Harnessing the Big Three: Positive youth development during the “leisure paradox”

By Jean Rhodes

In a recent issue of the Journal of Youth Development, researchers describe the leisure paradox: Just as social distancing and the end of the school year have left young people with more free time than ever, there has been an abrupt halt to the summer camps, sports leagues, and other leisure activities that once filled out of school time.  As the authors note, “This leisure paradox begs the question of whether and how to engage youth in forms of leisure that intentionally contribute to their positive development.” In the commentary, excepted below, they draw from youth development theory, research, and practice to provide a rich set of ideas and extremely helpful resources that caring adults and programs can use to help sustain, adapt, and even create developmentally oriented leisure opportunities for youth this summer. Their recommendations are framed around the Big Three model of youth development which points to the vital role of: relationships with adult leaders, skill-building activities, and meaningful youth leadership (Lerner, Lerner, Lewin-Bizan, et al., 2011). Each of these is briefly elaborated on below and expanded on in the next sections.

“Caring Adult Leaders

The first of the Big Three features is non-parental adult leaders who provide youth with support and guidance, and help youth feel connected, cared about, and valued (e.g., Lerner, Lerner, Lewin-Bizan, et al., 2011). Youth who are not involved in programs may find adult mentorship through community leaders, extended family members (e.g., grandparents), or teachers, among others (e.g., Bowers et al., 2012). Youth need relationships with adults during the pandemic, for example, to help them understand restrictions and guidelines, navigate challenges of virtual learning environments, or cope with stress induced by the pandemic. However, youth may struggle to feel emotionally connected in virtual spaces and may have limited space (mentally or physically) to discuss difficult topics in private. Moreover, ensuring youth safety in virtual spaces (e.g., monitoring of private electronic communications) can add stress for parents and caregivers. Some youth may therefore experience significant barriers to maintaining relationships with adults during the pandemic, such as disrupted contact with teachers and OST program leaders, and lack of access to technology or Internet resources (e.g., youth who live in homes with several people competing for limited resources that are now in high demand). Youth will need to be proactive in seeking out and maintaining relationships with adults, and adults should prioritize staying connected to youth and understanding their needs.

VIRTUAL MEETINGS ARE THE “bread and butter” of the pandemic. Some youth may be averse to virtual meetings and unfamiliar with common platforms. Some youth may prefer virtual spaces and might be more familiar with them than adults. Nevertheless, we should be careful to neither underestimate nor overestimate youth abilities to navigate and use technology. Just as for adults, virtual meetings and related software provide an essential opportunity. For example, virtual meetings may provide the benefits of breadth of interests, such as sharing meaningful belongings, and depth of conversation, such as sharing home lives. Many leaders are sustaining programs virtually and how they choose to proceed will matter for maintaining youth-adult relationships. Synchronous, real-time meetings—rather than only sending youth activities to complete on their own—are important for youth to maintain social connections with their leaders and peers. Practitioners (and many researchers) are already devoting time to professional development to learn to use and maximize virtual meeting platforms (e.g., Zoom hosts free and interactive live training webinars). Some may also consider devoting professional development time to strengthening staff understanding of the importance of relationships and

Building relational capacities in other ways (e.g., The aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development provides a variety of online resources). The key is to focus on developing and/or sustaining meaningful relationships and the capacities needed for them.

Virtual meetings can also be used in more innovative ways, such as parallel play, where the adult and youth engage in similar activities in different places (e.g., baking or making art together). Some people are also finding creative ways to meet while social distancing. For example, a schoolteacher in South Dakota became an internet sensation because he went to his student’s house to give her math lessons on her front porch and through the protection of a glass door (Lee, 2020). Table 1 provides additional examples of innovative ways in which youth and families are sustaining, adapting, or creating opportunities for adult-youth relationships during the pandemic.


