Positive Youth Development Through Leisure: Confronting the COVID-19 Pandemic


  • Andrea Vest Ettekal Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences, Texas A&M University
  • Jennifer P. Agans Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, The Pennsylvania State University




pandemic, leisure, out-of-school time, positive youth development, “Big Three” features


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption in the lives of millions of people, including children and adolescents. Youth out-of-school time (OST) programs are essential ecological assets and their disruption during the pandemic may have a major impact on youth developmental pathways. Youth programs are one of the primary ways to promote positive youth development (PYD) and, in turn, develop healthy and thriving young adults who contribute positively to society. The pandemic raises the question of how to sustain developmentally oriented forms of youth leisure in times of crisis and, especially, how to support youth with few resources. Although there is considerable scientific evidence regarding the promotion of PYD through OST programs (e.g., sport, clubs, youth groups), public health initiatives to control the pandemic also curtail the delivery of such programs. Nevertheless, research on youth programs can be applied to help support PYD during the pandemic. In this commentary, we review key elements contributing to the effectiveness of youth development programs and provide ideas for how to sustain, adapt, and create these elements and bring them into unstructured leisure settings in the face of the pandemic. In doing so, we highlight particular challenges to implementation, surmise who may be most at risk, and present potential opportunities afforded by the unique situation. Throughout, we highlight innovative examples of adaptation exhibited in affected communities. We conclude with a call to action for researchers and practitioners to unite efforts to support PYD through leisure even in the face of crisis.


Agans, J. P., Burrow, A. L., Kim, E. S., Garbo, C., Schroeder, M., Graf, S., & Davis, T. (2020). “You’re going to burn some bridges if you come at it the wrong way”: Reflecting on the realities of research-practice partnerships. Community Development, online first, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/15575330.2020.1714686

Almenara, F. (2020, March 12). Madison Shamrock Shuffle canceled, big loss for Boys and Girls Club. WKOW. https://wkow.com/2020/03/12/madison-shamrock-shuffle-canceled-big-loss-for-boys-and-girls-club/

Arnold, M. E. (2018). From context to outcomes: A thriving model for 4-H youth development programs. Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, 6(1), 141-160. https://www.jhseonline.com/article/view/653

Barnett, H. (2020, April 9). Blue Baker approaches COVID-19 situation with adjustments, comic relief. KBTX-TV. https://www.kbtx.com/content/news/Blue-Baker-making-the-most-out-of-their-COVID-19-situation-569518421.html

Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., & Syvertsen, A. K. (2011). The contribution of the developmental assets framework to positive youth development theory and practice. In R. M. Lerner, J. V. Lerner, & J. B. Benson (Eds.), Positive youth development. Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 41, pp. 195 – 228). Elsevier.

Bouffard, S. M., Wimer, C., Caronongan, P., Little, P., Dearing, E., & Simpkins, S. D. (2006). Demographic differences in patterns of youth out-of-school time activity participation. Journal of Youth Development, 1(1), 24–40. https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2006.396

Bowers, E. P., Geldhof, G. J., Schmid, K. L., Napolitano, C. M., Minor, K., & Lerner, J. V. (2012). Relationships with important nonparental adults and positive youth development: An examination of youth self-regulatory strengths as mediators. Research in Human Development, 9(4), 298–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2012.729911

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. I. Theoretical models of human development (6th ed., pp. 793–828). John Wiley & Sons.

Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307-337. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649

Cooper, B., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monograph Series for the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1-118.

Dawson, C. (2020, April 15). Teens start free no-contact delivery service for the elderly during the pandemic. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/15/us/iyw-teens-delivery-service-for-the-elderly-trnd/index.html

Edwardson, L. (2020, 22 April). Calgary parents struggle to homeschool during COVID-19 pandemic. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/calgary-parents-homeschool-pandemic-1.5535203

Elder, G. H. (2018). Children of the Great Depression: Social change in life experience (25th anniversary ed.). Routledge.

Ettekal, A. V., Konowitz, L. S., Agans, J. P., Syer, T., & Lerner, R. M. (2017). Researcher-practitioner collaborations: Applying developmental science to understand sport participation and positive youth development. Journal of Community Engagement & Higher Education, 9(1), 29–45.

Ettekal, A. V., & Mahoney, J. L. (2017). Ecological systems theory. In K. Peppler (Ed.), The Sage encyclopedia of out-of-school learning (pp. 239 – 241). SAGE Publishing.

Ettekal, A. V., Simpkins, S. D., Menjivar, C., & Delgado, M. Y. (2020). The complexities of culturally responsive organized activities: Latino parents’ and adolescents’ perspectives. Journal of Adolescent Research, 35, 395-426. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558419864022

Grossman, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30(2), 199–219. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1014680827552

Jones, K. R., & Perkins, D. F. (2003). CAYDO: Connecting the gaps of community youth assessments. Journal of Extension, 41(6). https://www.joe.org/joe/2003december/a2.php

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.170

Larson, R. W., Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. A. (2004). Features of positive developmental settings. Prevention Researcher, 11(2), 8–13.

Lee, A. (2020, March 31). Math teacher shows up at student's front porch to give her a one-on-one lesson while social distancing. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/31/us/coronavirus-math-lesson-teacher-trnd/index.html

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., & Benson, J. B. (2011). Positive youth development: Research and applications for promoting thriving in adolescence. In Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 41, pp. 1-17). https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-386492-5.00001-4

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Lewin-Bizan, S., Bowers, E. P., Boyd, M. J., Mueller, M. K., Schmid, K. L., & Napolitano, C. M. (2011). Positive youth development: Processes, programs, and problematics. Journal of Youth Development, 6(3), 38–62. https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2011.174

Mahoney, J. L., Vandell, D. L., Simpkins, S., & Zarrett, N. (2009). Adolescent out-of-school activities. In R. M. Lerner and L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology: Vol. 2: Contextual Influences on Adolescent Development (3rd ed., pp. 228-269). John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479193.adlpsy002008

Nagaoka J., Farrington, C.A., Ehrlich, S.B., & Heath, R.D. (2015) Foundations for young adult success: A developmental framework. Concept paper for research and practice. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/2018-10/Foundations%20for%20Young%20Adult-Jun2015-Consortium.pdf

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L. & Rose, T. (2020). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 3-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650

Ozer, E. J. (2016). Youth-led participatory action research: Developmental and equity perspectives. In Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 50, pp. 189-207). https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2015.11.006

Pittman, K. (2020, March 30). What happens when out-of-school time is all the time? The Forum for Youth Investment. https://forumfyi.org/blog/what-happens-when-out-of-school-time-is-all-the-time/

Roth, J. L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2003). What exactly is a youth development program? Answers from research and practice. Applied Developmental Science, 7(2), 94–111. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532480XADS0702_6

Simpkins, S., Ripke, M., Huston, A., & Eccles, J. (2005). Predicting participation and outcomes in out-of-school activities: Similarities and differences across social ecologies. New Directions for Youth Development, 105, 51–69, 10. https://doi.org/10.1002/yd.107

U.S. Department of Labor. American Time Use Survey; 2018. https://www.bls.gov/tus/

Waldon, T. (2020, March 13). Fundraising events are cancelled. Giving is decreasing. What Now? Give. https://givewp.com/fundraising-events-are-cancelled-giving-is-decreasing-what-now/

Walker, G. J., Kleiber, D. A., & Mannell, R. C. (2019). A Social Psychology of Leisure (3rd ed). Sagamore-Venture Publishing.






Thought Leader Commentary