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Impact and Benefits
Physical Activity and Recreation
Canadian Youth-at-risk

Canadian Parks/Recreation Association






A Complex and Controversial Issue
Historical Perspectives
Guiding Principles
Youth Empowerment
Prevention First and Foremost
Holistic, Community-based Approach






The Do's
Failures Tell Us Something Too


Additional Research Required





A Complex and Controversial Issue

The issue of youth-at-risk is complex. Because the risk factors faced by young people are so many and varied, and fall within so many sectors of society, it is an issue that is subject to interpretation and debate.

Without limiting the ongoing discussion related to this issue, there is a general consensus that all youth (defined here as those between 15 and 19 years of age) are exposed to some degree of risk. The role that physical activity and recreation can play in the development of young people, and in reducing youth-related risk factors is the focus of this report. The report summarizes of a research study, commissioned jointly by the Inter-Provincial Sport and Recreation Council, Health Canada and the Canadian Parks/Recreation Association, which was carried out by a research team from the University of New Brunswick.

The study used several different methods to gather information. The main tool was the use of 64 focus groups that involved youth, parents, front-line staff and policy makers which were organized by each provincial/territorial Ministry responsible for physical activity and recreation. Involving more than 450 participants, these focus group meetings identified some of the major strengths and weaknesses of Canada's Current youth physical activity and recreation system. Researchers reviewed and summarized the research literature on the impact of physical activity and recreation on youth-at-risk, collected via a large mail-out survey current examples of programs and policy initiatives from the local, provincial/territorial and national level, and presented the focus group discussions in a final report.* Government officials and a representative of the Canadian Parks/Recreation Association also reviewed the information. Finally, the federal and provincial/territorial Ministers responsible for physical activity and recreation considered the findings and confirmed recommendations, which are located at the end of this discussion.

Historical Perspectives

It has been recognized that physical activity and recreation are valuable tools in preventing youth problems since the earliest days of the playground and recreation movement in Canada and the United States. The underlying presumption that social outcomes were influenced by recreation, and that activity could be used as a control mechanism for adolescent behaviour was evident in many of the early theories of play and playground/ recreation activities. This attitude formed the early theoretical and practical basis for the link between recreation and the problems of youth.

Over the years, research studies have indicated that a potential positive influence could be exerted on Canada's youth through physical activity and recreation. Physical activity and recreation have also been shown to facilitate the development of children and youth, and to play a significant role in influencing behavioural patterns and in preventing or reducing risk.

" Youth want to be heard ... adults plan and organize
from a different perspective.
Let us prove ourselves. Give us a chance.
We'll show you that we're capable.

Focus group participant (youth)


The paper provides a number of specific suggestions for program delivery based on the focus group discussions and a review of best practices. However, before getting to these operating details, it is worthwhile to focus on three guiding principles that were clearly illuminated through the analysis. These principles should provide the overall framework within which all physical activity and recreation services for youth-at-risk are delivered.

Youth Empowerment

Youth empowerment may be an over-used phrase, but it is clear that youth do not believe they are being heard. Effective solutions require major input and leadership from youth.

Prevention First and Foremost

Prevention should be the primary role of physical activity and recreation services. These services can and should be used as an intervention in the "redevelopment" of youth-at-risk, but the first focus must be prevention. The earlier that regular participation habits are developed, the greater the impact and effectiveness. The view must be long range.



Experiment with drugs Substance abuse substance addiction
Skipping school Chronic truancy school drop-out
Disobey curfew Run away Homless
Depression   Attempted suicide
Unlawful activity Vandalism Serious crime
"Hanhinh out" Gang involvement Gang violence
Some physical activity   Sedentary/Withdrawn
Experiment with sex Promiscuity Prostitution

Holistic, Community-based Approach

Youth are at risk from the interaction of a number of risk factors (e.g., family, peers, self). Because of the complexity of the situation, an interdisciplinary, holistic approach involving the whole community - not just one agency - is required.


