Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts

Click here to download the full report:
Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts

Engagement in the arts can help youth in myriad ways: as a vehicle for self-expression, acquiring skills, and developing focus and teamwork. Unfortunately, with the decline of arts education in public schools' few urban, low-income young people have high-quality, engaging arts experiences at school. Alternatives outside of school, such as private lessons or arts camps, are typically limited to children of families with the resources and savvy to get access to them. What narrow arts experiences low-income youth have are often dull arts and crafts projects where they are instructed to follow a prototype, rather than create something from their own imagination.

Consequently, many urban, low-income youth grow up without even a cursory understanding of what high-quality arts programs are like' or what benefits may accrue from participation. Even when there is awareness or interest in outof-school time (OST) arts programs' many young people choose other activities for a variety of reasons. Further, community groups often report a steep drop-off in teen OST engagement and participation. That finding points to the importance of captivating young people's interest prior to the teen years when' as tweens,1 they are more willing to try new OST activities. However, many OST programs are not designing or promoting their arts programs in ways that will be particularly engaging to tweens.

This set of challenges led The Wallace Foundation to ask:

  • How can urban, low-income tweens and teens gain equal access to high-quality arts experiences?
  • Is there a model of practices that could provide a blueprint for community-based organizations to emulate, so that proven approaches could be deployed in more places, more often?
  • Is there a way to approach the analysis of these problems that respects and honors the young people as consumers who make informed choices? And how do the insights of what tweens and teens want align with what other experts say they need?

Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts endeavors to answer these questions. The primary way we approached this project was by seeing youth as consumers of OST activities, and taking many of our questions directly to them. In our research we spoke to young people in their neighborhoods and homes, interviewed researchers and youth development practitioners, visited highly effective programs, and combed the research to address some of the key knowledge gaps in the field of OST arts activities for urban' low-income tweens and teens.


The prevailing approach to addressing lack of participation has been to view it as an issue of limited supply. Those wishing to address inequities in OST arts participation ask: "What can we supply the market with (e.g.' programs' teachers' underwriting) that changes the status quo?" But this question assumes the problem is only one of unmet demand' that "if we build it' they will come."

But such a supply-oriented approach is only part of the solution. A more balanced and comprehensive method lies in pairing supply solutions with a stronger consumer demand orientation. Effective marketers seek to understand what their potential customers want and how they make their decisions' and then do what is necessary to meet those needs and desires. As applied to OST arts, we might ask whether the market need might not be simply more programs, but rather different kinds of programs.

Businesses often do consumer research with tweens and teens, but they rarely make such research public out of competitive interest. Our study offers an unusual public glimpse of what influences urban, low-income youth as consumers in how to spend their free time and make decisions about their various choices. In order for youth to choose to participate in existing or future OST programs, they must be motivated to do so against a range of alternative choices. Interest in gaining firsthand understanding of youths' specific needs and perspectives was a critical driver in this initiative's goal: to provide a foundation of knowledge from which not-for-profit organizations that serve in urban' low-income communities may develop or refine effective, engaging and accessible arts programs.


The research uncovered a set of obstacles facing programs trying to serve young people on the cusp of engagement, as well as opportunities for reaching such youth. While there is no guarantee that addressing these issues will increase engagement dramatically, their elimination, mitigation or management is a logical place to start.

Young people who are moderately engaged in the arts are the main focus of this project. They enjoy the arts, are open to exploring existing interests, or building new ones' and have likely dabbled in arts through a structured or casual setting. The youth in our research were not rejecters of the arts, and most were not passionate embracers either. For most' their desire to be creative shapes their choice of out-of-school activities' but they are not yet sure what role they want the arts to play in their lives.

We found youth and parent research participants through postings in grocery stores' churches and community centers in low-income urban areas. Participants talked with us in focus groups, as well as in interviews in their homes, both solo and with one or two of their friends. They maintained photo journals that documented a week in their lives, allowing us a glimpse into their unique worlds and minds.

The key insights emerging from hundreds of hours of discussions, interviews and analysis suggest, as expected, a challenging situation. But they also define a potential pathway to higher engagement in the arts. The three key insights are:

  1. Multiple barriers limit demand for structured arts programming.
  2. Tweens exert a high degree of control in choosing their out-of-school time (OST) activities and are prone to rapid disengagement.
  3. Youth want five key features in structured arts programs.


Limited exposure to high-quality OST arts programs compounded by emotional, social and practical barriers negatively influence young people's decisions about whether to participate in an arts program. Among the barriers limiting demand for structured programming are the following:


The young people in our study connected the term "the arts" primarily with visual art, specifically painting and drawing. They did not easily associate the terminology arts or arts programs with activities such as dancing, singing, design, digital media, or beat-making, which they indicated held significantly more appeal for them. They also often indicated an association with arts and crafts, a term that carries its own negative baggage, perceived to be boring and for younger kids. Programs that market their offerings to young people as "arts" may well be communicating a set of limited activities or negative associations that results in avoidance or apathy rather than engagement.


