Feature Article - January 2008
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Reaching the iGeneration

To Get Teens Involved, You Have to Think Like One…Sort Of

By Dana Carman

Kids grow up fast. One minute they're toddlers, the next in elementary school and before you know it they've hit the teen years. And everything changes. Hormones enter the picture, as does peer pressure. What once held their attention and interest no longer does. Not yet adults but no longer children, teens have long been a tough audience to attract to recreational programs. Today's teens and their younger counterparts—tweens (or preteens)—have many activities vying for their attention, and unfortunately, not all of them are good. Recreation specialists are competing with video games; the Internet and the rise of e-mail and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; friends; and more.

ttracting teens to recreation programs can be tricky, but it's not impossible. By staying ahead of the curve, learning what teens like, and, more importantly, what they don't like, you can create programs that not only get teens involved, but keep them that way and teach them a lot along the way.

Freedom Rules

It comes as no surprise to hear that teens like their space. But liking their own space doesn't mean that teens and tweens can't enjoy freedom while still partaking in community activity. After all, what do teens like more than their space? Being social.

That's a fact that hasn't gone out of style. It's also no secret that teens socialize on Friday and Saturday—when keeping teenagers home is difficult and keeping them safe is imperative. Ten years ago, the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County, Md., started a weekend drop-in program for teens. On Friday and Saturday nights, the department's 40-plus community centers stay open for young people ages 10 to 17. What started as a weekend program has grown into Xtreme Teens, which encompasses all the opportunities offered to this age group, such as classes, workshops, day camps, clubs, trips, etc.

One such opportunity is Café Groove, a Friday night open-mic night started within the department's arts and cultural heritage division. "It's designed to bring to us young people who are not inclined to be involved with sports and to give them the opportunity to share through performances and through the spoken word," said Emily Rose, chief of the department's special programs division.

On the second Saturday of the month, the Elk Grove (Ill.) Park District also hosts teen nights where the building is open to teens for a variety of activities, such as basketball, Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. Similarly, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department offers late-night recreation featuring movies, food, basketball and the like in its community centers. While each department does it a little differently, the point is often the same. "It's a safe place that welcomes all teens," said Ron Mirabueno, teen parks and recreation coordinator and youth employment program director for Seattle Parks and Recreation.

When talking teens, there are often goals involved in the programming. While weekend drop-in programs may not seem goal-oriented, they're still offering teens a community haven as well as new opportunities, which in itself provides structure.