Table 1. Supporting Youth-Adult Relationships During the COVID-19 Pandemic Organization Description Website
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play Ideas for parents and coaches to keep kids active and keep athletic teams engaged, such as having the team watch a sports movie and then come together virtually to discuss the lessons learned. Link
Search Institute Tip sheet to help adults nurture PYD among the youth in their lives. Link
MENTOR (The National Mentoring Partnership) E-mentoring platform, and resources for mentors engaging virtually with youth. Link
Many local organizations (e.g., Living Classrooms in Baltimore and Seven Tepees Youth Program in San Francisco, Crittenton Services of Greater Washington) Staff at many organizations serving under-resourced youth are calling or texting students and their families to check in, or connecting with youth through social media. Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

Fuller Youth Institute Guidance for youth ministry during the pandemic, including creating spaces for youth to pray for the world and those most impacted. Link
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) Resources for parents and educators to help support youth and strengthen relationships. Link


Skill-Building Activities

The second of the Big Three features is youth engagement in skill-building activities. There may be a tendency during the pandemic to relax rules and allow youth infinite unstructured free time. Youth are, of course, going through a crisis and experiencing incredible change with little notice. However, even a small “dose” (e.g., several weeks) of unstructured leisure can negatively affect youth developmental pathways. For example, youth who lack structured leisure opportunities in the summer lag behind their peers academically at the beginning and across the next school year, a phenomenon referred to as “summer loss” (Cooper et al., 2000). To offset these declines, it will be important to identify skill-building activities that can be modified based on individual situations and that meaningfully engage youth during the pandemic (focusing on youth experience of the activity, rather than just the outcome of it). These activities may be the same ones as those which occur in their youth programs, although the form of engagement may differ, or youth may be inspired to engage in new activities.

There are many challenges to adapting program activities to be online. Many activities, such as sports, are not easily adapted to virtual meetings. Moreover, many youth lack materials, space, or equipment at home to engage in these types of activities. Another challenge may be that skill-building activities often require assistance or scaffolding from adults who may not be physically present to guide learning. Youth who do not have an adult available to help (e.g., youth whose parents are working from home or are essential workers) or whose parents are under extreme stress (e.g., youth whose parents are coping with job loss or financial strain) may find it challenging to seek out skill-building opportunities during the pandemic. When parents are available, there may be a learning curve for them to be able to support youth (e.g., many parents are relearning early school subjects to help youth with school lessons; Edwardson, 2020). A primary challenge may be determining what youth or families need during the pandemic, yet this also presents an opportunity. One way to address youth and family needs through skill-building activities is to engage youth in research and evaluation, such as needs-based assessments. Needs-based assessments are useful to determine and address needs of youth served by the program, can be done online and with minimal resources, and will help sustain programs through and after the pandemic (e.g., Jones, & Perkins, 2003). The challenge is to find innovative ways to engage youth in whatever ways make sense for their pandemic situation and to make such adaptations for each individual youth in the program.

The pandemic may also present new opportunities for skill-building activities. As families are restricted to their homes, they may find opportunities for family activities that were not previously available. Cooking has become a popular pastime for many homebound adults during the pandemic, which could present an opportunity to teach youth cooking or other related life skills. For example, a bakery on the brink of closure due to the pandemic began selling at-home pizza-making kits to encourage families to make dinner together (Barnett, 2020). Games can also be skill-building activities and can be solitary or social. Games of strategy (e.g., board games), chance (e.g., card games), cooperation (e.g., team-based games) or creativity (e.g., charades) can help youth build strategic thinking, interpersonal skills, and social-emotional capacities. There is also an abundance of media-based games that are skill-building and that can be played virtually with friends (note that it will be important to monitor youth internet use to avoid predators). There are also many authors and artists livestreaming their work and producing activities for youth, which could be skill-building if youth are learning to follow complex storylines, or producing or learning about art. Innovative examples of skill-building activities to engage youth during the pandemic are provided in Table 2.


