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Title: Meeting Children's Physical Needs

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Mahoney, J.L., Larson, R., Eccles, J.S., & Lord, H. (2005). Organized activities as developmental contexts for children and adolescents. In Mahoney, J.L., Larson, R., and Eccles, J.S. (Eds.). Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs(pp. 3-22). Mahwak, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 


Organized Activities as

Developmental Contexts for Children

and Adolescents

Joseph L.Mahoney

Yale University

Reed W.Larson

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jacquelynne S.Eccles

University of Michigan

Heather Lord

Yale University

School-age children in the United States and other Western nations spend almost half of their

waking hours in leisure activities (Larson & verma, 1999). How young persons can best use this

discretionary time has been a source of controversy. For some, out-of-school time is perceived as

inconsequential or even counterproductive to the health and well-being of young persons.

Consistent with this view, the past 100 years of scientific research has tended either to ignore this

time or to focus selectively on the risks present during the out-of-school hours (Kleiber &

Powell, chap.2, this volume). More recently, however, there is increased interest in viewing out-

of-school time as an opportunity for young persons to learn and develop competencies that are

largely neglected by schools. Researchers are beginning to recognize that along with family,

peers, and school, the organized activities in which some youth participate during these hours are

important contexts of emotional, social, and civic development. At the same time, communities

and the federal government in the United States are now channeling considerable resources into

creating organized activities for young people’s out-of-school time (Pittman et al., chap.17, this

volume). The primary aim of this volume is to bring scientific research to bear on how this time

can be used constructively.

In this chapter, we overview central issues in the field of research on organized activities to

provide a background and framework for the chapters that follow. Four main areas are addressed.

First, we discuss definitional issues in the field and clarify what is meant by organized activities

within this volume. Second, we outline the available research indicating that participation in

these activities affects shortand long-term development. Third, we consider the features of

organized activities thought to account for their developmental impact and, lastly, we review

evidence on factors that Influence participation in these activities and whether youth benefit from

their developmental potential.


This volume focuses principally on formal activities for children 6 to 18 years of age that are not

part of the school curriculum. By “organized,” we refer to activities that are characterized by

structure, adult-supervision, and an emphasis on skill-building (e.g., Eccles & gootman, 2002;

Larson, 2000; Roth & Brooks-gunn, 2003). These activities are generally voluntary, have regular

and scheduled meetings, maintain developmentally based expectations and rules for participants

in the activity setting (and sometimes beyond it), involve several participants, offer supervision

and guidance from adults, and are organized around developing particular skills and achieving

goals. These activities are often characterized by challenge and complexity that increase as

participants’ abilities develop (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Larson, 1994). In general, organized

activities share the broad goal of promoting positive development for the participants.

A variety of labels have been used to describe organized activities for young persons. They

usually denote the who (school-age, child, adolescent, youth), where (school-based, community-

based), what (activities, programs, organizations), and when (after-school, extracurricular,

summer, nonschool, out-of-school) elements of participation. These descriptors are meaningful

and do clarify the phenomenon of interest. Accordingly, we use the term organized activities to

refer to these variations collectively. The word organized is also used to make clear that so-

called unstructured activities (e.g., watching television, listening to music, “hanging out” with

peers, and “cruising” in cars) and other forms of passive leisure (e.g., eating, resting, and

personal care) are not the focus of this volume, except as a backdrop of what else youth might be

doing during their after-school hours (Kleiber & Powell, chap.2, this volume; Osgood et al.,

chap.3, this volume).

Breadth and Diversity of Activities

The range of organized activities available to children and adolescents in the United States and

other Western nations is substantial (Carnegie Council, 1992; Eccles & gootman, 2002; Quinn,

1999). They include nationally sponsored youth organizations and federally funded after-school

programs (e.g., Boys and girls Clubs, YMCA, YWCA, 21st Century Community Learning

Centers, 4-H, Boy/girl Scouts, Camp Fire). They involve community, school, and locally

organized programs: autonomous grassroots youth developmental organizations, faith-based

youth organizations, and activities provided by parks and recreation services, museums, libraries,

youth centers, youth sports organizations and amateur leagues (e.g., little league), school-

sponsored extracurricular and after-school activities, and community service programs. They

also include specifc types of activities (e.g., sports, music, hobby clubs, social clubs, religious,

service activities) that can be differentiated on the basis of activity-related goals, atmosphere,

and content (Roth & Brooks-gunn, 2003).

