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Extension > Youth Development Insight > May 2012

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Who benefits from 4-H volunteering? You might be surprised

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgYou might think that the sole beneficiaries of youth program volunteering would be youth. But you would be mistaken -- the value extends to the community and to the volunteers themselves.

A recent study of 4-H volunteers in the North Central United States documents the types and levels of contributions made by volunteers that benefit youth, their communities, and the volunteers themselves.

More than half a million adults across the US give their time to the 4-H program and Extension. This is a lot of "people power". To put it in context, the YMCA and the American Red Cross -- two of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country -- are each supported by similar-sized corps of volunteers.

Extension 4-H Youth Development, a public organization, is a key actor in the landscape of programs that recruit volunteers to promote the positive development of youth in communities. We can quantify this by turning volunteer hours into dollar signs at the rate of just over $20 per hour. But there is more to it than that.

archery.jpgIn this study, my colleagues and I learned, from the responses of more than 3,000 "mostly women living in rural communities" volunteers, that they:
  • Tend to be college-educated and to stick around for several years of service, particularly when they themselves were 4-H members in their youth.
  • Tend to spend as much time planning for and communicating plans with youth as they spend actually working with them.
  • Give more than time -- they donate money, supplies, and mileage on their cars to the 4-H program.
  • Need training and development as as much as they do a well run volunteer system.

We also learned that volunteers benefit from the relationship, and that their communities do, too. Volunteers told us that they directly benefit from:
  • Opportunities to be involved with youth learning; in other words, the privilege to partner with young people in community settings
  • Opportunities for personal growth, becoming better at public speaking or a specific skill
  • Opportunities for contributing to the 4-H mission and giving back to the organization, being part of something "big"
  • Becoming better connected and valued as member of their communities

The benefit they most often mentioned was that the 4-H volunteer experience contributed to their own pathway toward becoming a better person. This is both humbling and startling in a "we are all connected" sort of way. It is also incredibly difficult to quantify. This finding sheds new light on youth and adults as partners in youth programs, and their interdependence on one another in the community. Extension and 4-H are strong threads in the fabric of communities, and if we listen closely to 3,000-plus volunteers, one of those brightly-colored, extremely resilient threads is woven by volunteers in partnership with youth. Think about this.

How does your experience with volunteerism compare with the results of this study?

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Keeping program assessment "local" reaps benefits

Deborah-Moore.jpgWant to keep a youth workers in your organization? Try involving them in observational assessment!

The recent release of the national YPQI study on improving youth program quality found one unexpected benefit to the process of observational assessment and planning process -- it increases staff retention. While it may seem hard to connect these dots, the finding does not surprise staff and consultants here at the Youth Work Institute who are working with youth organizations and staff throughout Minnesota to improve program quality.

Key study findings Include:think-global-act-local.jpg
  • Using the YPQI intervention increases quality

  • Staff retention increased at programs using the intervention

  • The intervention works across a variety of youth work settings

  • The intervention is a cost-effective, low-stakes model for improving quality

These findings also connect to recent policy conversations happening in Minnesota and elsewhere that posed the question "Should youth programs be accredited?" The YPQI study adds new scientific knowledge to the conversation and surfaces a critical question about where accountability should reside - in external systems or local youth programs.

Lisbeth B. Schorr, senior fellow at the Harvard Center for the Study of Social Policy and lecturer in social medicine at Harvard University has focused over the last three decades on "what works" in social policies and programs to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and families. Shorr notes that practitioners and organizations already know what to do - they simply cannot get sustained support to do the work in a way practitioner and models show effect. As Schorr describes, practitioners "are driven by their commitment to making a difference in the lives of the families they serve, although their professional training would dictate a more judgmental, distanced posture. It is striking how often effective practice is characterized precisely by how it departs from traditional norms about what is considered "professional."

As a practitioner, what benefits have you experienced or seen when assessment is kept local? If practitioners and organizations already know what to do at the local level to improve program quality, what is the role of policy to support it?