  • Youth-at-risk are not just a bunch of kids in trouble
  • All youth face some sort of risk - some more than others because of their socioeconomic status, environment, friends, family situation, behavioural problems, physical or mental health. No one is immune from risk.
  • At one end of the continuum is a large group of youth facing low levels of risk. At the other extreme, a small group is involved in chronic anti-social behaviour, serious drug abuse, risky sexual behaviour, or even suicide. In between are risk situations ranging from lesser to greater degrees of risk.
  • Efforts are needed at all stages to lower the risk environment and to prevent youth from moving along the continuum to situations of greater risk.


Researchers have identified five groups of factors that affect the likelihood that youth will be at risk.

  1. individual factors (eg. boredom, lifestyle behaviours)
  2. family
  3. peers
  4. school
  5. community

The chance that a youth will engage in risk-producing behaviour depends to a very great extent on the interaction of these factors. For example, a risky situation due to peer association (e.g., hanging out with a bad crowd) may not have much impact if the youth is resilient and has strong family support. Dimensions of interac tion include control and supervision, identity support, caring and trust, communication skills, parental disapproval of peers, and conflict. Within all the risk factors, low levels of physical activity are generally associated with situations AT-RISK CONTINUUM or activities of higher risk.

Low levels of physical activity are more common with:

  • smoking
  • inadequate family support
  • lack of education
  • social isolation
  • depression
  • inadequate peer support
  • obesity
  • low socioeconomic status


In 1991, there were 1.9 million adolescents between 15 and 19 years of age, or 6.8% of the Canadian population. Although some youth trends are encouraging, such as decreased use of alcohol and tobacco, and a reduction in the high school drop-out rate, others are less so. More than 100 teenagers (age 15 to 19) become pregnant every day, and although the teenage pregnancy rate had decreased to 40.5 per 1,000 by 1985, it had risen to 42.7 per 1,000 in 1991. It is clear that youth-at-risk is a continuing tear in the fabric of our society.


Research shows that strategies involving physical activity and recreation appear particularly promising in minimizing or removing risk factors at all stages of th continuum. Participation in physical activity and recreation can provide positive benefits related to psychological health, physical health, familial interactions, peer influence,, academic performance, Community devetopment and other lifestyle behaviours.

However, existing public recreation and physical activity services have a negative image problem among some youth-at-risk. Criticism includes the perception that services are for white middle-class youth only, and, in particular, are not meeting the needs of youth who are further along the continuum.


The University of New Brunswick researchers found that youth face many limits to participation in the current system of physical activity and recreation in Canada today. Any one or a combination of the following constraints identified by the focus groups were found to lead to disinterest in, or outright barriers to becoming involved in activities that can enhance self-esteem or otherwise provide some alternative to partaking in risky behaviour.

The cost of registration fees, equipment and travel expenses can keepyouth-at-risk out, or can drive them out.

  • Transportation:

In many areas, there is inadequate public transportation, or the cost and availability of private trans portation is beyond the means of most youth.

  • Lack of information:

Although programs and facilities may be available, their services are not used because the youth or family is not aware of them. And if they have heard of the service, many do not know how to get information about it or access to it.

  • Program structure:

The rigid structure of physical activity and recreation services is not conducive to youth-at-risk involvement. Many youth-at-risk do not want to deal with the regulated and controlled nature of sports leagues, fitness and group activities. Regulations and rules may drive them away.

  • Sport focus:

Competitive sports programs with an elimination process usually have adults present and are often scheduled and run by adults. Many youth-at-risk are not interested in competitive sports or in activities that they do not plan and control themselves.

  • Adult program focus:

The adult focus of most services, not just in the sports area, turns youth away. They believe that these services and organizations do not care about or identify with their concerns.

  • Class and racial discrimination:

Many Aboriginal youth and youth from other visible minority groups do not feel comfortable or welcome in "white" physical activity and reation areas or facilities. They perceive the focus to be on the values and needs of the white upper-middle classes and may even be seen to be designed deliberately to prevent youth-at-risk from entering and mixing with other youth.

  • Lack of family/parental support:

Support from families or parents is critical to initial or continued participation of at risk youth. Youth who have low family support are less likely to participate and are more likely to progress along the continuum.