This volume considers organized activities across this diverse range. Methodological and

logistical challenges make it diffcult to study national organizations and little research is

available at this level of assessment. By contrast, considerable research has been conducted on

community-sponsored programs and activities (e.g., Eccles & gootman, 2002; Kirshner et al.,

chap.7, this volume; McIntosh et al., chap.15, this volume; Stattin et al., chap.10, this volume),

and school-based extracurricular activities (e.g., Barber et al., chap.9, this volume; Eccles &

Templeton, 2002; Pedersen & Seidman, chap.5, this volume). Recently, school-sponsored after-

school programs for elementary and middle-school youth have been increasing dramatically and

research is beginning to be conducted on these activities (Casey et al., chap.4, this volume;

vandell et al., chap.20, this volume; Weisman et al., chap.21, this volume). Finally,

developmental research that compares different types of activities is relatively new and featured

in several chapters (e.g., Barber et al., chap.9, this volume; Eccles & Barber, 1999; Hansen,

Larson, & Dworkin, 2003; Jacobs et al., chap.11, this volume; Pedersen & Seidman, chap.5, this

volume). Studies of specifc activities have been common in the fields of leisure studies and

sports psychology and are also considered here (e.g., Duda & Ntoumanis, chap.4, this volume;

O’Neill, chap.12, this volume; Scanlan et al., chap.13, this volume).



In order to evaluate how these organized activities contribute to development, scholars are

examining whether they help children and adolescents address the developmental tasks

associated with their age periods—how they help youth achieve age-appropriate competencies.

During childhood, key developmental tasks in our society include (a) acquiring habits of physical

and psychological health, (b) forming a positive orientation toward school and achievement, (c)

getting along with others including peers and adults, and (d) acquiring appropriate value systems

about rules and conduct across different contexts. These issues remain important during

adolescence, but are renegotiated in the light of interdependent changes in the bio-psycho-social

system (Eccles, Barber, Stone, & Temple ton, 2003; Mahoney & Bergman, 2002). In addition,

new tasks such as identity formation, personal mastery/efficacy, intimacy with peers, and

preparation for the transition to adulthood and postsecondary education or work become

increasingly important across adolescence (Brown, Clausen, & Richer, 1986; Collins, 2002;

Levesque, 1993). In the global world of the 21st century, the development of competencies to

move between diverse contexts defned by ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other forms

of difference is increasingly important (Larson, Wilson, Brown, Furstenberg, & verma, 2002).

Achieving competency at these tasks allows an individual to take advantage of personal and

environmental resources that promote positive functioning in the present, reduce the risk for

developing problem behaviors, and increase the likelihood for healthy adjustment in the future

(Eccles et al, 2003; Mahoney & Bergman, 2002; Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Research shows

that participation in organized activities can have a range of positive Influence on children and

adolescence. We now highlight some of this evidence for school-sponsored extracurricular

activities, and community-based and after-school programs.

Extracurricular Activities and Community Programs

Involvement in organized activities such as sports teams, lessons, and clubs is relatively common

during adolescence. For example, among youth ages 12 to 17 from the National Survey of

Families (NASF; 1997), 57% participated on a sports team, 29% participated in lessons, and

60% participated in clubs or organizations after school or on weekends during the last year.

Recent reviews support the conclusion that participation in organized activities helps young

persons negotiate the salient developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence (e.g., Eccles &

gootman, 2002; Eccles & Templeton, 2002).

Increased Educational Attainment and Achievement. A longstanding finding from quasi-

experimental and experimental studies is that participation in extracurricular activities and

community programs promotes education attainment. This includes low rates of school failure

and dropout (e.g., Hahn, Leavitt, & Aaron, 1994; Mahoney & Cairns, 1997; McNeal, 1995), high

rates of postsecondary school education, and good school achievement (e.g., Eccles & Barber,

1999; Mahoney, Cairns, & Farmer, 2003; Marsh, 1992; Otto, 1975, 1976). Explanations for these

education gains include the association of participation in organized activities with heightened

school engagement and attendance, better academic performance and interpersonal competence,

and higher aspirations for the future (e.g., Barber, Eccles & Stone, 2001; grossman & Tierney,

1998; Lamborn, Brown, Mounts, & Steinberg, 1992; Mahoney et al., 2003; Newman, Wehlage,

& Lamborn, 1992).

Reduced Problem Behaviors. A number of studies indicate that participation in organized

activities is associated with reduced problem behaviors across adolescence and into young

adulthood. For instance, earlier work in sociology shows that activity participation is related to

low rates of delinquency (e.g., Elliott & voss, 1974; Hanks & Eckland, 1976). More recent

developmental research shows that involvement in organized activities reduces the likelihood of

developing problems with alcohol and drugs (grossman & Tierney, 1998; Youniss, Yates, & Su,

1997, 1999), aggression, antisocial behavior, and crime (e.g., Jones & Offord, 1989; Mahoney,

2000; Rhodes & Spencer, chap.19, this volume), or becoming a teenage parent (Allen, Philliber,

Herrling, & gabriel, 1997). Activity-related affliations with nondeviant peers, mentoring from

adult activity leaders, and the fact that organized activities represent a conventional endeavor that

is highly valued, challenging, and exciting represent the main explanations why organized

activities protect against problem behaviors (e.g., Barber et al., chap.9, this volume; Fletcher,

Elder, & Mekos, 2000; Larson, 2000; Rhodes & Spencer, chap.19, this volume).

