VYP Data Shows Lack of Third Space Activities for MS/HS Youth

Following our recent press release about the Fall 2019 Planet Youth data* for the Vermont Youth Project (VYP), we’ve been working with committed VYP teams to help them learn more about their own community-level results. Here on the blog, we will look at a summary of the six participating communities (Enosburg, Fair Haven, Richford, Richmond, Rutland, and Swanton). Preliminary analysis from the data tells us that “youth have a lot of unorganized free time and lack of structured activities in out-of-school time is a problem across all six communities,” which we know is an issue that we would like to remedy over the course of the VYP. But curious minds want to know: what percentage of students across the six communities are lacking participation in structured group activities supported by trained adults? And are there any differences among different age groups?

VYP uses the Planet Youth data tool, designed by researchers at the Icelandic Center for Social Research and Analysis, to survey middle and high school youth in the participating communities on risk and protective factors around family, school, peer groups, and out-of-school time activities in addition to perceptions of substance use. As part of the survey, students were asked to indicate the numbers of times per week that they participated in various activities during their out-of-school time hours: sports/sports teams, religious organizations, art/drama/band classes, volunteering, afterschool programs, or other.

The write-in responses for the “other” category were each carefully interpreted to ensure that they were relevant for our purposes. According to the Iceland Model, students must participate in quality group activities supervised by trained adults in order to benefit in protective ways from such experiences. This is a crucial point. While it is reasonable to assume, for example, that students who spend their after school hours working a part-time job are better off than students who are simply hanging out with friends unsupervised after school, they would not be gaining the same positive benefits as students participating in structured group activities. The same goes for students who exercise at the gym afterschool or perhaps volunteer in an unstructured way.

The numerical response options for the survey items presented an interesting limitation. Students were asked to indicate the number of times per week that they participated and could choose from options ranging from “Less than once per week” to “Seven times per week.” They could also indicate if a given activity was not available in their community. However, they did not have a way to respond if they did not participate in any of the given activities. Therefore, students who did not participate in any given activity probably did one of three things: (1) skipped it, (2) responded with “less than once per week,” or (3) responded with “not available in my community,” even if that was not the case (in fact, one student admitted to doing so in the comment box). Each of these three strategies as a way to indicate lack of participation in a given activity are problematic as they are open to more than one interpretation. Therefore, it is impossible to answer the question about the number of students who do not participate in out-of-school time group activities with complete certainty.

It is possible, however, to obtain an estimate for the range of students that do not participate in any supervised group activities during their out-of-school time hours by considering two polar scenarios. To find the lower end of the range, we calculated the percentage of students that we know definitely did not participate in any supervised group activities. These were the students whose only responses to any of the related survey items that they were ‘not available’ in their communities. Among the six participating communities, this was the case 11.8% of the respondents.

To calculate the upper end of the range, we included students who responded with “Less than once per week,” because we assume that some non-participating students chose this response to indicate lack of participation without a better option to choose. We also included the students who did not respond to any of the activity-related questions, assuming they did so to indicate a lack of participation. Among the six participating communities, this was a total of 29.8% of the respondents. So based on our best-rounded calculations, somewhere between 12% and 30% of Vermont middle and high school students in our six VYP communities do not participate in any sort of group activity supervised by trained adults in the third space (when youth aren’t at home or at school). 

When we break down the results by grade level, we see that older students are more likely than younger students to not participate in any such activities when they are not in school. The bar chart below shows that among 7th and 8th grade students, anywhere between 12% and 25% of students might possibly fall into this category. This range is a bit wider for 9th and 10th graders at 12% to 31% and even wider for 11th and 12th grade students at 13% to 36%. The chart shows that the middle of each range increases with grade level.

There are several possible explanations for this trend. It might be the case that older students are more likely to be working part-time jobs or feel pressed by increasing academic demands and so have less time to participate in extracurricular activities. For some older youth, a greater amount of independence might lead them to choose hanging out with friends over participating in the band class that they did not have a choice about in middle school. Nonetheless, participation in quality group activities during these high school years are crucial for their positive development. It is up for each community to determine the causes of participation decreases and what must be done to support positive youth development at each level. We are here to help.

For more information on the Vermont Youth Project, contact Robin Katrick, VYP State Lead + Youth and Community Health Coordinator at Vermont Afterschool: robin@vermontafterschool.org