Theory, Program, and Outcomes: Assessing the Challenges of Evaluating At-Risk Youth Recreation Programs


  • Cheryl K. Baldwin


At-risk youth, program evaluation


This paper discusses the need to further develop the theoretical foundations of park and recreation programming for at-risk youth. Understanding of the theoretical foundations of park and recreation programming is important, as theory aids not only the design of a program but also its evaluation. Outcome evaluations serve as the basis for demonstrating the credibility of park and recreation programming; therefore, it is of interest to both practitioners and researchers to assess the rigor and quality of these evaluations. Using developmental contextualism as a guiding framework, this paper discusses the complexity of evaluation and reviews the current challenges confronting evaluators of at-risk recreation programs. The focus of developmental contextualism on multiple influences for behavior suggests an increased need to consider, define, and describe the essential elements of the recreation context. The behavioral patterns of the recreation context must be conceptually connected to the format and key elements of the program and the projected outcomes. In the case of at-risk populations, accurately defining and assessing the term "at-risk" is essential, as risk may be a characteristic associate with the individual, the family environment, or the neighborhood. How risk is defined, therefore, has important programmatic implications and should enable more concentrated program designs. Sorting out the rationale between program missions oriented toward individual change and those oriented toward societal change is important for directing evaluators to empirical evidence that demonstrates the influence of the recreation program. Despite recent advances attempting to improve program planning (e.g., Benefits-Based Management), evaluations focused on the impact of programs on individuals, or individual change, often lack specificity in the selection of possible program outcomes. This results in numerous broad outcomes rather than the careful analysis of the mechanism of change associated with a particular outcome. Programs intended to result in societal change (e.g., reduction in crime) are particularly difficult to justifY on a scientifically rigorous basis, risk over generalizing the population of at-risk youth, and raise difficult economic and social policy issues. Practitioners and evaluators are encouraged to embrace and explore the complexities of at-risk recreation programming, and to continue to refine program practices to better serve this population.





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