Engaging learning: Youth take the lead

Moving youth from being engaged in your programing to being active participants in creating their own.

Consider the activities and projects that mean the most to you—either personally or professionally. Certainly tasks that have been delegated to you or groups you have joined can hold a lot of meaning, but it is likely that the most inspiring projects were ones you started yourself or took clear ownership over. As youth are pulled into programs by hands-on activities and further engaged through the experiential learning process, it is important to see the next step in both program design and participant development. Moving through the gradient of engaging learning methods as introduced in “Progressing through engaging learning methods”, participatory-youth led programming is the final step in creating a fully engaging, impactful experience.

Youth participation in projects, groups and initiatives also follow a scale beyond this initial gradient of engaging processes. Although there may be some overlap between these scales, for simplicity, consider utilizing “Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation” as a bridge between programs that have youth engaged in experiential learning but not yet taking the lead. A more detailed explanation of this conceptual tool is provided in “Participate Already” with the general concept of creating situations that move youth from superficial stages of nonparticipation towards levels of leadership where youth initiate new projects and invite adults to join. In terms of the practical application of this next step, some key methods include acknowledging where a program is on the scale, what structures can support more youth leadership and, most importantly, how adults can take a back seat.

Consider the ongoing example in this series of the 4-H Tech Wizards mentoring program which engages small groups of youth with mentors around science, technology, engineering and mathematic projects. Participants are already exploring a variety of hands-on projects and mentors are encouraging reflection, and application through processing questions. Program staff can support these projects and provide questions, but small groups are starting to move towards being guided by the mentor. The critical point that can get this model from youth being full participants rather than recipients is how everyone responds to “I’m bored.” Instead of providing more options for activities or insisting youth design their rocket a new for the fifth time, mentors and staff can shift the power dymanic with a very simple response, “Ok, what do you want to do next?” Now, young people are invited to decide what happens next. Critical to building on that momentum will be mentors willing to take on a supportive role—not immediately intervining and taking on tasks assigned by youth

No matter what type of youth programming you do, most hope to push it to the next level. Consider how seeing hands-on, experiential and participatory as a gradient of engaging practices can push what your program does to the next level. Michigan State University Extension aims for positive youth development in 4-H programs that engage youth. For more ideas and expertise, visit MSU Extension for other articles on the topic.

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