Sarah Ullrich-French, Meghan H. McDonough, and Alan L. Smith

The Big Idea

We moderns are sometimes seduced into believing that our remarkable, collective technological progress and improvement is equivalent to human progress and improvement.  But this is not necessarily so.  Creating and sustaining positive individual and even national character is one heck of a social problem that befuddles us still, no matter our technical wizardry.

The growing interest in creating positive youth development (PYD) programs most certainly is one international effort to help the youngest generation do better than we have in finding life success and meaning; and maybe even finding lifelong opportunities to be heralds for a better world community founded on vision over fear, justice over coercion, and beauty over indifference.

In this particular paper, the authors focus on one PYD program with a vision grounded in life success and physical activity.   By way of social/psychological research tools they learned that there actually can be some success in promoting life success in this manner.  What we learn is that what these youngsters learn anew is an old lesson about the power of friendships:  positive social relationships can in fact predict positive psychological outcomes such as global self-worth, physical self-worth, motivation for physical activity, and maybe most importantly, hope for the future.


  • This study adds to the research voices calling for more ambitious and intentional efforts to design youth development physical activity programs with life success-related components.
  • As a group such programs are called Positive Youth Development (PYD) programs.
  • PYD is based on the idea that to grow up means becoming comfortable with the dynamic process of character development which arises out of both chance and choice.
  • PYD programs based largely around physical activity have increased potential for success because of the sheer number of potential positive benefits of being active, both on good health and on academic success.
  • PYD programs are especially helpful for low-income children where positive opportunities for both good health and educational success are constantly compromised by limited resources.
  • This study was focused on an activity-based PYD program for low-income children hosted at a mid-western U.S. university.
  • The hypotheses for the study were two: 1) that social connection (making friends) and psychological outcome variables (physical self-worth, global self-worth, attraction to physical activity, and hope) would increase over the summer program; and 2) that changes in perceptions of social connection would positively predict changes in psychological outcomes.
  • The findings supported the idea that changes in social connections predict changes in psychological outcomes.
  • Therefore, social relations can promote positive developmental opportunities to low-income youth.

The Research

Typically there are two kinds of approaches in youth development programs.  One approach is to do what can be done to minimise negative youth behaviours.  These programs are largely prevention-oriented.  The kinds of negative behaviours targeted include such categories as:  physical inactivity, substance abuse, inappropriate sexual activity, bullying, gang membership, and violence.

Another approach is referred to as Positive Youth Development (PYD).  These programs emphasise intentional efforts to develop life success-related attributes, skills, and competencies.  PYD programs are commonly situated in development systems theory.  Briefly, this theory is based on some assumptions:

  • That growing up is a dynamic process involving interactions with family, school, friends, and the larger community.
  • That everyone has the potential to make positive changes in their behaviour.
  • And that it is possible to design positive growth experiences based on fostering personal and social assets (such as positive self-perception, motivation, interpersonal social skills).

This research study is a good example of how PYD programs can benefit from assessing potential positive impact, especially for low-income youngsters.  Disadvantages for underserved children include both physical health and school performance.  In the United States, the 2005 Surgeon General reported a positive link between physical activity and physical health.  In 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked physical activity with academic achievement.  There are also studies linking physical activity with positive psychological outcomes such as physical self-worth and global self-esteem in young people.

The study

This research study focused on a free physical activity-based and four-week PYD program hosted by an American mid-western university.  Approximately 200 campers, ages 10-16, which qualified for free or reduced lunch (demonstrated poverty) in the public schools participated in the study.

The purpose of the study was to learn if change in perceived social connection within this PYD program would associate with change in psychological outcomes.  The researchers suspected that:  (a) social connection and psychological outcome variables would increase over the summer program; and (b) changes in perceptions of social connection would possibly predict changes in psychological outcomes.

Instructional units in this particular PYD included several sports, swimming, computers, service learning, aerobics, and health education.  Two meals and one snack were provided.  Teaching stations were set up at a distance from one another so as to include extra walking and social time.  Camp was in operation from 8:00 a.m. tile 2:00 p.m. daily for four consecutive weeks.  Over 70% of the total program time was devoted to physical activity.

The camp staff included university students who not only demonstrated enthusiasm for the program, but who also were representative of the camp diversity (44% Hispanic, 31% white, 21% African American, 3% American Indian, and 2% Asian).  The adult team leaders were given three days of training, in part to emphasise the core of the program, namely the character pillars of respect, responsibility, caring, and fairness.  Overall, the program goals included especially efforts to establish an atmosphere where positive relationships between campers and between team leaders and campers could thrive.

By way of pre- and post-program questionnaires, the researchers measured: team leader perceived support by campers; social competence; physical competence and global self-worth; physical self-worth; attraction to physical activity; and hope.

Results and discussion

Overall, this study targeted how change in perceived social connection constructs was associated with change in psychological outcomes.  The results were consistent with previous theory and research suggesting programs that emphasise personal improvement over competition, a climate focused on individual success, and autonomy support are well suited to fostering positive outcomes.

Social competence, physical competence, physical self-worth, and global self-worth increased significantly over the 4-week program.  Changes in social connections predicted changes in psychological outcomes.  Simply put, learning to make friends with both staff and other campers was a major takeaway for the participants in this program.  Caring adults can fact have positive impact on youth development.

The practical outcomes of this study reinforce the good sense of designing youth programs that promote positive development over programs that minimise negative behaviours.  Programs emphasising physical activity are better when cooperation and personal growth are targeted.  The results of this study reinforced the view that intentionally fostering positive social connectedness among program participants may promote positive developmental opportunities, especially in low-income youth.  That these results were found within only a 4-week camp experience is worth noting.  These findings suggest that perceptions of social connection can be meaningfully nurtured within a relatively short time in physical activity-based PYD programs.

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