  • Gender bias:

Many programs are viewed as being for males only. There are also fewer female leaders than male leaders, which limits participation by girls and young women.

Many youth have a sense of hopelessness about the future. They belive they are discriminated against, misunderstood and not given the opportunity to make their own choices and express their opinions. The reearchers recorded the 10 most common suggestions provided by youth about improving the situation.

"We ban the kids we should be working with
[who] really need our help."

Focus group participant (front-line worker)


Internal policies and structures often prevent various organizations that work with youth and those involved in physical activity and recreation from providing the services necessary for youth-at-risk.

The focus groups indicated the following as being among the many constraints to participation:

  • Insurance that prevents smoking in the building
  • A union or services contract that limits the availability of support staff and the hours that a building may be open
  • Fears and policies around liability
  • Personnel policies and procedures that prohibit the organization from hiring youth workers from visible minority groups who may not meet the normal professional standards
  • Offering only traditional program services
  • Having to follow rules and regulations often results in denying access for the kids who really need to participate
  • Behaviour and dress codes that hamper the participation of at-risk youth.

There also tends to be little awareness of, and lack of communication and cooperation among various organizations that include youth-at-risk in their mandate. This results in a significant amount of duplication and gaps in youth services. Many of the resources necessary (e.g., services, facilities, money, personnel) to help youth-at-risk are already in the systems (e.g., education, recreation, social services, justice). However, because of poor awareness and communication, and sometimes professional territoriality, resources are not being used effectively (e.g., "there are no points [in the system] for cooperation and collaboration ... and resources are being wasted").

An holistic approach would likely lead to improved interorganizational cooperation. The singular focus of many organizations that deal with youth-at-risk, such as education or recreation, is inefficient. Also, too many professionals and their respective agencies focus only on their mandated issues. Because the problems and issues that youth-at-risk face in their lives are interdisciplinary, so must be the problem-solving approach.

In addition, it was indicated that many physical activity and recreation leaders (professional, volunteer, administrative or political) have little knowledge of, or are not concerned about, the physical activity and recreation interests of youth-at-risk.


1. Establish drop-in centres that offer full services and a holistic approach.

2. Offer a wider variety of physical activity and recreation programs which include passive and cultural pursuits.

3. Increase employment opportunities for youth.

4. Improve educational opportunities for youth.

5. Give youth a chance to be heard.

6. Encourage cultural harmony.

7. Improve the parenting/ family situation for youth.

8. Change adults' attitudes about youth by offering more trust and less stereotyping.

9. Provide positive role mmodels.

10. Provide for less fortunate youth (home-less, impoverished).


Feedback to the research process identified the following as strategies to make programming more attactive to at-risk youth.

  • Although at-risk youth are interested in both structured and unstructured program services, many prefer unstructured ones. These run the gamut from passive to active, individual to team, indoor to outdoor, and soft to hard outdoor adventure. The traditional focus on competitive team sport and services for adults and children should be expanded to include a wider range of activities, particularly ones that are non-traditional.
  • Physical activity and recreation organizations should develop loosely structured services that youth can participate in at any time of the day. Rigid time tables, rules and organization are not conducive to youth-at-risk participation. Nor are lectures about rights and wrongs. Youth want to participate in physical activity and recreation for fun. Program services should offer youth the opportunity to be part of a group and to hang out, learn to share, be both leader and follower, and to feel that they have contributed and made a difference.
  • Organizations should develop a culture that trusts youth and allow them to have an active role in running their own services. These organizations need to learn to communicate with and empower youth to look after their own physical activity and recreational needs. While youth need the opportunity to provide their own leadership, they should also receive some adult supervision and guidance.
  • Communities should not look to any one agency or group of agencies, outside organizations or particularly to government to solve the youth issues in their community. The "whole" community needs to take action to develop solutions.
  • In neighbourhoods where youth drop-in centres are set up, these centres should: provide a variety of integrated services, including educational and career counselling (drug and alcohol education, health information), as well as physical activity and recreation opportunities have some adult supervision.
  • To be accepted by youth, the people planning and running programs should be trained specifically in youth issues and youth communities. In reality, they should be more like youth street workers with training in physical activity and recreation. The program initiative must be youth-at-risk driven, and leaders must be trained and empowered to make decisions regarding services. It is important that these youth leaders come from the community - both geographic and social - that they serve.


