The role of peers and the built environment in youth emotional safety in afterschool programs


After school recreational contexts can contribute to youth development if they are intentionally designed. Such programs can be particularly beneficial in low-income communities that have fewer opportunities for structured programs. An important feature is ensuring spaces facilitate emotional safety. Social relationships and the built environment have the potential to influence feelings of emotional safety; however, little research focuses on adolescents in the afterschool context. A collective case study was conducted to explore youth perspectives of their interactions with their peers and the recreational environment, and how these interactions may contribute to perceptions of emotional safety. Interviews were conducted with ten 11-15-year-old youth and ten program staff at two sites of an afterschool program in low-income urban neighbourhoods. Results of thematic analysis suggested that youth felt emotionally safe when they and their problems were understood and not hidden. The size of, familiarity with, and materials in a space; feelings of freedom; and the protection and trust shown by peers and staff had implications for emotional safety. When messages supporting emotional safety were spoken or displayed throughout the spaces, youth felt more emotionally safe. Findings suggest youths' choices of whether to share with peers may be motivated by a desire for acceptance. Environments that are home-like and relationships that provide an outlet to share can help youth to feel emotionally safe. Recommendations include using language that facilitates trust, including inclusive and non-divisive activities in programming, and having areas that allow youth to separate themselves if needed.

Acknowledgments: This research is supported by funding from the University of Calgary Faculty of Kinesiology.