Heightened Psychosocial Competencies. Organized activity participation is positively

associated with psychosocial adjustment in a number of areas (Eccles & gootman, 2002). For

instance, participation is related to low levels of negative emotions such as depressed mood and

anxiety during adolescence (Barber et al., 2001; Brustad, Babkes, & Smith, 2001; Larson, 1994;

Mahoney, Schweder, & Stattin, 2002). Motivation for learning and high self-efficacy is linked

with participation (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 1999; Duda & Ntoumanis,

chap.14, this volume). These contexts also appear ideal for promotion of a more general

psychological capacity—initiative—which involves the application of extended effort to reach

long-term goals (e.g., Larson, 2000; Larson et al., chap.8, this volume). Finally, maintaining or

increasing self-esteem (e.g., McLaughlin, 2000; Rhodes & Spencer, chap.19, this volume) and

developing a clear and civic-minded identity (McIntosh et al., chap.15, this volume; Youniss,

McLellan, Su, & Yates, 1999) appear to be positively Influenced by activity participation. The

unique combination of psychological features and opportunities for social relationships and

belonging are main factors thought to impact these psychosocial processes.

Extracurricular Activities During Childhood. Although most investigations of organized

activities have been conducted with adolescents, available research suggests that children benefit

from participation as well. For example, consistent participation in extracurricular activities

during kindergarten and first grade is related to high reading and math achievement (National

Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] Early Child Care Research

Network, 2004). A moderate level of participation during the first grade has also been associated

with high levels of social competence several years later (Pettit, Laird, Bates, & Dodge, 1997).

Similarly, participation in extracurricular activities during middle childhood is indicative of

positive achievement and emotional adjustment (McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 2001; Posner &

vandell, 1999), and predicts perceived competence and values during adolescence (Jacobs,

Lanza, Osgood, Eccles, & Wigfield, 2002; chap.11, this volume).

After-School Programs

Owing in large part to increases in maternal employment, after-school programs now provide a

common form of child care and adult supervision for over 7 million American children with

working parents (Capizzano, Tout, & Adams, 2000). In addition, many after-school programs are

implemented with the goal of providing safe environments and alternatives to self-care, as well

to take advantage of opportunities for social and academic enrichment during the nonschool

hours (vandell et al., chap.20, this volume). These programs are oriented to children in the

elementary and middle-school years.

Relative to children in other after-school arrangements, quasi-experimental longitudinal studies

show that consistent participation in after-school programs promotes positive academic

performance and reduces behavior problems such as aggression (Pettit, Laird, Bates, & Dodge,

1997; vandell et al., chap.20, this volume; Weisman et al., chap.21, this volume). Similarly,

formal evaluations of after-school programs comparing participants and nonparticipants over

time have found fewer school absences, higher school achievement, and improved work and

study habits for participants. 1 Parents of participants also report that after-school programs

support their work schedules and that they worry less about their children’s safety. These

benefits are frequently stronger for disadvantaged children, those with social, academic, or

language defcits, and families residing high-risk neighborhoods.

Overall, after-school program participation appears to promote competence in several key

developmental tasks during middle childhood including academic performance, school

engagement, and social behaviors and relationships. The likelihood for benefcial outcomes

appears greatest for: (a) after-school programs of higher quality and those in later stages of

development, (b) students who show greater consistency in their program participation, and (c)

programs serving low-income and low-achieving students at high risk for developing social-

academic problems. However, many after-school programs focus on academic achievement

rather than aiming to promote competence in personal and interpersonal domains (vandell et al.,

chap.20, this volume). Future research will need to examine what types of programs best serve

the needs of young persons in the short and long term (Quinn, chap.22, this volume).

The 21st-century Community Learning Centers. Funding that supports the 21st-century

Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs) provides a major source of after-school programs in

the United States. A national evaluation of the 21st CCLCs was recently undertaken by

Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. A report describing the first-year findings of the evaluation

purports that the 21st CCLCs had little impact on the academic or social behavior of the

participating elementary and middle-school students (U.S. Department of Education, Offce of

Under Secretary, 2003). This provided the basis for a proposed 40% budget reduction for the

21st CCLCs in 2004 (Education Budget Summary and Background, 2003). However, there are

several limitations with the evaluation. For instance, the elementary school sample was not

representative of the larger population of elementary schools receiving 21st CCLC funds.