Table 2. Supporting Youth Skill-Building During the COVID-19 Pandemic Organization Description Website
Living Classrooms in Baltimore Staff are engaging youth in a variety of activities, by providing STEAM activity boxes for families to pick up at food distribution sites and holding virtual music classes. Link
Northern Stage theater company in VT Hosting a virtual youth program involving journaling and the group creation of a documentary play. Link
The Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute Recommending young people use this time to connect with their families and learn more about their cultural heritage. Link
4-H “4-H at Home” program is helping youth in 4-H programs to continue learning and building new skills while social distancing. Link
Table 2. (continued) Organization Description Website
Active Healthy Kids global alliance Encouraging families to help youth stay physically active during the pandemic. Link
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Providing educational games and skill-building activities for children and families. Link
LiveScience Updating their website with educational activities and online resources for kids. Link


Leadership Opportunities

The third of the Big Three features is opportunities to lead and enact skills in valued family, community, or school settings. Many youth who were leading initiatives through OST programs may have experienced an abrupt halt to their important work. For example, the pandemic forced one youth-serving organization, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Wisconsin, to cancel their annual Shamrock Shuffle race, a fundraising event that raises over $100,000 for local youth (Almenara, 2020). Instead of waiting until after the pandemic to resume these programs and events, youth, such as those involved in the Boys & Girls Club, can rethink their fundraising strategies and be creative with online donation platforms (Waldon, 2020). Youth can also shift their focus to new leadership initiatives within their programs. For example, as described earlier, youth can learn to design and implement needs-based assessments during the pandemic and can take a more meaningful leadership approach by utilizing youth-led participatory action research ([YPAR]; e.g., Ozer, 2016). YPAR is used to address youth and community needs, but is based in social justice principles that redefine expertise and power as shared between youth and adults. Youth who cannot continue their leadership initiatives within their programs might shift their focus to new initiatives, such as YPAR, which can be accessed through a variety of online resources, such as the YPAR Hub at the University of California, Berkeley.

Importantly, youth do not need to be affiliated with a program to make a difference during the pandemic. The pandemic presents abundant opportunities to make a difference in local and global ways. The challenge may be that it is hard to know what actions to take, what initiatives to launch, or to which campaigns to contribute. There is often misinformation or little helpful information made available to the public about catastrophic events; this inhibits youth abilities to know how to make an impact or to understand who is in need. Moreover, it is difficult to make a difference in the community when people are restricted from physically being in the community. Youth may be particularly challenged to find leadership opportunities if they have few material and financial resources or limited social networks to engage for information or support. Another resource often touted as inhibiting youth or family engagement in social initiatives is time. During the pandemic, however, time is plentiful for some and may be applied through leadership initiatives that help affected communities. Of course, we acknowledge that time is not a resource that all youth and families are experiencing during the pandemic. Many families, such as intergenerational families, large families, families with young or many children, families with parents who are simultaneously working from home and homeschooling their children, or families trying to keep struggling businesses afloat, may have limited time. Moreover, youth may have shifting responsibilities that prohibit their engagement in community-level, leisure-time leadership roles; these youth might turn inward for new leadership opportunities within the family (e.g., caring for siblings or preparing family meals).

For youth who are able to engage in leadership opportunities, serving affected communities is a relevant and meaningful way to apply and develop skills. Youth can launch their own initiatives or contribute to local or global initiatives. For example, two teenagers in Maryland caught the attention of CNN for organizing and leading an initiative to deliver food to the elders in their community (Dawson, 2020). Youth can become involved in local or global initiatives by soliciting donations, organizing deliveries, identifying those in need, or raising money through virtual platforms, such as GoFundMe. Importantly, youth do not need to focus their attention outwardly on their communities to make a difference. Youth can make an impact at home by organizing family time, presenting ideas for family activities, and, if needed, by helping their families find donated supplies through community websites, such as Facebook or Nextdoor. Additional ideas for involving youth in leadership opportunities during the pandemic are presented in Table 3.


