Positive Youth Development In 2016

One of the first columns I wrote for PRB explored the topic of positive youth development (PYD), including questions to ask during the hiring process, as well as what it looks like in recreation and park settings. On the surface, young people today don’t look much different than they did a few years ago, but the reality is there has been a significant change, both in what youth expect from adults as well as how we should think about working with them.

For example, over the past couple of years, more young people expect to have a voice in determining what they do and how they do it. However, in several instances, the pendulum has swung too far, and adults realize that giving young people an authentic voice in determining their actions is not the same as giving up total control. As a result, some of the best programs today afford youth the opportunity to explore interests and make choices while maintaining security and expectations established by an engaged adult. Providing structure, yet giving youth the opportunity to make real choices replete with rewards and consequences, is the focus of this month’s column.


First, let’s take a minute to review a few basics that are essential for any quality youth program. Regardless of the focus, size, or physical location of your program, the foundation of quality PYD programs is—and will always be—the relationship between the adult leader and participants. A strong and connected adult facilitator is the key.

The second essential is that an activity is chosen to promote personal growth and development beyond the skills associated with the focus activity. For example, a skilled preschool gymnastics teacher chooses an activity that teaches gymnastics skills but also promotes autonomy, turn taking, listening, and prosocial (encouraging) communication. Put another way, the best PYD staff members recognize that the activity they facilitate is a means to developing essential personal skills and dispositions.

Finally, truly expert PYD staff members are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to reinforce positive choices and/or model and explain desired behaviors and interactions. Recognizing these “teachable moments” is a skill that takes time, given all of the distractions and demands on youth staff. Observing a team member who can simultaneously lead a group through a series of planned activities and maintain order and necessary records—all while remaining aware and flexible enough to respond in the moment when someone demonstrates an act of kindness that needs acknowledgment, or makes a choice that needs correcting—is always a pleasure.


Having a concise definition makes for good reading, but it isn’t much help if you, as a program director, are tasked with developing a new youth program. As you plan a program, consider if it is relevant, educative, authentic, and limitless to a participant’s life (to keep all four in mind, use R.E.A.L.). If these approaches are present, you can be assured you’re well on your way to optimizing the healthy development of the youth in your programs.


Let’s take a deeper look at the four characteristics. First, think about how the activities, conversations, and options that youth have are relevant to each participant. Put another way, what happens in your program should not occur in a vacuum; there should be opportunities for participants to extend what they are learning and doing outside of the confines of a program.

Let’s look at a “typical” summer day camp geared towards elementary-aged children, set in a park or similar outdoor space. It’s one thing that the activities and conversations between camper and counselor exist primarily to keep everyone safe and actively participating in a range of games, crafts, and play. It’s quite another when staff members understand that, through games, choice, and teachable moments, they have the opportunity to encourage the development of personal efficacy (taking responsibility/care of oneself), trying new hobby/recreation options, and learning to effectively work both independently and with others to accomplish a variety of tasks. The latter program will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on the child long after the camp season concludes.

Educative and Authentic

For brevity, we’ll look at the next two characteristics together. Determine whether the program you are planning is both educative and authentic. This is related to the opportunity for youth to try different means to an end, reflect and/or discuss, and try again, The second item deals with activities that culminate in a product or skill that is meaningful (at least to the participant). Using the camp example, it’s generally advisable to give campers an opportunity to work on a task (after initial safety considerations and instructions/demonstrations), take a break to reflect and debrief, and then try again. This cycle helps develop both agency and deeper learning related to the task at hand. Similarly, it’s preferable to offer activities that help move participants toward something they desire (either a skill or product). At camp, this might be learning to sail a boat, start a fire with sticks, build a shelter, identify various plants and animals, etc. Regardless of the task(s), campers should have an opportunity to exercise choice and thoughtful reflection while pursuing something of personal value.


The final consideration has to do with creating limitless opportunities for participants to continue developing skills and dispositions long after a program concludes. If campers leave with the desire to develop skills or knowledge related to camp programs, or develop positive personal traits such as leadership ability or character, or maintain a desire to contribute to society and the welfare of others, then this objective has been met. It’s important to remember that the limitlessness of quality programs can and will vary for each individual and frequently will occur across multiple domains.

PYD in 2016 and Beyond

Regardless of whether you run a program for 10 children or 1,000, as a recreation and park professional you are in a position to have a profound impact on the growth and development of young people. While programs will vary in length, focus, and design, consider and use the elements of the R.E.A.L. acronym. You can do your part to ensure that programs leave a lasting legacy on the lives of your participants for years to come.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.