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.

All the Years in Between

Sometime around the age of 10, kids start to fall in between the age brackets. They're not young kids anymore, but they're not technically teenagers either. They're in between, in the 10-to-13-year age range.

"Tweens are too old for little kids, but don't feel really comfortable with teenagers," said Juan Rodriguez, recreation coordinator for the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. "They're stuck in the middle, identifying who they feel comfortable with."

For that reason, some departments program for these audiences separately. For example, the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County hosts a "dive-in" movie—a movie at a swimming pool that is divided by age group. There's also the "Up All Night" lock-in, with entertainment, activities and free-play time. Positive Pathways for Preteens introduces social and life skills to tweens. "We program for age-appropriateness," said Adriane Clutter, youth recreation specialist.

Elk Grove sees a huge number of tweens at the monthly dance that is held just for junior high kids. "High school kids have dances through their school," said Kim Laper, Elk Grove teen coordinator. "There's not as much of a need for high school kids. They're more mobile. They can go places on their own."

A normal dance may see 400 to 500 tweens. To get into the dance, a park district ID is presented and collected. At the end of the evening, there are eight different check-out stations, split up alphabetically. A parent has to be present to sign out a youth, and IDs are returned and then shown to staff at the door before leaving.

"Parents give us a lot of good feedback," said Kim Buscemi, superintendent of recreation programming. "As a parent you want those kids to be able to get out and be in a safe, supervised environment. The kids still feel on their own, and from the parent's side, it's very well supervised."

Teen Tips
  • Stay ahead of the curve and know the latest trends for teens.
  • Involve teens in planning new programs—they know best what teens are facing.
  • Engage in open dialogue.
  • Staff members are not there to be the teens' good buddies outside of the professional setting.
  • Offer teens a variety of opportunities and activities that blend structure with freedom.
  • Consider age groups and program separately for the tween and teen audiences.
  • Push the envelope in your programming and try new things.

Life or Something Like It

Teenagers might think they know all there is to know about life by the ripe old age of 17, but the reality is they still have a lot to learn. Parks and recreation departments have the unique opportunity to be able to offer teens a chance to obtain real skills and sometimes even real money.

Seattle Parks and Recreation offers what it calls Teen Signature Programs, which are focused on six core development areas: Leadership Development and Civic Engagement; Youth Employment; Service Learning; Sports, Health and Fitness; Arts, Culture and Special Events; and Outdoor Opportunities.

That's where project STEP comes in, falling under the youth employment area. STEP stands for Student-Teen Employment Preparation and is a six-week summer program specifically targeted at at-risk youth ages 14 to 18. Sixty students are selected through an application process and, working in teams of 10, they address a community need, whether it's a building project or environmental restoration project, and receive job and life skills training. There's a stipend for participating in the program and financial literacy workshops so the teens learn not only how to earn money but also how to handle it responsibly.

"Everything we do in our unit is geared toward helping students find that job or get that job," Mirabueno said. "I think a lot of teens that age are looking for things to do … be a part of their community, gain some experience. It's not a huge amount of money, but it's something."

Mirabueno also said that many teens who apply for the program are drawn to the financial benefit. "We've heard stories of them helping parents pay for some bills," he said. "A lot of them buy clothes and supplies for school. They gain a great appreciation for the hard-earned dollar."

Through a much different method, the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County offers teens ages 14 to 17 a way to do community service, learn résumé writing and interviewing skills, and attend life skills workshops through its Cotillion program. Again, there is an application process for selection, and young men and women are chosen for this 16-week program that also exposes teens to the arts, teaches etiquette, involves families and wraps up with the "beaus" and "debs" being shown off at a formal gala with 800 guests.

"We've found teens find value in the programs that go on for a long time," Clutter said. "Once you get these long-term programs, they start to snowball into more things with positive outcomes and keep kids coming back." She cited an example of a female Cotillion participant who organized a donation of formal dresses to disadvantaged participants as part of her service learning project.

Programs that provide incentive to the participants, whether monetary or otherwise, such as the Cotillion, can have long-term implications for teens. The community also benefits as teens are learning skills to help them become productive adults and they're performing services that improve the community. Partnerships with local community organizations are imperative to the success of programs like these.

Leaders of Today— and Tomorrow

In Phoenix, the Parks and Recreation Department's teen program operates on a simple premise according to Juan Rodriguez, "Program for teens with teens." Teen councils meet on a regular basis and provide input on programs and services for teens. The council members elect their officers and representatives and have a representative on the Teen Parks and Recreation Board.

