Non-School Curriculum: Supporting Positive Development Through Structured Activities

Sandra Simpkins, Jacquelynne S Eccles, Janice L Templeton. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publications, 2008.

Children in the United States spend nearly half of their waking hours outside of school (Larson & Verma, 1999). Due to the rise in dual-income families and working single mothers, many children are not supervised by parents during this time. They spend much of this time in relaxed leisure (e.g., hanging out with friends, watching television, reading) and organized or structured activities. Structured afterschool activities include two broad categories: (1) community-based programs and (2) extracurricular activities. Community-based or afterschool programs include a wide variety of programs, such as the YMCA, religious-based youth groups, and Boy Scouts. Extracurricular activities are offered at the school or lessons in the community and typically occur (although not always) outside of the school hours. They include such activities as student government, band, art lessons, and sports. This chapter delves into both types of structured afterschool activities.

Researchers have theorized that structured activities are different from relaxed leisure in several regards (Csik-szentmihalyi, 1991). Structured afterschool activities provide opportunities to (1) acquire and practice specific social, physical, and intellectual skills; (2) contribute to the well-being of one’s community and develop a sense of agency as a member of one’s community; (3) belong to a socially recognized and valued group; (4) establish supportive peer and adult social networks; and (5) experience and deal with challenges.

There is growing interest in the developmental consequences of participation in structured activities. It is largely fueled by (1) concerns about the possible role of such activities in both promoting school achievement and preventing school dropout and disengagement, (2) the continuing disparities in the school achievement of poor youth of all ethnic and racial groups compared to White middle-class youth, (3) concerns about whether youth are adequately prepared to enter an increasingly demanding and technical labor market, and (4) the amount of unsuper-vised time experienced by so many youth (e.g., Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Lerner & Galambos, 1998).

In this chapter, we review several bodies of work in an effort to identify the components of structured activities that can facilitate the cognitive, psychological, and social aspects of positive youth development. In the first section, we review research addressing the links between participation in structured activities and youth adjustment. In the second section, we discuss potential mechanisms that might mediate or explain these relations. In the final section, we address three remaining issues or controversies in the afterschool field.

Structured Activities and Youth Development

The release of A Matter of Time by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (1992) put a spotlight on the role productive use of time might play in successful adolescent development and school achievement. It illustrated how much discretionary time adolescents have and how much of this time is spent on leisure activities like “hanging out” with one’s friends, watching television, and listening to music. The authors argued that constructive, structured activities would be a better use of the adolescents’ time because (1) they take time away from opportunities to get involved in risky activities; (2) one can learn good things while engaged in constructive activities—things like specific competencies, prosocial values and attitudes; and (3) they increase the possibility of establishing positive social supports and networks. Studies on extracurricular activities and afterschool programs support these claims.

Studies of Extracurricular Activities

Support for the benefits of participation in extracurricular activities is evident in classic sociological pieces as well as research born out of the resurging interest in activity participation. Recent work has shown that participation in extracurricular activities is associated with

  • Declines in the chance of school dropout, particularly during the early high school years and for high-risk youth (e.g., Mahoney & Cairns, 1997);
  • Reduced rates of substance use and criminal offending (Mahoney, 2000);
  • Increases in interpersonal competence, self-concept, high school grade point average (GPA), school engagement, and educational aspirations (Eccles & Barber, 1999; Elder & Conger, 2000; Mahoney, Cairns, & Farmer, 2003); and
  • Active participation in the political process and other types of volunteer activities, and better mental health into young adulthood.

These outcomes become stronger with the increasing number of years one participates in the same activity or if one is involved in a leadership role. These relations hold even after the other obvious predictors of such outcomes are controlled—giving us some confidence that these effects do not just reflect the selection factors that lead to participation in the first place.

Studies of Afterschool Programs

The term afterschool program is used to refer to a wide range of community-based programs. These programs differ along a variety of dimensions, such as their focus, attendance expectations, and whether they are part of a national organization. For instance, many afterschool programs are multicomponent programs, which include numerous different activities from which children can choose to participate (e.g., sports, art, and homework help). On the other end of the spectrum, there are programs with one specific focus and all participants engage in the same activity. Programs also vary in terms of whether they operate on a drop-in basis or required attendance. In addition, some programs are based locally, such as a youth organization run by the community synagogue; whereas other programs are offered nationally, such as 4-H or 21st Century programs. These three distinctions as well as others denote the diversity in the landscape of afterschool programs. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to cover all evaluations of these programs here. Rather, the goal of this section is to highlight a few exciting programs, resources for further information, and studies that summarize multiple program evaluations.