Tweens revealed in the focus groups they often enjoyed arts activities outside of a structured format. Such young people viewed their art as a private pursuit, and others indicated that the rules, expectations, and oversight of formal programs did not appeal to them.


Even before practical barriers like cost and transportation are considered, participation in any program is often predicated on two foundational factors: a positive view of the activity, and whether the individual sees himself or herself as a likely successful participant. (Success can take on several forms: fun, mastery, social status and admiration, etc.) Unfortunately, the reference points for many of the tweens we spoke to offered little positive input, as youth recounted tedious, arts- and crafts-style programs and not being allowed to have autonomy over their personal expression. As a result, they had a hard time imagining themselves enjoying or being fulfilled by a structured OST arts program.


Tweens want to conform to what they perceive as normal for their peer group. This inclination is known as a concern with descriptive norms. Because tweens said they believed that most of their peers are not involved in the arts' non-participation is the perceived norm within their social circles. As a result' their desire to conform to norms supports non-participation and creates a higher social cost or risk to arts engagement.


Most of the parents who participated in the research do not view involvement in the arts as advancing life skills or career goals. Consequently' few seem concerned about their children's lack of engagement, and most said they would not insist that their child continue with arts if the tween felt like quitting. In contrast, parents shared a fantasy indulgence around sports, with a surprising number confidently asserting their child someday would be a multimillionaire professional athlete, resulting in participation in sports being broadly viewed as a higher-yield activity that youth were encouraged to pursue and sustain.


While not every young person had all of these factors in play in their lives' they often experienced several, and the various barriers worked in concert with each other to produce a deterrent to participation. There were some minor distinctions in the prevalence of factors among subgroups, which are highlighted later in the Something to Say report, but overwhelmingly the emerging theme was one of significant headwinds to participation. One distinction we note that cut across gender, geography and ethnicity is the greater opportunity to engage young tweens (fifth and sixth graders) in OST arts programs. In addition to being less influenced by peer pressure than their seventh and eighth grade counterparts, that group showed much more willingness to try and fail, and to participate. Such openness suggests some of the social and personal identity barriers are not in full force yet, so there may be more opportunities to shape fifth and sixth graders, perceptions of OST arts programs, mitigate barriers, and get them meaningfully involved in activities that are designed to engage and sustain participation.


Decision-making in tween years shifts from parents to their children. Therefore, programs that wish to engage and enroll young people in this age group need to adjust their marketing messages from appealing directly to the parent, as they might for a pre-tween program, to empowering the tween to initiate a successful dialogue with his or her parents.

Additionally, tweens can choose to drop out of an OST activity for a number of reasons' from boredom to the preference of a competing interest, with few consequences. The advent of mobile communications and social media means tweens have access to an unending stream of information about social circles, activities, and whereabouts of their friends, which is both a distraction from and a veritable menu of alternatives to structured OST activities. Tweens' interest need only wane a little before they start looking for what feels like the next best thing, disengaging from the current activity to focus on a competing diversion, such as hanging with their friends or virtual connections via their smartphones. Programs can combat the low threshold for disengagement by involving youth quickly, for example, offering hands-on experience with equipment or the opportunity to participate in the art form' such as dancing or drawing, within the first half hour of the first program session.


Numerous tween and teen research participants mentioned that trial program sessions and demonstrations could be an effective way to attract their participation. Tweens saw the option of a trial as a signal that the onus was on the instructor to make the program engaging and attract participants. With demonstrations, such as a brief performance in a school or community center, tweens can see young people-ideally those to whom they can relate-having fun and displaying mastery of a skill. This, in turn, creates interest and excitement, and that can lead to trial or full enrollment.


The tweens and teens we spoke with in our research were consistent and clear about what they want in out-of-school time arts programs. The elements they are looking for include: professional and expert instructors, experiential learning in inspiring spaces, the prospect of new friends focused on similar interests, culminating and competitive events, and program extras and proven incentives such as snacks and markers of involvement like T-shirts.

We derived these criteria from respondents' stated and latent needs. In the context of our research, a stated need was an explicit request, often accompanied by reference points to past experiences. For example, when young people insisted on having expert instructors, they usually related that to a time when they had an expert guiding an OST activity and found it invaluable, or when their instructor was not expert, and the effect on the experience was noticeable.

Latent needs are the underlying drivers of behavior; they are called latent or derived needs because respondents do not state them outright, but may arrive at them through probes about why something is important. For example, many young people said they wanted rules and no yelling; when asked why' they said to keep things orderly; and when asked why that was important, they revealed they wanted to engage in their art without fear of ridicule or harassment, leading to a derived or latent need for emotional and physical safety.

