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The Role of Autonomy Support in Summer Camp Programs: Preparing Youth for Productive Behaviors

Ron Ramsing, Jim Sibthorp


Parks and recreation professionals focused on youth development are uniquely positioned to provide young adults with requisite competencies and motivation for successful adulthood. Moreover, longer term behavioral goals that may be less inherently interesting (e.g. exercise, diet, medical self-management) may be profoundly influenced through enhanced self-regulation. Self-determination theory, through the use of autonomy supportive contexts, has been shown to be effective in enhancing self-regulation for activities perceived as generally uninteresting yet beneficial. Behaviors are autonomous to the degree that they provide for choice and volition. Autonomy support (providing rationale, choice, and perspective; limiting control) has been shown to be a critical prerequisite for enhancing self-determination for particular goal-oriented behaviors. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore common recreation related mechanisms on youth’s perceptions of autonomy support. A two-level hierarchical linear model was created with experience-level and participant-level variables. The findings indicate that a noncompetitive and camper-centered instructional approach produced increased perceptions of autonomy support. Arts were found to be more autonomy supportive than sports, games, and athletics, suggesting that certain activities may be better suited to affording autonomy support for youth. Biological sex was also found to influence perceptions of autonomy support. In general, female campers were more positively influenced by non-competitive activities and camper-centered instructional approaches. The findings aid youth professionals in better understanding and engineering programs for particular outcomes such as increased autonomy support. The findings also support the application of theoretical approaches from which to influence behavior change in youth. In meeting the needs of youth, practitioners may apply the findings and create programs that have long-term benefits (e.g. diet change or increase in activity levels). Programs seeking to address long-term, lifestyle, behavioral changes might design programs that use more participant-centered leadership, de-emphasize competition, and include creative and cooperative activities, such as arts and crafts, which allow for more individual choice and allow participants to have a voice and a variety of options. Providing youth with options may be effectively accomplished in a variety of activities through offering choices, providing a rationale where choices are constrained, and demonstrating an understanding of the participant’s perspective. The current research supports park and recreation professionals’ drive to better meet the needs of youth through the realization that providing skills alone may not be enough to change behaviors. Practitioners can also influence behaviors through the creation of social contextual autonomy supportive environments.?


Autonomy support, positive youth development, camps

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