Adolescent Participation in Organized Activity

Indicators of Positive Development Conference
March 12-13, 2003
Bureau of Labor Statistics Conference Center
Washington, DC


Bonnie L. Barber and Margaret R. Stone, University of Arizona and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, University of Michigan

Participation in out-of-school activities of various types has been reported to be positively related to such varied outcomes as achievement, school attachment, educational attainment, self-esteem, ability to overcome adversity, willingness to help others, leadership qualities, physical health, civic involvement, continued sport engagement, and better mental health. In this paper we report on our use of survey questions to assess activity participation in a local study. The data come from the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT), a continuing longitudinal study that began with a cohort of sixth graders drawn from 10 school districts in southeastern Michigan in 1983. The majority of the sample is white and comes from working and middle class families living in primarily middle class communities based in small industrial cities around Detroit. Analyses include 1425 respondents (759 females and 666 males) who participated in the tenth grade survey. At tenth grade, adolescents were provided with a list of 16 sports and 30 school and community clubs and organizations and asked to check all activities in which they participated. We have used both the individual activities and thematically grouped categories: Prosocial Activities; Team Sports; Performing Arts; School Involvement; and Academic Clubs. Our measure of activities correlates well with concurrent measures of identity, reported characteristics of peer groups, and measures of values and abilities.

Other concurrent validity analyses indicated that adolescents involved in prosocial activities in 10th grade reported less involvement in problem type behaviors and better academic performance. Involvement in all activity types was related to school liking. We have also found that our measure of activity participation at grade 10 is an important predictor of later substance use, psychological adjustment, and both educational and occupational outcomes. Specifically, participating in prosocial activities in tenth grade predicts lower substance use, higher self-esteem, and volunteer participation up to eight years later. In contrast, with the exception of an increased likelihood of graduation from college, prosocial activities do not predict educational or occupational outcomes. Participation in the performing arts predicts increases in alcohol consumption between the ages of 18 and 21, but also more years of education, and greater likelihood of college graduation. Similarly, participation in sports predicts positive educational and occupational outcomes eight years later and lower levels of social isolation, but also higher rates of drinking. Based on our work with these items and shortened versions, we suggest it is best to have a checklist of individual sports and activities, because the detailed information on specific activities is differentially predictive of educational and substance use outcomes. Collapsing into such activity types as prosocial, sports, and academic clubs is another fruitful use of these types of questions, as is tabulation of total activities and breadth of activity participation.