contributions of these activities are confounded with religious belief and practice and cannot be discerned. Although students who participated in the arts were less likely to use alcohol than other students, arts involvement did not change their drinking behavior during high school. Art participants also liked school more, had higher grade point averages during their senior year in high school, and were more likely to attend college full-time. However, only grade point averages actually improved as a result of participation. Art program participants liked school and intended to go to college before participating, and their levels of liking school and scholastic ambition did not change. Adolescents who participated in academic clubs were more academically skilled than other students before participating; however, the club activities also appeared to contribute to increases in the grade point averages of these students.
In a different longitudinal study, McLaughlin concluded that participation in effective programs provided multiple benefits. The National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) followed a nationally representative sample of youths from 1988, when they were in eighth grade, through 1994. McLaughlin and her colleagues used NELS data to estimate general levels of self-esteem, academic achievement, future aspirations, self-efficacy, and civic responsibility of American youth. McLaughlin also gave youths participating in community organizations identified as effective a set of questions from NELS. Participants in effective programs were found to be more likely than nonparticipants to aspire to graduate from high school and to pursue further education. They also did better academically, compared to the national estimate. Adolescents who participated were more optimistic, had higher self-esteem, and expressed greater self-confidence than the national average, and they were more oriented toward serving their communities in the future. A longitudinal follow-up investigation found that the majority of participants in effective community programs were employed and active in their local communities during their twenties.
One study found that there was less juvenile delinquency and less alcohol and drug use among adolescents and adults in ten public housing sites that had Boys and Girls Clubs, compared to five public housing sites with no clubs. Adolescents who resided in public housing developments with Boys and Girls Clubs spent more time in activities that were healthy and constructive than did adolescents from housing developments without Boys and Girls Clubs. A study of two different girls-only programs at four Boys and Girls Clubs in Chicago supported the idea that relationships at the clubs are important contributors to participants' development. The fifty girls who participated in the study felt that the club provided a place for positive peer relationships and for working cooperatively with other girls to achieve goals.
Adult volunteer leaders or mentors at clubs might also benefit. Adult leaders of youth groups such as the Girl Scouts have expressed satisfaction with the experience because of positive youth responsiveness, as well as the usefulness and effectiveness of the programs.
Why Children and Adolescents Participate in Clubs
If clubs are beneficial developmentally, then it is important to understand why children and adolescents want to participate in them. Some researchers have examined the characteristics of clubs that children and adolescents identify as important and that motivate them to want to participate. One reason that clubs succeed is that they are familial–participants feel that they belong and are cared for at the club. Another reason that young people participate is that the available activities are rewarding–participants learn through participating and performing in the activities. Participants also have a sense of ownership, as they are expected to contribute to the planning, maintenance, and success of the organization. Adults at the clubs empower, support, and set high expectations for the participants, and the clubs are responsive to the needs and circumstances of their members.
Another study, using observations, surveys, and interviews, found that most (74%) of the 300 minority adolescents who participated in four affiliates of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America referred to the club as a home and mentioned relationships with the staff as important. Many of the adolescents felt cared for at the club and reported receiving both support and advice. Adolescents mentioned psychosocial benefits far more often than physical characteristics of the clubs.
Milbrey McLaughlin and Heath studied young people in thirty-four locations in low-income urban and rural areas over a twelve-year period from 1987 through 1999. Study participants were interviewed about what motivates them to participate in clubs and organizations. McLaughlin and Heath found that the effective organizations noticed the interests and strengths of participants and saw young people as resources. Effective programs were more than safe places to go–they were focused on activities like sports, arts, or community service. The programs offered adolescents opportunities to develop skills and interests, as well as to learn, plan, perform, or create products. Adolescents were also able to lead activities and to have some sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, the club. Adolescents also formed relationships with adults and peers centered on learning and developing skills. Effective programs provided participants with opportunities to improve through adult feedback, peer feedback, and self-evaluations; and they had safe nurturing environments that helped the adolescents to develop trust and security. These programs were also sensitive to community needs and circumstances in offerings and structure.
Emmalou Norland and Melissa Bennet studied a random sample of adolescent participants in Ohio 4-H programs. Using theory and previous research, they argue that program satisfaction is the best way to determine which adolescents will continue participating in a voluntary extracurricular activity such as 4-H. They found that a participant report of high-quality 4-H club meetings was the most important predictor of participant satisfaction. Other predictors of satisfaction that program planners can influence included opportunities to work with younger members and an ability to assume some level of responsibility. Parental support, but not direct parental involvement, was also found to be important to the adolescents.
Other studies of 4-H participants have underscored other program qualities that influence participation. For example, adolescents strongly value encouragement of leadership, community service, honesty, a strong work ethic, a healthful lifestyle, and the importance of family. Adolescents also valued organizations that met their needs to have fun, develop mature peer relationships, and learn about society. Some 4-H members were most satisfied when their leaders provided a balance between autonomy support (allowing for independence) and control.
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J. A. Cannon