The call for helping youth develop the skills to lead healthy and productive lives has resulted in the increased attention to positive youth development programs. Positive youth development (PYD) programs adhere to the notion that all children have strengths and assets to be promoted and nurtured rather than deficits that require “fixing”. Study of positive youth development programs indicates three aspects which set them apart from other programs for youth: activities, goals, and atmosphere (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). Of these atmosphere has been least studied and what is known about atmosphere has been studied from a mostly adult perspective (Roth et.al., 1998). Yet, student voice is central to any educational process, and students are not often consulted directly about their ideas and thoughts (Dyson, 1995). The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions of youth and staff on the atmosphere of a PYD program focused on competence, relatedness and autonomy.
The research paradigm for the study was qualitative inquiry through an ethnographically informed case study. Participants were 19 fourth and fifth graders, and 11 staff members of a year long PYD program using basketball as a medium. Data were collected through focus group and follow-up individual interviews, extensive field notes, and artifact collection. Constant comparison method was used to analyze the data and trustworthiness strategies included: member checks, peer debriefing, and a researcher journal.
Data analysis identified four aspects the youth determined as significant with respect to atmosphere. These aspects included: relatedness, learning, relaxed climate, and enjoyment. Each theme is discussed in terms of how these youth perceived the construct as influencing their participation in the program. Relatedness referred to the positive relationships developed between the youth and the adults in the program consisting of an unwavering adult presence and “talking with youth as opposed to them”. The notion of learning accented the development of basketball skill and game play competence. The relaxed climate suggested informal conversation, opportunities for autonomy, and a sense of emotional and physical safety. The final theme of enjoyment described as a place that was “not boring” – it was a place that provided opportunities otherwise not afforded these youngsters.
These results indicate the power of atmosphere in the development of after school programs to both meet the needs of the students, and the goals of the staff while still falling within the parameters necessary for student engagement with the goals of positive youth development.