-- Deborah Moore, state faculty and associate director, Youth Work Institute

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Learning from Caine's Arcade: Programming free play

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgLast month, I presented an online webinar titled, "Natural Spaces: A Place for Positive Youth Development." In it, I talked about four research-based design principles that I believe can improve the ways that our programs connect youth with nature:

1. Situate programs in youths' favorite outdoor spaces
2. Integrate more free play
3. Plan developmentally appropriate environmental learning activities, and
4. Use nature design principles

In this session and others I've presented, the concept of 'free play' in structured programs seems hard for participants to grasp. Free play is not free time. And it is far more than something that only happens in nature-related programming.

Free play is characterized by the following qualities: open-ended, few explicit rules or supervision, and free choice. Questions like these bubble up: "What do you mean?", "What does that look like?" Free play is important, but we seem to lack the concrete, intuitive models to help practitioners visualize integrating it into programming.

Have you seen Caine's Arcade? This video went viral recently getting about 2.7 million YouTube hits in a month. It is a truly inspiring story on multiple levels. It is also a GREAT example of what free play can look like in program settings.

The video tells the story of nine-year-old boy who has a passion for arcade games. He spent his summer at his father's auto parts store designing his own cardboard arcade. Caine started by designing one game with a small basketball hoop and continued to build additional games based on his own experiences at arcades. With one of the games, someone tried it and commented that it was too easy. So Caine re-designed it to be more challenging. He figured out a way to build a claw to grab prizes in another machine. He also developed a "fun pass" that is coded using square roots.
Caine's story is being shared because of a random visit by a struggling film maker, who enjoyed playing the arcade games. He was impressed with Caine's creativity and dedication. Recognizing the need for customers, the filmmaker asked Caine's father if he could document the story, and worked with him to arrange a flash mob to visit the arcade.

This is how free play should look! Our programs should:
  • Provide plenty of flexible raw material. The shop where Caine free-played was stocked with boxes, various plastic and metal parts, tickets ... the stuff to build an arcade (or whatever else Caine may have envisioned).
  • Create static spaces where play can pause and resume later. Caine did not build the arcade in one day, it was over the course of the summer
  • Ensure safety. Caine's dad was in the next room.
  • Focus on subjects with enough design complexity to keep young people innovating. Caine started with building one game, then another, then adding tickets, and fun passes.
  • Be flexible enough for young people to follow their individual passions. Caine decided what to build, and how to build it.
  • Young people need encouragement. Caine appreciated a few visitors. The flash mob was amazing.

From my own practice I know we can fairly easily integrate these kinds of raw materials and thought spaces into our programming. We can also generate the design prompts that initiate and foster free, creative play. Finally, we can also use education technology tools to connect youth passions and creativity with the world around them. Imagine the impact that one casual visitor, who decided to tell Caine's story, has likely had on this child's personal identity.

Do you know other great examples of youth programming that involve free play? What strategies should we follow to more effectively integrate free play into our programming?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Do you dare to be coached?

Jessica-Russo.jpgIn my experience, most youth work professionals are constantly scrutinizing their own work. But how willing are we to allow others to do so? Could coaching be a key to developing satisfaction for professionals in our field?

In a recent report, Dana Fusco explores "the tension between a trial-by-fire approach to training [of youth work professionals] versus the overtraining that can lead to the 'anesthesia of the expert' or the loss of the 'heart.'" She concludes that knowledge and knowing are positioned "not as end products but as processes within the learning journey that require ongoing visitation."

youth-workers.jpgI found an interesting complement to Dana's report in an article in the New Yorker, where surgeon Atul Gawande explores the use of coaches in professional fields, after realizing that while many professional athletes use coaches to help them be the best that they can be, doctors don't. As Gawande discovers, coaching as a concept for amateurs is currently very popular (as even a cursory Google search will confirm), but "coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual."

Many youth-serving organizations are already exploring and employing evaluation and coaching methods to improve the quality of their youth programs. The Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) is one tool that Minnesota 4-H Youth Development, the city of St. Paul's Sprockets initiative, and many other entities are using throughout the state to engage front-line youth workers in a coaching process to improve their practice.

In our sister field of formal education, teachers have been exploring the use of coaching for years. Gawande cites the Kansas Coaching Project, directed by Jim Knight at the University of Kansas, which uses instructional coaches to help teachers implement proven teaching methods. Although more research is needed to determine how and to what extent, so far we know that coaching positively impacts teacher satisfaction, practice, and efficiency, as well as student achievement.