Aboriginal communities throughout Canada, on and off reserve, are going through tremendous social changes and face a host of problems. As with other communities in Canada, these changes and problems are creating pressures on their families and youth. Aboriginal leaders are exploring various solutions to the youth-atrisk situation, including physical activity and recreation strategies.

Discrimination, lack of qualified leadership, isolation, transportation, cultural identity, language barriers, partnership development, and lack of culturally specific programming are seen by many Aboriginal communities as being specific issues of concern.

In communities where major issues or problems are large-scale, prevention, not intervention, is also viewed as the primary function of physical activity and recreation for Aboriginal at-risk youth.

To increase opportunities for these youth, the focus should be on the following:

  • The various social and health service agencies that serve Aboriginal families need to address community issues more holistically. Partnerships with the schools, church, recreation, police, and especially Aboriginal organizations, need to be formed.
  • The federal and provincial governments, along with Aboriginal leaders, need to discuss the issues of community development for Aboriginal people. Partnerships from the two levels of government, along with Aboriginal leaders, are needed to establish strategies to develop a healthy community. The concept of a healthy community model must be approached with the whole community involved, including a strategy for recreation services.
  • Full-time Aboriginal recreation leadership is needed in urban Aboriginal communities and on reserves. This leader would be responsible for organizing leadership courses for volunteers, obtaining information on what is available in other communities and through government, and initiating new programs in the community.
  • Better use of existing school facilities is required. The school should become a community centre for all Aboriginal children. The school should always be open.
  • Public consultation is needed to discuss ways of developing recreation activities in the community. This consultation must include all youth, particularly those at risk.
  • Linkages are needed with the white community to explain the Aboriginal culture. Together a way has to be found to eliminate discrimination of Aboriginal people.


Discrimination is seen as a major issue among the different ethnic groups.


Youth make up an above average share of the population reporting visible minority origins. In 1991, 7.9% of all those in the visible minority groups were between 15 and 19 years of age, compared to 6.8% for the Canadian population in total. ' Although only 9% of all youth were immigrants, most of them came from Asia, Central or South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda or Africa, resulting in a dramatic cultural change.

Because many parents of minority youth do not read or write English or French well, promotions for programs may not be understood and their children may not be aware of existing programs. The language barrier goes beyond advertisements as well, because it is hard for parents to call for information. Also, in some cultures, women are not allowed to go out after dark, to wear exercise clothing, or allowed to take part in co-ed activities.

Having more cultural events/festivals where members of the community can interact and share their different cultures; knowing the ethnic make-up of the community to ensure that communications take place in appropriate languages; hiring or recruiting volunteers of different ethnic make-up; offering female-only activities; and including programs/activities that are culturally familiar are suggested responses to address these problems in a positive manner.


"Since the problems and issues that youth-at-risk face in their lives are interdisciplinary, so must be the problem-solving approach. However, future collaborative activities must be community-driven and have significant input from youth."

Focus group participant (policy maker)

Some female teenagers face risk factors specific to their gender.

  • Gender bias in programs - Many programs are male oriented, which tends to decrease female participation. Also, due to social stereotyping of roles, females who do want to participate in "male" activities are often prevented or discouraged from doing so. A gender bias also exists in the availability and accessibility of school and community programs (time and transportation).
  • Gender bias in leadership - Gender discrimination goes beyond programs and facilities; it also includes leadership. There is a lack of female leadership opportunities and role models.
  • Gender bias in parenting - Parents seem more protective of daughters than sons, which often leads to restrictions in participation being placed on the female (cannot stay out late at night). In many homes, daughters have less discretionary time due to family responsibilities such as doing housework and caring for siblings.
  • Gender bias in issues - Females face at least the same risk in society as their male counterparts. They also may face different risks than mates, such as health (pregnancy) and safety (more likely to be subject to abuse) issues.