There are some very exciting and innovative programs available to today’s youth. One of these programs is the Fifth Dimension (also known as UC Links; Cole & The Distribution Literacy Consortium, 2006). Although each specific program varies, there are certain core commonalities that are strongly based on developmental theory. For instance, mentoring is a key component of each program and includes peer-peer mentoring as well as adult-youth mentoring. Many of the adult members are college students, which strengthens ties between the program members and the local university. The activities offered in the program are designed to gradually expand on youth’s skills through active learning (and often through computer-based interactions). Many of these programs are offered where it was started in California, but these programs have been established around the world. There are also noteworthy citywide programs that have a long established history, such as The After-School Corporation (TASC) in New York City and LA’s BEST in Los Angeles. There are many other compelling programs. We, however, highlighted these particular programs due to their track record or innovation in addition to their resources on the Internet. These programs have their own Web sites as noted in Table 72.1 with descriptions of the programs and a wealth of evaluation information.

There are several books and organizations that provide detailed information on a variety of programs. Two key books on this topic are the National Research Council report, Community Programs to Promote Youth Development (Eccles & Gootman, 2002), and a recent edited book on afterschool activities (Mahoney, Larson, & Eccles, 2005). Many organizations provide a variety of resources via the Internet as shown in Table 72.1. People can search and learn about specific programs and program evaluations through a database managed by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP). Many organizations, such as HFRP National Institute on Out-of-School Time (MOST), and the Afterschool Alliance, provide free documents with information and tools for program leaders and those interested in afterschool activities. Another set of organizations have conducted evaluations on afterschool programs. Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), for example, provides their evaluations of the Boys & Girls Clubs and Beacons programs (as well as others) on their Web site.

Table 72.1 Web Sites for a Sample of Afterschool Programs and Organizations With Resources on Programs Web Sites for a Sample of Afterschool Programs and Organizations With Resources on Programs

Program/Organization Web Site
The Fifth Dimension
The After-School Corporation
Harvard Family Research Project
National Institute on Out-of-School Time
The Afterschool Alliance
Public/Private Ventures

There are several reports available in which researchers compiled the findings of multiple program evaluations through a written review or by testing the statistical significance of findings in a meta-analysis. Five of these reports are reviewed here. These studies include a wide range of programs, such as those that focus on prevention as well as positive youth development. The first two studies we review focused on specific types of programs; whereas, the latter three studies examined the broader spectrum of youth development programs.

Adventure programs, such as Outward Bound, consist of expeditions with activities such as rock climbing, rafting, backpacking, and cross-country skiing. The physical and mental challenges are the vehicles for participants to discover their strengths, manage their weaknesses, and use that knowledge along with group cooperation to master the outdoor challenges. In a meta-analysis, Hattie and colleagues (1997) found that these programs had their greatest immediate effects on such psychological, emotional, and cognitive characteristics as self-control, confidence in one’s abilities to be effective, good decision making, improved school achievement, leadership, independence, assertiveness, emotional stability, social comparison, time management, and flexibility. Many post-program positive effects were maintained over time and some effects increased over time. The most notable were for decision-making skills, academic self-concept, values, and reduced aggression.

Others have evaluated delinquency, drug, and violence prevention programs ( Of the 450 programs reviewed, 11 were considered model programs as they were associated with youth’s lower delinquency, drug use, and/or violent behavior. The common features of these programs were that they taught life skills and provided strong adult social support. The programs also included one or more of the following features: comprehensive educational services, mental health services, and development activities designed to help youth learn various life skills and develop confidence in themselves, as well as financial incentives for attendance.

In three studies, researchers have taken a broader look at programs by focusing on positive youth development programs. In the first study, researchers examined 25 programs that were “successful” in terms of youth adjustment (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 1999). Most of the programs evidenced reductions in children’s problem behavior and increases in children’s well-being including relationships, academic achievement, and self-efficacy. Two characteristics were identified as salient in many of the successful programs: social bonding with adults and peers (76% of the programs) and opportunities for community involvement and recognized positive behavior (86% of the programs). The prevalence of such opportunities provides evidence for the importance of leadership and mattering. Youth in many of these successful programs were provided opportunities to contribute to their “community” and were valued and recognized for those contributions.