The Teen Parks and Recreation Board is made up of teens from parks and recreation districts and the At Risk Youth Division who meet on a monthly basis to review programs and policies related to youth issues. The board makes recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Board as the teen board chair sits on that board as well. Additionally, there's a large teen leadership conference annually that addresses issues facing teens and provides recreation leaders a good snapshot of what's going on with teens.

"We include our teens in what we do," Rodriguez said. "They're a little younger than an adult who has maximum freedoms. You have to take that into consideration and allow freedom for input and empower them."

There are also leadership councils that focus on the needs of the junior high kids. The councils grow somewhat organically, forming as they're needed geographically so if one park site or recreation center sees a lot of tween activity, the council for that particular area will be made up of its constituents and focus on those activities and issues specific to them.

The Great Outdoors

Remember the days when Mom would kick you outside to play and not let you back in until dinner? Those days are gone, replaced by comfortable couches, plasma-screen televisions and the best videogame graphics money can buy.

But an initiative by the Outdoor Industry Association and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is bringing the outside back to teens. Called Teens Outside, the program was piloted in Asheville, N.C., in 2006. The focus is to provide teens outdoor opportunities such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, camping, etc., over eight weeks, along with mentoring. The program gives kids the opportunity to try an activity they may never have done before, build confidence and connect with nature. After that initial launch, 20 agencies were chosen for the program this past year.

The agencies range from large to small, and each has a different depth of experience in outdoor programming. For some the experience is greater in the mentoring (for example, one of the agencies was a Big Brothers Big Sisters organization), while others already had a thriving outdoor program and partnered with a local university to provide the mentoring. According to Theresa Rodriguez, senior manager, national partnerships for the NRPA, the program has been very successful and plans for expanding it are in the works.

It's a good thing, too, as Rodriguez said that connecting children to nature is the hot topic right now. "We're finding a whole generation who are not connected to going outside to play," she said. "It's a big problem that they haven't had time to play in nature, relax in nature, connect to nature. We're finding that once we get these kids out there and it's done in a safe and planned manner, kids are loving it."

Learning to love the outdoors also puts environmental concerns into teens' minds and creates young caretakers for our environment, which, as everyone knows, is also a hot topic, no pun intended. "Studies have shown that if teens have one positive experience during the formative years up until adulthood, they're much better stewards for the environment," Rodriguez said.

For more information on Teens Outside, visit

Talk to Them, Not at Them

"The worst type of conversation with a teen is to have an agenda and have outcomes set for you," Rodriguez said. "That's the quickest way to turn teenagers off." Rodriguez explained that dialogue and open-ended questions are the best way to interact with teens, but also that experienced teen coordinators should be on hand as facilitators. "When the conversation is heated or not productive, good teen coordinators can pull those teens back and focus on what we're trying to achieve," he added.

Understanding adolescent development and what makes teens tick is also key. But more, remembering your place as well as the teens' is most important. "The biggest thing to remind staff is that teens are not miniature adults," Clutter said. "We're not there to be parents but to be guides, which is huge. So, for example, the staff isn't going to yell at some kid to take his hat off, but explain why in this facility we don't wear hats."

Rodriguez agreed. "Teenagers today are more street-savvy, more aware of the things that are going on around them primarily because of the media," he said. "They want answers and ask for justification. When you do certain things, explain why you do them. People who question and want justifiability typically make good leaders. We need to cultivate that kind of culture and help them understand that dialogue is good when measured and positive."

Creating fantastic opportunities for teenagers doesn't mean anything if they don't know about them. Spreading the word to today's teens isn't as simple as putting it in the recreation bulletin anymore. Today's teens are glued to their cell phones and computer screens, which is why the Elk Grove Park District markets one of its biggest teen events,

Band Nite, on "That's what teens are using nowadays," Laper said.

She's looking into ways to use the platform to market other events, such as a Halloween dance. When broadcast that it was a costume party in a newsletter, the response wasn't great. "I got the feeling they're not reading them anymore," Laper said. Since the numbers at the dances are so high, she's found that marketing to them right on the spot is successful.

Brooke Rivera, teen coordinator at Seattle Parks and Recreation, finds school fairs and job fairs work well for marketing job- and service-oriented programs. Similarly, Kelly Beavers, youth services coordinator/northern region for the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County has found cross-marketing is a good way to spread the word. "When you create partnerships with people, not even necessarily formal collaboration, whether you cross-market by exchanging Web sites or links, putting in publications, brochures or flyers, it's extremely successful," she said. The department has even leveraged the local radio stations. "DJs have a lot of influence in terms of their endorsements," Rose added.

Most agree, however, that your best endorsement is that of the teens themselves who spread the word to their peers, which is why getting teens invested in your programs is the best way to ensure success—for the programs and teens. "You cannot program for teens," Rodriguez said. "You have to program with teens."

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