Researchers often view latent needs as more indicative of true motivation and resultant behavior than stated needs, which are sometimes mentioned simply because they are top of mind or expected (like consumers who mention safety as their main need in a car, even if, in reality, their purchases are based more on styling or brand reputation). Skilled probing of why something is important often reveals the closely held values and beliefs that most correspond to behavior. Although many stated and latent needs are detailed in the full report, the five issues that consistently generated the most potent discussions were:


Young people want instructors whose expertise was rooted in real-world experience; across the board' these adults held more credibility to teach, critique, and inspire.


Respondents spoke at length about how they wanted programs that were immediately immersive, where they were learning by doing, and the instructional space was open, engaging and well suited to their desired levels of interaction with the art, instructor and each other.


Meeting new people is a key driver of participation' and since many young people said their school friends did not participate in the art form they liked, the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers, even if (sometimes especially if) they are from a different school was motivating.


Ending a program with a public event to showcase their work is a common desire among young people. Many referenced sports competitions or elimination-based TV shows as providing a format that brings out their best and is engaging and motivating.


Snacks and meals are a powerful draw, as are markers of membership and recognition, such as T-shirts and certificates. Our research also explored the powerful role of rituals that' while not outward markers of involvement, create a sense of belonging and inclusion.


Overall, among urban tweens with moderate levels of interest in arts, demand for structured programming is low, but the desire for exceptional experiences is high-leaving the door wide open for organizations to provide tweens the kinds of programs that are built around their clearly expressed needs.

To build on existing interest and encourage enrollment in or trial of a program, organizations must go beyond communicating the availability of an arts activity; they need to interest a young person in a type of experience. Through specific descriptions, they should make clear they are offering certain pursuits and content that tweens probably wouldn't assume to be part of an arts program. Organizations must let tweens know they will not be lectured to, nor will they be enrolling in an arts-and-crafts class. Most of all, programs must convey that this will be a high-level experience allowing for discovery, as well as social opportunities, and giving older youth the chance to have input and some autonomy.


Our research on what we refer to as the "supply-side" - interviews with researchers and youth development practitioners, as well as observations from a sampling of some of the best youth development arts organizations in the country - was run separately and in parallel to the demand ("consumer") research. Specifically, it involved 22 in-depth interviews with leading experts and opinion leaders in arts and youth development, and in-person case studies of eight youth development organizations (seven of them community-based arts groups). Across art forms, geographies, size and lifespan of case study organizations, as well as academic and professional backgrounds of our research participants, a common set of organizing principles emerged regarding how to engage and sustain young people's interest in programs of excellence. The principles, which are presented with detailed applications and examples in the body of the paper, are:

No. 1: Instructors are professional, practicing artists, and are valued with compensation for their expertise and investment in their professional development.

No. 2: Executive directors have a public commitment to high-quality arts programs that is supported by sustained action.

No. 3: Arts programs take place in dedicated, inspiring, welcoming spaces and affirm the value of art and artists.

No. 4: There is a culture of high expectations, respect for creative expression and an affirmation of youth participants as artists.

No. 5: Programs culminate in high-quality public events with real audiences.

No. 6: Positive relationships with adult mentors and peers foster a sense of belonging and acceptance.

No. 7: Youth participants actively shape programs and assume meaningful leadership roles.

No. 8: Programs focus on hands-on skill building using current equipment and technology.

No. 9: Programs strategically engage key stakeholders to create a network of support for both youth participants and the programs.

No. 10: Programs provide a physically and emotionally safe place for youth.

For many practitioners, the list of principles taken in its entirety may well be daunting. Most of the case study organizations are well established and have had years to get to where they are today. Our hope is that the list gives organizations a useful foundation for developing and implementing effective programs.


What the youth we spoke with say they want - instructor artist credentials, inspiring physical spaces, social and emotional support elements' hands-on exposure to technology (where applicable)' culminating events - almost perfectly lines up with the key success principles garnered from the case studies, key opinion leader interviews and literature review. And while it may seem obvious that what young people want is also what they need, it was not a foregone conclusion when we began the project. Certainly there are sectors where what experts think young people need does not always align so neatly with what the young people say they want: providing nutrition and snack food, for example. One important implication of this finding is that the principles used in arts programs primarily with highly engaged youth are directly applicable to and desired by their moderately engaged counterparts and may very well move these young people to the next level. Improving the quality of programs overall, with a specific focus on the components young people indicate are motivators and retention drivers, will likely boost engagement and sustain greater youth participation.

The full Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts research report provides detailed examples of the principles for high-quality, effective OST arts programs; specific suggestions for overcoming barriers to participation; and quotes from the primary research with youth and their parents' as well as from the key opinion leader interviews. The project also includes an overview video and video profiles of six of the best practice youth development arts organizations we studied, as well as excerpts of five research interviews. These resources are available in the Knowledge Center on The Wallace Foundation's website at

« Previous |


  1. Tweens were defined in the research as fifth- through eighth-graders' generally corresponding to pre-adolescence and chronological age of 10-13.