The findings of this review were echoed in a recent meta-analysis (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007). Findings across 73 programs showed that participation in a wide variety of programs was associated with higher self-esteem, school bonding, and academic achievement as well as lower problem behavior. Their study also suggests that programs that exhibited the following characteristics were most effective: sequenced activities (i.e., activities that sequentially build skills), active learning, focus on personal or social skills, and explicit goals to targeting those personal and social skills (SAFE).

A study by Roth and colleagues highlights the variety in youth development programs and how a program’s main focus is associated with variant youth outcomes. Of the 15 programs reviewed, 6 programs were focused on positive-behavior and competency/asset-enhancing programs. All six programs showed positive changes, such as improvements in educational achievement, school attendance and engagement, interpersonal skills, and problem behaviors. Three programs were resistance skills-based prevention programs. Although these programs were the least consistent in terms of a positive youth development focus, youth in these programs showed declines in problem behaviors. Roth and colleagues also concluded that more comprehensive programs with youth who participated for longer durations were the most successful.

All of the program evaluations in these studies included children who attended the same program. For example, children included in the evaluation of a Beacons program all attended the Beacons program. Researchers have also examined child outcomes for children who attend a variety of programs. In this strategy, researchers include children who live in the same area, but attend different programs. Thus, two children in a study may both attend programs, but one may attend a Boys and Girls Club and the other may attend Beacons. Researchers who have designed studies along these lines have also found that participation in afterschool programs is typically associated with positive adjustment. Many of the positive effects in these studies are especially marked for low-income or at-risk youth.


There is considerable convergence in the findings on extracurricular activities and the findings on program evaluations. Together, they provide strong evidence that participating in extracurricular activities and afterschool programs is associated with both short- and long-term indicators of positive development including school achievement and educational attainment. These studies, however, tell us less about the reasons for these associations.

Mediating Mechanisms

Researchers have put forth several potential mechanisms to account for the relations between activity participation and adjustment. People have suggested that participating in a structured activity provides an individual with increased human capital, such as knowledge or skills, and higher social capital, which refers to one’s relationships. Here, we discuss two interrelated mechanisms put forth by Eccles, Barber, and colleagues, namely identity formation and the social norms of one’s peer networks (Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Eccles & Barber, 1999).

Through a series of studies, Eccles and Barber found support for these mediating mechanisms. For instance, youth involved in both team sports and school-spirit-related extracurriculars did better academically both during and after high school than other youth. But these youth also reported higher alcohol consumption than their non-involved peers. When asked their identity type, these youth selected the Jock and the Princess, two groups who also reported both high rates of alcohol consumption and academic achievement. When asked about their peer group, these youth reported having high proportions of friends who were both academically oriented and involved in relatively high levels of alcohol consumption. This pattern of convergence explained a substantial amount of the variance associated with high rates of both drinking and academic achievement during the high school and college years.

To date, only a few studies have specifically tested whether friends’ characteristics explain how activity participation is related to adolescent adjustment. The findings are somewhat mixed. Researchers have examined friends’ positive characteristics, such as friends who value school and participate in structured activities, and negative characteristics, such as friends who skip school or drink alcohol. The findings on friends’ positive characteristics suggest that one of the reasons why activity participation predicts adolescent adjustment is because of their friends. On the other hand, having friends with negative characteristics explained the relations between participation and adolescent adjustment in one data set, but not another. Essentially, activity participation did not predict friends’ with negative characteristics in one data set. The authors speculated that structured activities may largely play a promotive role in that they are a context for youth to develop and maintain friendships with other youth who have positive characteristics. On the other hand, there may be wide variation in whether activities play a protective role in shielding adolescents from contact with youth who have negative characteristics. These conclusions are tentative given that only one study has examined the negative side of adolescents’ friends. One final study did not support the idea that adolescents’ friends are the reason why activity participation impacts adjustment (Darling, Caldwell, & Smith, 2005). More research is needed given our limited knowledge on this topic and fundamental methodological differences between existing studies. Nevertheless, these findings on the role of adolescents’ friends are promising. Although there are the beginnings of strong theoretical models regarding peers, identity, and other mediating mechanisms through which these settings have their influence, more empirical work is badly needed to test these predictions.

