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Designing for Engagement: The Experiences of Tweens in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Youth Arts Initiative

May 29, 201929 May 2019

Arts education / Arts participation by young people

Wallace Foundation


Wendy McClanahan and Tracey Hartmann

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Based on qualitative and quantitative data from site visits, focus groups with participants and their parents, staff surveys, participant attendance data, and a survey of youth outcomes, this report finds that access to high-quality arts programs help youth between 10 and 14 years of age hone artistic skills and develop social and emotional learning competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management.

The report notes that, “despite clear evidence that arts education can lead to benefits for youth, many young people from low-income urban areas grow up without exposure to the arts, and even fewer receive artistic training.” The Boys and Girls Club of America (BGCA) developed and implemented the Youth Arts Initiative (YAI) to offer “high-quality art skill-development classes to tweens from high-poverty communities”.

The pilot initiative, which involved 1,280 youths between 2014 and 2016, offered two kinds of classes in the performing, visual, and digital arts: intensive skill-development classes and less rigorous exposure classes. The initiative was designed to incorporate what the report calls “the Ten Principles for Success”, which include having classes taught by professional practicing artists, in dedicated spaces, with hands-on skill building, with youth input and community engagement, and in places offering physical and emotional safety.

The research shows that some benefits for the youth participating in the YAI are:

  • Improved artistic, leadership, and teamwork skills, as well as improved learning competencies related to self-awareness, self-management and relationship-building (reported by parents and club staff).
  • Enjoyment of the program (a large majority of youth in the focus groups said they enjoyed and were engaged by the pilot program).
  • Returning to the club the following year in larger numbers than youth who did not participate in the arts program (according to club attendance and participation data).

The report provides several recommendations for designing arts programs that are engaging for youth between 10 and 14 years of age:

  • “To increase recruitment to arts programming, make arts ‘visible and valued’.
  • Offer multiple engagement strategies i.e., in-depth skills classes and exposure classes.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge youth and hold high expectations – as long as these are balanced by adult support and mentorships.
  • Engage families to support committed attendance: YAI artists used emails, text messages, and social media to engage parents and culminating events deepened parent support.
  • Pay attention to quality to sustain participation and foster youth development.
  • Recognize youths’ sparks in the arts and provide mentoring to help develop them.”


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