Comparison groups in the middle-school sample were not equivalent; the after-school

participants were at much higher risk at the beginning of the study. The absence of certain

baseline data, treatment and comparison group contamination, and issues surrounding the

evaluation’s timing and measurement were also methodological concerns in the National

Evaluation (Bissell et al., 2003; Mahoney, 2003), Finally, the quality of the programs included in

the evaluation was not systematically considered. As already noted, the quality of after-school

programs is very important for their effectiveness. Due to these several limitations, making

generalizations about the effectiveness of the 21st CCLCs based on the reported first-year

findings do not seem warranted. Extrapolation to after-school programs in general is not possible

on the basis of the 21st CCLC evaluation, particularly in light of the several carefully controlled

intervention studies that provide solid evidence of the effectiveness of high quality after-school



Organized activities are important contexts that help young persons build competencies and

successfully negotiate the salient developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence.

Participation is associated with academic success, mental health, positive social relationships and

behaviors, identity development, and civic engagement. These benefits, in turn, pave the way for

long-term educational success and help prepare young persons for the transition to adulthood.

However, although the research findings are generally positive, variations across the types of

programs and the participants suggest the need for researchers to differentiate the features of

programs that facilitate development and the conditions under which the benefits is most likely

to occur.



The preceding section makes it clear that organized activities are contexts in which children and

adolescents develop a range of important competencies. But why is this so? Why should

activities such as playing hockey for the school team, singing in a youth community chorus,

participating in school government, or spending afternoons in after-school program activities


To address this question, a committee of scholars appointed by the National Research Council

and Institute of Medicine recently evaluated what features of contexts promote positive

development (Eccles & gootman, 2002). By looking at research on development in contexts such

as families and schools, they derived the list of eight key features in Table 1.1 that are proven to

facilitate positive growth (see also Blum, 2003; Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000; Roth &

Brooks-gunn, 2003). The panel cautioned that no single feature from this list is sufficient to

ensure positive development, but also that few contexts are likely to provide optimal experiences

in all of these areas. They also cautioned that future research can be expected to add to or refine

this list. Nonetheless these eight features represent the state of the art for thinking about what

might make organized activities such as hockey, student government, or an after-school program

an effective context of development.

TABLE 1.1Features of Contexts That Promote Positive Development

These features can be considered as explanatory mechanisms or mediators by which participation

in organized activities affect the development process. The available research evaluating these

features for organized activities is limited but generally indicates, first, that many organized

activities are high on several of these features and, second, that these features are linked to the

positive outcomes described. On the first point, organized activities typically offer a context of

safety during the after-school hours (e.g., McLaughlin, 2000), often provide opportunities for

skill building and efficacy (Larson, 2000), and are frequently important contexts of supportive

relationships with adults and peers (e.g., Barber et al., chap.9, this volume; Hansen et al., 2003;

Mahoney et al., 2002; Rhodes & Spencer, chap.19, this volume).

Although research specifcally linking these features to outcomes is rare, the National Research

Council committee concluded that successful youth programs are characterized by many of these

features. The most successful programs provide integration between a youth’s family, school,

and community experiences, engage youth in relationships with caring adults, and provide many

of the other positive features (Eccles & gootman, 2002; Pittman et al., chap.17, this volume;

Walker et al., chap.18, this volume). Targeted research that begins to critically test the specifc

linkage between some of these features and positive development is only beginning. As one

exemplar, Mahoney et al. (2003) used longitudinal data to show that the fostering of

interpersonal skills in youth programs is a mediator of high aspirations for the future in

adolescence and high educational attainment—including college attendance—at young


Furthermore, we are only beginning to understand how the different combinations of features in

organized activities interact to promote positive development. For instance, although

participation in organized activities appears to affect complex processes such as identity

formation and the development of initiative, this seems to depend on an appropriate balance of

many of the features already summarized (e.g., Barber et al., chap.9, this volume; Larson et al.,

chap.8, this volume; McIntosh et al., chap.15, this volume). Although expert youth workers have

developed a fund of practitioner wisdom for understanding these balancing processes (Pittman et

al., chap.17, this volume; Walker et al., chap.18, this volume), researchers are far behind in

subjecting this wisdom to critical test. Precisely which features are involved and how they co-act

to produce specifc developmental changes have not yet been evaluated. Thus, one task for

researchers is to understand better the interplay between these features, which patterns are most

critical for promoting different competencies, and how these relations may change over

development. A second and related task will be to assess how and why some organized activity

contexts are more effective at providing these positive features than others (e.g., Stattin et al.,

chap.20, this volume; vandell et al., chap.20, this volume). Both tasks will require researchers to

conduct process-oriented studies focused on individual change that are explicitly designed to

assess a broad array of structural and process quality parameters in the activity context. 2