Remaining Issues and Controversies

What Participation Matters?

Numerous studies of activity participation use one of two indicators of participation: absolute participation or participation intensity. Absolute participation is a dichotomous indicator differentiating whether youth participate in a particular activity. Participation intensity measures how much time youth spend in activities. Although both of these indicators are valuable, they do not capture the diversity and depth of activity participation. There are several other indicators that capture different aspects of participation. Importantly, empirical research with these indicators is beginning to show their utility.

One indicator that has received a fair amount of attention is participation duration. Duration measures how many years a youth participates in an activity. Researchers have consistently found that the longer a youth participates in an activity (i.e., duration), the more likely it is that they will be well adjusted (e.g., Eccles & Barber, 1999; Mahoney et al., 2003). One can combine duration and intensity to answer some very interesting questions, such as do youth who participate at a high intensity for a long duration reap similar benefits as youth who participate at a low intensity for a long duration? Although only a few researchers have combined duration and intensity into a single indicator, an evaluation of the TASC program suggests that youth who were the most well adjusted participated at a higher intensity for multiple years.

Another indicator of activity participation is the type of activity in which youth participate and whether they participate in a breadth of activity types. It is estimated that approximately 70% of adolescents simultaneously participate in multiple types of structured activities (Larson, Hansen, & Moneta, 2006), such as sports and an activity sponsored by their church. Researchers have labeled the variety of adolescents’ participation across different activity types, such as sports and religious activities, as activity breadth (Eccles & Barber, 1999).

Breadth captures an aspect of activity participation that is unique from the traditional measures of participation intensity. Activity breadth describes the variety of activity participation whereas participation intensity captures time. For example, two youth might participate in activities for 6 hours per week, but one youth might only participate in one activity whereas the other youth might divide his/her time across two activities. These youth have the same participation intensity, but differ in terms of activity breadth. Although activity breadth and intensity are related, they are conceptually distinct and have unique power in predicting outcomes. The research on breadth is just emerging. This work suggests that activity breadth is associated with positive adjustment, such as well-being and academic achievement.

An alternative way to capture the variety of activity participation is to identify different patterns of participation. For example, Zarrett (2007) has identified several different types of adolescents who participate in sport activities. There are youth who largely participate in only sports, youth who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as youth who participate in sports and work. These patterns are associated with variant outcomes. For instance, the association between sports participation and alcohol use found in previous studies (e.g., Eccles & Barber, 1999) emerged only for the group of youth who participated in only sports, but not for youth who participated in sports and another activity (e.g., work). Although all adolescents’ alcohol use increase from eighth to eleventh grade, the largest increase occurred for youth in the sports-only activity group. Thus, the specific coupling or patterns of participation matter.

Are Youth Who Attend Structured Activities Different than Those Who Do Not?

Many people have questioned whether the reason for the differences in youth adjustment attributed to activity participation is simply a reflection of differences that were evident in youth before they participated in the activities. In other words, are youth who select to participate in structured activities more well adjusted in the first place than youth who select not to participate? Such selection factors are a concern in all study designs, even experimental designs (as youth are still selecting to be participants in the study). But these concerns are most serious for nonexperi-mental designs. Because researchers using longitudinal designs typically assess change over time and include indicators of the most obvious third variables in their analyses, these studies provide stronger evidence that participation actually causes change.

Evidence from recent studies suggests that there are both selection and participation effects. Youth who chose to participate in extracurricular activities are different from those who do not in ways that are predictive of better long-term developmental trajectories. These youth also appear to benefit from their participation (Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Mahoney et al., 2003). Researchers are beginning to take a serious look at the factors that promote and sustain youth’s participation in structured activities. This body of work collectively suggests that youth’s participation varies according to individual characteristics and contexts in which youth are embedded, such as the family, peers, and neighborhoods.

Individual characteristics, such as demographic indicators and motivational beliefs, predict differences in activity participation. Participation systematically varies by demographic characteristics. For example, Latinos and low-income youth are typically least likely to participate in structured activities, particularly activities that require sizable monetary or temporal commitments (e.g., Bouffard, et al.). In addition to demographic indicators, youth are more likely to participate in activities they value or believe they possess the skills to succeed.

