A recent study on recreation and leisure planning for youth at risk done by Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation PhD Candidate, Tristan Hopper, found that the majority of current policy and practice follows a top-down approach; recreation programmers create a schedule of activities with little input from the youth they are working with. These youths are individuals ages 16-24 who experience any type of marginalization such as insecure housing, homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues or newcomers to Canada.
After consultation with Edmonton-based youth, Tristan found that this traditional way of planning lacks in creating meaningful experiences.
“For so many youth at risk, an hour spent participating in recreational activities is the only hour in the entire day they get to escape the challenges they are dealing with. Incorporating their input during the planning process can go a long way in making that hour a meaningful experience for these youth—something they don’t necessarily get anywhere else.”
Upon reviewing academic literature, Tristan found that research focused on a bottom-up approach—engaging the youth in all processes of leisure program planning—not only created a meaningful experience for both the youth and the programmer, but also helped youth develop skills like leadership, teamwork and organization. Tristan explains that while developing these skills is part and parcel of growing up for most people, youths faced with marginalization aren’t always afforded the same opportunities. An interview with one youth really drove this fact home for Tristan.
“One young man said to me, “Ever since I was the age of 12, I have been in and out of foster care and group homes, and I never really had parents. You don’t know what it’s like to be out all night and not have anyone in the world that cares about where you are.””
“He was right; I don’t know what that’s like.”
It was that interview that helped set the tone and motivations for Tristan’s current and future research projects—to help provide a way of giving power back to these kids who never really had an opportunity to have a say in what can be a meaningful and important decision. Based on his critical review findings and interviews with at-risk youth, Hopper has created a conceptual bottom-up planning model.
The sharing component incorporates the sharing of experiences between youth and practitioners. This sharing can help the two groups find common interests that will help shape leisure activities, engage the youth from the beginning of the planning process, and help practitioners focus on the meanings that leisure activities can promote for the youth.
From there, Tristan’s model focuses on youth-led engagement where youth at risk work alongside other youth and/or adults to establish meaning-making leisure activities. As Hopper explains, youth-led engagement is a positive, constructive way for the youth to develop strength-based skills, which can potentially have effects that trickle into their daily lives.
“By engaging youth, and building on skills such as leadership, teamwork and organization, they can perhaps transfer these skills into their lives in order to help them find secure housing or creating and maintaining healthier, more meaningful relationships.”
Building healthy relationships is the third major component of Tristan’s proposed model. An underlying theme Tristan found throughout his interviews with the youth was the lack of healthy relationships they have in their lives—mostly with adults. Tristan believes that the youth/adult collaboration his model promotes can be instrumental in showing these youths what not only what healthy relationships with adults can look like, but that these healthy relationships are attainable.
While Tristan firmly believes his proposed model and other bottom-up approaches are needed for youth at risk, he is aware of the challenges this style of approach faces.
“This approach isn’t an easy way to go about recreation, sport and leisure programming. It takes a lot of hard work and patience to involved youth in the planning process, and since most practitioners are either volunteering with or working for non-profit agencies, resources are often quite limited.”
Tristan adds that since a lot of the at-risk youth are transient; maintaining contact and engagement with an individual or group of youths can be difficult, adding to the challenges practitioners face with this style of approach.
Regardless of the challenges, Tristan is still confident that his proposed model is an effective method of creating meaningful leisure experiences for youth at risk.
His second research project will focus on working with a local addictions and mental health community linking program called Challenge by Choice. This Edmonton-based organization is already employing a bottom-up approach, and Tristan feels that exploring Challenge by Choice is a great way to demonstrate that this style of approach is possible, and can go a long way in creating overall meaningful experiences for at-risk youth.
“These young people are dealing with a gamut of challenges. If engaging them in recreation, sport and leisure planning can make even the smallest bit of difference in their lives, then I think it’s important that organizations and practitioners at least try this approach.”
Tristan hopes by the end of his Doctoral research, which will contain three research projects in total, the idea of a bottom-up approach and co-developing meaningful relationships between recreation practitioners and at-risk youth becomes more common practice.
Tristan Hopper is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Kinesiology,Sport, and Recreation working under the supervision associate profession Tara-Leigh McHugh
(Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation) and Dr. Yoshi Iwasaki
(Faculty of Extension)