Youth participation in structured recreational activities promotes positive youth development. Engagement with others as part of a team or through group activities allows youth to develop skills in social interaction, goal setting, discipline, emotional maturity, physical activity competence, and many other abilities. As a recreational activity, group-oriented sport, and life skill, swimming has the potential to positively affect youth development in many different domains.
Despite the promise of swimming for youth development, large disparities exist in access to and use of pools and swim programming. Swimming opportunities are much less available and less utilized by minority populations, especially in inner-city urban areas. In Baltimore City, Maryland, programs have attempted to improve youth swimming abilities and promote pool use for physical fitness, but participation has been low.
The objective of this study is to understand the factors influencing use of swim programming offered in Baltimore, in order to identify suggestions for improving swim programs to more effectively engage inner city minority youth. Researchers conducted 13 in-depth-interviews, three focus group discussions, and six pool observations. Informants included Baltimore City parents, teachers, young adults (18-24 years old), aquatics staff, and city officials from both swimming and non-swimming backgrounds.
Findings suggest that important barriers to youth participation in swimming include inconsistent availability of swim programs, limited knowledge of swimming opportunities, variant local definitions of swimming ability, and a lack of role models. Motivators to swimming participation include supportive role models and perceptions of swimming as a gateway to employment opportunities. To improve programs promoting youth development through swimming, the identified barriers and motivators should be addressed by developing messaging focused on: skills of competent swimmers, pool and class schedules, financial costs and support, pool safety, transportation options, benefits of indoor pools, the growing diversity of swimmers, family-oriented aquatic activities, the social and physical appeal of swimming, and employment opportunities swimming can provide. Community outreach and engagement with schools and parent organizations could help change social norms and increase youth participation in swimming. This would provide youth, both in Baltimore and other urban populations, with more opportunities for positive development.
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