Table 3. Supporting Youth Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic Organization Description Website
Youth everywhere Youth all over the country are sewing masks to help keep people safe in their communities. Link 1

Link 2


Youth everywhere Youth climate activists are conducting online strikes. Link
The Wilder Foundation Youth Leadership Initiative in Minnesota Moved programming online so youth can continue to work on their service projects. Link
Psychology Today Advising parents to use family meetings as a vehicle for youth leadership development. Link
The International Youth Foundation Highlighting the efforts of youth leaders around the world on their social media. Link
Colorado Crisis Services Youth leaders are developing a campaign to raise awareness of mental health during the pandemic. Link


Table 3. (continued) Organization Description Website
YouthLead Highlighting the efforts of youth leaders around the world, and empowering young people to take a stand against COVID-19. Link
The Root Identified 25 youth leaders for their Young Futurists 2020 award, remembering that leadership is important in all areas, not just pandemic response. Link



Adapt to Shifting Needs —In navigating these difficult times, we recommend that youth programs adapt what they do to promote PYD while remaining focused on their theory of change; the roadmap for why and how the program operates. The pandemic has current and potentially long-term impacts on many youth programs, especially smaller programs and nonprofits that lack the resources to cover expenses while their programming is interrupted. Just as many people are losing their lives to COVID-19, many businesses and organizations are also closing or fighting to survive. Maintaining the focus on how and why they do what they do, whether a program is based on the Big Three (as modeled here) or another youth development model, will help keep the program itself on course even as program delivery and content adapt to the changing world around us. Every organization will have to find their own way to navigate the new normal, based on local context and the specific needs of youth, but grounding these adaptations in the programs’ theory of change will ensure that this work continues to best serve the organization’s mission and youth.

Re-Focus on Practitioner Support —In turn, we recommend that researchers be intentional about discovering the needs, challenges, and opportunities that arise during the pandemic for youth and the practitioners who serve them. Researchers should continue to do what they do best – _research – _however, research is a long-term investment that often has a delayed impact. Moreover, taking care not to exploit vulnerable populations through the research process will be of utmost importance. For immediate impact, research can be applied to support youth development practice. Practitioners have a wealth of information about the experiences of local communities and how to make an impact.

Recognize and Invent Future Possibilities : Ultimately, we recommend that researchers and practitioners with secure positions and the opportunity to reflect should partner together to help shape the future of OST and PYD. While many are caught up in the immediacy of the crisis, thinking about the possibilities presented as we all begin to define a new normal is essential to move forward. While considering the new normal, there should be recognition that practitioners are more likely to be on the front lines of the pandemic’s economic impact while researchers are often more protected.

Invest in Practitioner Professional Development :As the youth sector navigates a new normal, we recommend searching for and investing in the professional development and training of the adults who most influence young people’s learning and development. Despite immediate challenges, the disruption in service delivery and the related potential freeing up of time (and unfortunate loss of jobs) may make professional development viable during the pandemic. We noted above the importance of youth-adult relationships. The pandemic has given too many professionals in the youth development field more free time, however unfortunate, and these professionals have not stopped caring and worrying about their youth. The youth development sector should pursue innovative ways to invest in the workforce, pay for professional development where possible, and create spaces and resources for staff to invest in their own professional growth. Programs should explore how they can strengthen their workforce as well as support them during these times or risk them leaving their programs or the youth development field altogether. To support these efforts, many intermediaries (e.g., the members of Every Hour Counts), as well as statewide afterschool networks and associations (e.g., the National Afterschool Association), are increasing access to virtual professional development opportunities.

In conclusion, we will also need to be supportive of each other, both professionally and in recognition that many of us are facing this pandemic both as researchers or practitioners AND as parents or caregivers. Nevertheless, even as the pandemic creates new challenges and exacerbates existing disparities, opportunities to foster positive youth development persist as does our capacity to promote that development through our intentional actions. It will be up to us to sustain, adapt, and create the elements that we know work to support youth development during the pandemic.”


Excerpted from the JYD

Andrea Vest Ettekal

Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences, Texas A&M University

Jennifer P. Agans

Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, The Pennsylvania State University