Aims. Several embedded clusters are found in the Galaxy. Depending on the formation scenario, most of them can evolve to unbounded groups that are dissolved within 10 Myr to 20 Myr. A systematic study of young stellar clusters that show distinct characteristics provides interesting information on the evolutionary phases during the pre-main sequence. To identify and to understand these phases we performed a comparative study of 21 young stellar clusters. Methods. Near-infrared data from 2MASS were used to determine the structural and fundamental parameters based on surface stellar density maps, radial density profile, and colour-magnitude diagrams. The cluster members were selected according to their membership probability, which is based on the statistical comparison with the cluster proper motion. Additional members were selected on the basis of a decontamination procedure that was adopted to distinguish field stars found in the direction of the cluster area. Results. We obtained age and mass distributions by comparing pre-main sequence models with the position of cluster members in the colour-magnitude diagram. The mean age of our sample is similar to 5 Myr, where 57% of the objects is found in the 4-10 Myr range of age, while 43% is <4 Myr old. Their low E(B - V) indicate that the members are not suffering high extinction (AV <1 mag), which means they are more likely young stellar groups than embedded clusters. Relations between structural and fundamental parameters were used to verify differences and similarities that could be found among the clusters. The parameters of most of the objects show the same trends or correlations. Comparisons with other young clusters show similar relations among mass, radius, and density. Our sample tends to have larger radius and lower volumetric density than embedded clusters. These differences are compatible with the mean age of our sample, which we consider intermediate between the embedded and the exposed phases of the stellar clusters evolution.