Adolescent to Adult: Recreation in a Time of Transition

young men playing basketball

When we think about youth recreation, it’s easy to picture elementary school kids exploring a neighborhood park or high school athletes gearing up for practice. But we also know that the needs we have as kids don’t immediately disappear on our 18th birthdays. Research tells us that human brains and bodies keep developing well into our 20s. While this development is happening, it’s critical to spend time outside and stay physically active to support healthy growth.

woman hydrating while riding her bike

This is just one reason why it’s important to provide recreational opportunities to youth who are 18 and older. Lots of forms of social support drop off at age 18, which means that adolescents are left to navigate the transition into adulthood on their own. Programs that work with vulnerable youth, like foster care systems, have seen a range of positive outcomes from investing in transitional programming that serves an 18+ audience with age-appropriate support.

young men hiking with backpacks

Researchers have observed similar outcomes in recreational programming. The transition period from youth to adult that takes place between ages 18 and 26 is often a time of high stress and instability. This means that the benefits associated with recreation like social support and improved mental health are especially important during these years. People who maintain positive recreation habits (e.g. continue regular physical activity) across the transition from youth to adulthood are more likely to remain engaged with recreation activities throughout their lifetime.This means that a student who is on the soccer team in high school but stops playing at 18 when they graduate, is unlikely to pick up that activity again later in life. A student who joins a local rec league and continues playing soccer even after leaving the structure of their high school team is likely to still be playing when they’re 35, or 40, or 50 years old.

A women's soccer team runs off the field

Even those who remain in a school setting and continue on to college after high school benefit from recreational engagement. Studies show that college students who participate in recreational programming during their first year of college are more likely to be socially and academically successful than their peers who stop participating in recreation at the end of high school. An added benefit of extending recreational services beyond 18 is the leadership opportunities it provides for older youth who can serve as role models and peer mentors for younger participants.

two mountain bikers on a trail

NRF recognizes the importance of serving youth throughout their transition into adulthood, which is why our focus on youth doesn’t mean that we stop caring at age 18. We’re proud to support organizations and programs that serve participants up to age 24. Some of our amazing grantees that serve older youth are Fresh Tracks from the Aspen Institute, the Children and Nature Network’s Natural Leaders, Daring Adventures, and Brown Girl Surf.