As youth encounter increased risk, programs need to be more adventurous, non-competitive and informal. The training needed by leaders who work with youth is also dictated by the stage of the continuum. The greater the risk factors faced by the individual youth, the more experience and training the leaders require to be effective. Higher-risk youth also need more one-on-one attention with highly supportive leaders.

To improve services for youth-at-risk, the following factors may contribute to a greater degree of success:

The Do's

  • The program should be community-based with agencies (schools, city halt, service clubs, recreation departments, social agencies, and a variety of combinations of these agencies and others) working together to meet all the needs of atrisk youth. This will result in more resources being devoted to youth-at-risk to address reduction of risk factors while possibly reducing overall costs. Recreation should be involved in any strategy directed at reducing risk factors.
  • Communities that pool their resources and jointly fund programs will experience a greater degree of success.
  • The knowledge, skills, attitude and commitment of the leaders are essential elements to enhance programs and services for youth-at-risk.
  • Communities need to designate who will coordinate youth-related activities, which prevents duplication of services and gaps in programming. No one particular organization should be preferred over another.
  • Succesful programs mix pro-social youth with antisocial youth.
  • Youth must be listened to and be involved in the development of solutions.
  • Programs should be holistic and not based solely on physical activity.
  • The most successful programs take preventive measures and stop the at-risk behaviour before it begins.
  • Successful intervention programs offer alternatives to at-risk behaviours.
  • Programmers must go to where the youth are, and not expect them to come to their facility. Outreach programs operated in malls are achieving success based on this philosophy.
  • Programs must offer a positive, non-threatening environment.
  • Cross-cultural awareness training has led to the success of recreation centres in multicultural communities.
  • Ongoing evaluation is an important component of a successful program.

Failures Tell Us Something Too

Programs that are unsuccessful also provide useful information. Experience has shown that there are two major reasons why programs for youth do not work as designed.

  • a lack of funding which results in prohibitive costs to the participants
  • lack of input from youth in designing programs


The researchers found a vast number of programs taking place at the national, provincial and local levels, both government and non-government. The following are just a few examples of innovative programs. (Please note: other successful programs are outlined in the full research report.*) go.-

  • "A Partnership for Youth" is a cooperative program between the Halifax Police Department and the Halifax City Recreation Department which provides six summer students the opportunity to assist in the "Youth L.I.VE." program Linder the Halifax Police Department. They work toward increasing access to services within the community as well as increasing positive images of youth.
  • Dufferin Mall is a I 10-store shopping mall in downtown Toronto. Situated in an area containing six high schools, the mall had an average daily visitation of 3000 youth of mixed racial backgrounds. Besides the impact of 300 youth "hanging out," the mall was experiencing 1000 to 1400 shoplifing charges a year, 50% of which were youth under 18 years of age. Other crimes such as armed robbery, rape and dealing drugs were also a concern. Through a partnership of an advisory committee (made up of representatives from the youth, the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department and a local Settlement House), Dufferin Mall, the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department and the Toronto Board of Education, the mall provided unused retail space for various programs.
  • The programs include martial arts, a dance group, a youth theatre, a marketing co-op program where participants learn retailing and gain experience in the mall's stores, a mall-based high school program for youth 18 years of age or older who have been out of school for at least one year, a youth drop-in centre and a bicycle club, among others. The benefits have been significant: crime is down 16%, operating costs are down, and a million more people a year are coming to the mall.
  • "Program Integration" is a program for youth who have no other physical activity and/or recreation other than the services of the Boys' and Girls' Club in Thunder Bay, Ontario. To provide additional opportunities for youth, the club shares with the family the costs of getting the kids involved in other forms of physical activity and recreation, including those not offered by the club itself. The program initially covers up to 100% of the costs of a new service; this level is slowly reduced over time allowing the family to increase its contribution gradually. The program financially enables youth to participate, to develop new recreation and social skills, and to broaden their social boundaries.
  • The Community and Youth Corrections of Winnipeg, Manitoba has worked in conjunction with the Teen Adventure Group (TAG) to provide adventure-based activities and employment services to young offenders in custody. Three separate programs have been run, and each one has been judged successful for engaging high at-risk youth and involving them in both recreational and employment programs.
  • The Ranch Ehrlo Society in Pilot Butte, Saskatchewan emphasizes recreation as one its four main components. Programming includes recreation, sport, social and cultural activities. The purpose of these programs is to develop teamwork, self-confidence, responsibility, sharing and respect for others. As most of the clientele are Aboriginal, the program focuses on Aboriginal cultural preservation. Youth are encouraged to speak Native languages, and cultural activities include Native crafts, traditional Native games and archery.
  • The Leisure Services Department of Prince George, British Columbia has initiated four programs addressing youth-at-risk issues. The first program is the Prince George Youth Recreation Organization Committee. This committee is made up of youth, representative of the Prince George area, who advise the Leisure Services Department on youth issues and what programs and services they feet they need. The Summer Youth Centre is the second program, which provides a positive environment over the summer where youth can take part in leisure activities they planned themselves. This program is free of charge and targeted to youth between 12 and 18 years of age. Youth Day, the third program, involves a full day devoted to the youth of Prince George. The whole Community participates by providing low cost or free activities for youth, such as swimming, skating, dances and movies. The fourth initiative is a newsletter called Teens Today, which is designed to promote and direct activities and services to youth, as well as display positive images of youth.
  • St. Patricks School in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories is opening a full-service community school facility in summer 1995. The school will take a holistic or wellness approach to Youth and their needs. Housed within the walls of the school will be representatives for all youth-related agencies. In addition, students will have a child care service. The school will be open to the community for recreation programming before school hours, during noon hours, after school, evenings, weekends and holidays.

