Many young people today experience marginalization and exclusion. In particular, youth living with challenging conditions such as poverty, homelessness, abusive/addictive behaviors, and mental health issues, often have limited access to opportunities and resources. This paper focuses on the role of leisure as a meaningful way of youth engagement. Specifically, the paper explores how youth-led leisure opportunities can help young people caught in the dynamics of exclusion and marginalization, which often magnify inequities and hinder positive developmental outcomes. Through both a critical review of the literature and a reflection on the gaps identified within the examined literature, a conceptual model of mechanisms involving leisure and youth engagement is presented for potential use in future research and practice. Described as circular relationships in the model, youth-led meaningful engagement through leisure is proposed to promote positive relationship-building, co-learning, power-sharing, and empowerment. In turn, positive interpersonal relationships are proposed to support meaningful leisure within a safe, open, and non-judgmental space to co-learn. Furthermore, meaningful leisure is proposed to provide an avenue to reinforce positive relationships and learn/discover about self, others, and the world. Importantly, what youth do with leisure, rather than what leisure does to youth, should be emphasized to promote constructive youth-led engagement through meaningful leisure. The former concept (i.e., what youth do with leisure) is more youth-driven than the latter concept (i.e., what leisure does to youth), which is more prescriptive in nature. Overall, this paper suggests that simply because we develop leisure programs for “at-risk/high-risk” young people, the use of a top-down, prescriptive approach can be detrimental to them. Rather than adults always leading engagement activities, it would be more desirable to share with and be guided by youth concerning the leadership and mentoring of engagement activities including both leisure and non-leisure pursuits in youth’s lives. Because of leisure’s unique characteristic of being intrinsically chosen and defined, leisure is a very important tool in a bottom-up, youth-led/guided approach to meaningful engagement of “at-risk/high-risk” youth. Through sharing experiences with youth and learning alongside of them, leisure can provide an avenue for youth to connect positively with their peers and communities, and to promote constructive meaning-making in their lives. These insights have important implications for reframing leisure programs within social services, and improving leisure policy and practice to make these more youth-oriented. Through enacting these youth-oriented changes, programs can better support and inspire youth’s passions for the pursuit of meaningful, fulfilling lives.
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