Freedom to Fail, Space to Grow

January 31, 2016, Department, by Cait Wilson, Jim Sibthorp and Dan Richmond

 Encouraging children to learn from failure and see it as an opportunity for further development and learning nurtures a growth mindset.What role do failure and success play in youth recreation programming? We often take the easy route and say that it depends on the child and the context. While this is accurate, such wisdom is rarely helpful to programmers and frontline staff who have to facilitate recreational experiences for the kids who show up, rather than those who might be “perfectly” aligned with what their programs offer.

Recent research from education, psychology, sport, leadership and business  is making its way into youth development circles and offers some insight into how both failure and success can be more effectively used in recreation programming. Work by Carol Dweck and colleagues  makes a compelling case that youth who view failure as a growth opportunity, rather than a perpetual barrier to success, are most likely to continue on productive developmental trajectories. Dweck defines children who view failure as an opportunity for further development and learning as possessing a “growth mindset.”

What Is a Growth Mindset? 

Growth mindsets are beliefs in the malleability of abilities (e.g., cognitive, social, psychological, physical) through practice and effort. Recent research supports that growth mindsets  help youth overcome obstacles experienced with shyness, aggression, depression, negative stress responses and weight gain. In contrast, a fixed mindset implies that abilities or traits are largely fixed and can’t be changed much through effort. 

Failure is viewed fundamentally differently through these two lenses. Youth with a growth mindset do not dwell on failure — they see failure as a problem to be solved through additional learning and effort. Failure represents an opportunity for youth to analyze goals, adapt strategies and advance their learning. Ultimately, a growth mindset helps youth to effectively cope with obstacles and excel in the face of adverse situations. Conversely, youth with a fixed mindset interpret failures as inability and anticipate future failures. This interpretation leads to withdrawal and lack of engagement with challenges. Children do not want to risk putting themselves in challenging situations since they internalize failure as a result of their unchangeable innate abilities and label themselves as inept.  

This growth mindset perspective of failure does not come naturally to most children, especially if they have come to associate failure with some stable and internal aspect of themselves (“I’m just not a good leader”). Most children learn pretty quickly what comes easily and what does not, and no amount of effort is going to make every kid a professional athlete or a musician. However, children often incorrectly attribute failure to a lack of innate talent when, through effort, success is not only possible but likely. When children mistakenly link failure with innate abilities, they deny themselves further learning opportunities, undervalue persistence and resilience, and are incapable of coping with hindrances. 

Recreation programming provides an ideal setting to foster growth mindsets in youth. Recreation programs are not beholden to standardized tests or outcomes. Professionals are able to align their programs with the needs of individual children and create opportunities for success through effort in the face of failure. Success, especially in non-competitive recreational pursuits, can be construed differently for children based on their abilities and personal goals. Recent research provides guidance on how to foster a growth mindset in youth. Specific interventions, trainings and practices are gaining attention in other professions, are supported by research and can be intentionally infused into park and recreation programs. Recreation professionals can proactively work to instill growth mindsets in multiple ways: changes in organizational culture, leadership, programming and feedback. 

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture often glorifies innate ability through well-established norms such as team and leadership selection, awards ceremonies, performance metrics and accolades by parents, coaches and other youths. These organizational norms evoke thoughts, feelings and behaviors emblematic of a fixed mindset if merely ability is emphasized over effort or hard work. The most innately talented kid is often the MVP, the team captain or garners a disproportionate amount of attention from coaches and parents. To combat this fixed-mindset culture, coaches and parents need to be knowledgeable of the growth mindset and be made aware of their role in providing praise to children who demonstrate a strong work ethic and perseverance throughout the process of their pursuits as opposed to predominantly recognizing children who, for example, score the most goals. Programs need to implement a rewards system where all participants have an equal chance at receiving awards, rather than promoting systems that always consistently favor innately talented youth. Organizations can shift the criteria for awards selection and leadership appointment to focus on kids who work hard through effort, regardless of innate talent.


Recreation leaders themselves need to have growth mindsets. Education and leadership training programs should be considered for recreation professionals to develop a growth mindset about their leadership abilities. Training sessions provide youth workers with suggestions on how to incorporate the growth leadership mindset in a recreation setting. A common intervention that has demonstrated effectiveness in other contexts is having coaches write and share a story of a time they initially failed, but ultimately succeeded through effort. Then have coaches make the connection that if it was possible for them to succeed through effort after failing initially it is also possible for the children to succeed. 


Youth need to be provided with meaningful recreational programming that teaches participants to embrace challenges and value effort. Professionals can help foster growth mindsets through program designs that focus on learning or mastery goals — goals related to improvement — rather than performance goals that emphasize proving one’s ability. Mastery approaches are associated with a greater willingness to take on challenges and persevere through failure, whereas performance approaches can push individuals to avoid challenge and possible failure. That said, programs need to have set goals and outcomes that are realistic and attainable for the children participating while still providing appropriate challenge. Regardless of the mindset, repeated failure is counterproductive and contributes to drop out.


Another way to foster a growth mindset is by program leaders providing process-oriented feedback. Research suggests that recreation professionals should be providing praise and encouragement for the effort applied, strategies used to solve problems and decision-making processes, as well as persistence and determination exhibited by participants. Praise for the process and not the outcome produces more long-term benefits than simply telling youth that they are smart or talented when they succeed. Consider how feedback such as, “Joey is always working hard to get better, and it shows,” might contribute to a growth mindset. In contrast, feedback such as, “Joey is a talented ball player,” focuses on innate ability and promotes a fixed mindset.

Ultimately, one of youth programmers’ main goals is to help develop participants into self-motivated individuals who are able to see the value of persistence and hard work, especially after experiencing setbacks. How we encourage youth to view challenges and overcome obstacles can carry over to other parts of their lives. Recreation programs that foster a growth mindset help equip youth with the tools and beliefs necessary to overcome challenges they face while on the road to success.

Cait Wilson is a Doctoral Student at The University of Utah. Jim Sibthorp is a Professor at The University of Utah. Dan Richmond is a Doctoral Candidate at The University of Utah.




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