Gawande himself experienced the striking benefits of coaching after inviting a former teacher of his to observe him during surgeries: "I know that I'm learning again. I can't say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I've discovered that I do."

Coaching for youth development professionals could easily be seen as "another freakin' thing we've got to do," as professional development often does for both formal and nonformal educators. And it is not always easy to muster the courage and humility required to invite someone to observe and critique. Humility may not be the most popular value in mainstream dominant American culture, but it may very well be the value that can turn a good effort into the best one.

As you consider this question, think about how much we stress to youth in our programs that they need to receive and process feedback as they learn. Can we realistically and authentically expect them to do that if we are not willing to do it ourselves?

What do you think of this idea? Would you be willing to invite a "coach" to assess your work as a youth development professional?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fashion magazines make girls feel ugly

Cecilia-Gran.jpgI recently watched a video that brought some startling facts about girls and body image into view. After three minutes of leafing through a fashion magazine:

  • 3 out of 4 girls feel depressed, ashamed, and guilty about themselves
  • 48% of young girls want to be as skinny as fashion models; and
  • 31% of young girls are starving themselves
  • Eight years old is the peak age for girls to have leadership ambitions. At that age, 44% of them want to be leaders, but the number drops as they get older.
What is happening?

This is from a well researched film called Miss Representation, made by a Sundance film maker. Watch the clip and help me think about how we adults can help create a realistic and loving world for our girls and for boys, too.

Having watched this clip, what is one thing you are going to do now?

Cecilia Gran, Youth Work Institute associate program director and state faculty member

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech - any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc. -- as well as spam.

Communicating public value: If a young person develops in the woods, does anyone hear it?

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgWe know that youth programs have public value. But does the greater community know? Recipients of public funds must defend their use of public resources by demonstrating the value to the community, not just the value gained by the individuals who participate. Can you articulate what that is? Have you been doing so?

My Extension colleague Laura Kalambokidis works with educators in youth development and other fields across the nation on how to demonstrate the public value of their programs. Laura did a survey of educators that shows that of those who do not infuse a public value approach in their work, the primary reason is that they do not have enough time. To me, this suggests we view this approach as something "extra" to tack onto our plan of work. I would argue that demonstrating public value helps us to prioritize our work and involves changing how we talk about what we do and how we measure the impact of our work.

Youth programs have societal impact. Here are a couple of ways in which they do that:

They build trust among community members

To take a negative example, the "What's Up?" study youth-service-learning.jpgshowed that young people spend a large amount of time isolating themselves with computer games and television viewing. This is a threat to their personal development, but more than that, social isolation among young people is linked to social ailments such as criminal activity and drugs use -- a societal problem (Rankin & Quane, 2000). On the other hand, as one of my favorite authors, Robert Putnam says, trustworthiness "lubricates social life." Relationships among unlike peers and diverse community members, fostered by youth programs, generate social trust (Flanagan, 2003).

I am currently working on the Pathways Project, which is finding that youth in the programs studied have affinity and trust across race, ethnic background and socioeconomic background, embracing the philosophy, "all equal; all different." In their programs, they unpack stereotypes, cross social boundaries and develop trust in people outside of their family.
Social trust is the root of democracy and is linked to publicly valued outcomes such as a strong economy, well functioning political institutions, and better performing schools (Rahn and Transue,1998; Social Capital Blog, 2012).

Youth become agents of change

In programs, youth develop agentic capacities-- the ability to improve the quality of life for themselves and their community. So, while leadership skills, education plans, and civic values fuel young people to achieve private success, youth agency is also a resource that can be released into the community, making it a ready asset to the public. Youth programs position young people to be community partners, prepared to work with others to collectively improve the well being of the communities they share. For example, young people in the the Big Urban Woods CYFAR club recently partnered with their school, community organizations and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to restore a neglected 5-acre parcel of forestland. A place that was once a spot of unsightly neighborhood activity is now a vibrant outdoor learning environment and place of pride for the CYFAR youth and others in the community. Young people acted as partners for community improvement.

These are just two examples from my own work. What do you see as the public value of youth programs? Are you letting the public know about the value they receive?

-- Joanna Tzenis, community program specialist

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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