The federal government has also responded in a number of areas as well, such as significant policy development in the area of violence against women and children, cycles of family violence, the availability of affordable shelter, child poverty, and the plight of Aboriginal and immigrant children.

Additional Research Required

Research on how recreation might reduce youth-related problems is still critical today. For example, additional research is needed to determine more precisely the understanding of the physiological and psychological mechanisms responsible for some of the advantageous behavioural changes that occur in response to physical activity and recreation. Also, additional research into assessment and evaluation of frameworks and interventions of physical activity and recreation programs and services is vital to the further advancement of the youth-at-risk issue.


"The people who plan and run the program must be more like youth street workers, with training in physical activity and recreation."

Focus group participant (parent)

Based on the University of New Brunswick research report, a series of conclusions and recommendations was presented to the federal and provincial/territorial Ministers responsible for physical activity and recreation in February 1995.

The following recommendations were approved by the Ministers and will form the basis for future joint federal-provincial/territorial initiatives in this area:

1. Ministers agree that there is a meaningful role for physical activity and recreation as part of the solution to youth-at-risk issues which requires public attention and resources. The documentation commissioned by the two levels of government and the Canadian Parks/Recreation Association related to the impact and benefits of physical activity and recreation on youth-at-risk will be made public.

2. Ministers agree that a summary document of the research analysis will be the basis for consultation with their cabinet colleagues responsible for justice, social services, health, education and leaders of other organizations serving youth, as a vehicle for the development of a more coordinated approach to service delivery to youth-at-risk.

3. Provincial and territorial Ministers agree to take a leadership role in stimulating the development of community-driven solutions through increased dialogue with youth, elected officials, youth-serving agencies and others at the local and provincial/territorial levels, recognizing the unique needs that exist in more remote communities.

4. Ministers agree that particular attention is required to address the physical activity and recreation needs of girls and young women.

5. Ministers agree that particular attention is required to address the physical activity and recreation needs of Canada's Aboriginal persons.

6. Ministers agree that their officials collaborate to develop a framework that supports community-driven activities in areas such as leadership, partnerships, the removal of barriers, research and evaluation. Officials will report on progress to Ministers at their next meeting.

7. Ministers agree that their officials develop a means of information exchange and sharing on initiatives addressing the needs of Canadian youth-at-risk.


Those who work in the physical activity and recreation field, and who have a great deal of contact with youth, have an exceptional opportunity to make a difference. By following guiding principles and putting best practices into action - community by community - physical activity and recreation can better the situation of young people across Canada.


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