Table 72.2 Contextual Features Likely to Support Positive Youth Development Contextual Features Likely to Support Positive Youth Development

• Adequate provisions for physical and psychological safety
• Developmentally appropriate levels of structure and adult supervision
• Strong social support from adults and peers
• Inclusive social networks and structures
• Strong positive social norms for behavior
• Intentional learning experiences designed to teach the skills necessary to do well in such social institutions as school and the workforce
• Motivational practices that support a mastery motivation focus
• Opportunities to make a real difference in and out of the organization—to experience leadership and mattering

Researchers have begun to broaden their examination of the predictors of participation to include theoretically important contexts, such as families, peers, and neighborhoods. Researchers have shown that parents’ behaviors predict youth’s participation in structured activities. Preliminary studies also point to the importance of youth’s friends in terms of selecting into and sustaining their participation in an activity. Researchers have begun to address how multiple contexts predict participation. For example, Wimer and colleagues (in press) found that the strongest predictors of participation were proximal factors, such as individual and family indicators, in contrast to more distal contexts, such as the school and neighborhood.

What about Program Quality?

One of the major issues that the afterschool field is facing is how to conceptualize and measure program quality. Most of the studies in which they predict youth outcomes do not include characteristics of the extracurricular activities or programs, but we know that not all activities are the same. Even the best longitudinal studies either did not collect or collected very weak measures of the activities themselves—making inferences about which specific aspects of the programs and activities might be responsible for change quite speculative.

There is a presumption that activity contexts provide the kinds of experiences that should promote positive development. Certainly, years of work on schooling demonstrate that certain types of classroom experiences are better than others at promoting learning as well as other aspects of positive development. Recent work in the afterschool field is confirming these findings on the differential effect of quality and experiences. We discussed some of the key structural and programmatic features of “successful” programs in Table 72.2 in the section describing the links between program participation and adjustment (see Eccles & Gootman [2002] for a complete list). Here, we focus on the importance of interactions and relationships at the structured activities.

Mahoney and his Swedish colleagues are studying the characteristics of leisure activities that are linked with both positive and negative youth outcomes. Like many such studies, their early work took for granted that extracurricular activities have the following characteristics: They are voluntary, structured, challenging, and connected to the school (e.g., Mahoney et al., 2003). In their recent work, they found that participating in highly structured and adult-supervised leisure activities is associated with less antisocial behavior than participating in less structured leisure activities at youth recreation centers (Mahoney & Stattin, 2000). Mahoney and Stattin (2002) also found that participation in afterschool activities is linked to lower levels of depressive affect primarily for those youth who perceived high social support from their activity leader.

The importance of youth-adult relationships was also born out of the systematic work on sport programs. Numerous studies describe the importance of perceived social support from coaches, family members, peers, and the audience. Furthermore, using an experimental design, Smoll and colleagues demonstrated that youth who work with a coach who had participated in a 3-hour training program on emotional support show greater increases in their self-esteem than youth working with coaches who have not had this training. In sum, these studies show that youth develop better mental health, motivation, and values in sports programs that emphasize skill acquisition rather than winning and that stress the importance of coaches providing strong emotional support.

Several studies also highlight the importance of peer relationships in terms of motivation to continue participating and in terms of adjustment (Dishion, Poulin, & Burraston, 2001; Mahoney, & Stattin, 2002). For instance, problematic behaviors on the part of peer participants in structured activity settings are linked over time to increases in involvement in such behaviors by many of the participants.

Many of these program evaluations point to a common set of specific qualities that are important in terms of youth outcomes. In an effort to further the work on program quality, the Forum for Youth Investment has compiled measures that can be used to assess program quality in research and program evaluations. This is a significant step in the right direction. However, much more research is needed before we will fully understand the role of program quality in impact of activity participation on positive youth development.


Structured afterschool activities matter. Children and adolescents who participate have better short- and long-term adjustment. They typically evidence high psychological well-being, have positive relationships with peers and adults, and excel academically. Two potential reasons for these outcomes are that participation in structured activities influences one’s identity and friendships, which, in turn, influence adjustment. Research on the mediating mechanisms as well as issues on measurement of participation, selection, and program quality is just beginning. With new research, the field will begin to understand for whom and under what circumstances participation is associated with adjustment. This information is vital to the design, implementation, and success of structured activities.