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Extension > Youth Development Insight > May 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Play is important work for learning


Cathy-Jordan.jpgLast month a New York elementary school cancelled its annual kindergarten spring play because the kids needed to continue working to be college and career ready. Really?

I was saddened and frustrated to read about this. I have fond memories of kindergarten. I remember the academic part - learning to count to 100, memorizing colors, learning sound-letter combinations, learning to print letters and numbers, etc. I also remember the "fun" stuff - songs, games, story time, playing dress up, creating skits, and playing "house" and other role-playing games in the maze of boulders and trees along the edge of the playground. Those "fun" activities were seen as critical parts of our school day.

These activities were not just enjoyable. They were chock full of learning opportunities - learning to listen, work collaboratively as well as independently, communicate, share, problem solve, and create. Sometimes these fun activities tapped our early reading, writing and numeracy skills as well - creating dialogue for a short program, writing invitations to our parents, counting how many rows of chairs we might need to seat all of our parents at the holiday program. What fertile opportunities to educate the whole child.

The note from Harley Avenue Primary School administrators to parents said they were preparing "children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills." The note went on to say "we can do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers." I agree that those lifelong skills are critical for college and career readiness. I completely disagree that children needed "seat time" in order to achieve those goals.


The importance of non-academic endeavors, including play and social interaction, to learning and development has been documented and addressed by numerous authorities, from the American Academy of Pediatrics to legendary education researchers and theorists, such as Dewey, Vygotsky and Kohn.

I believe this New York school lost a great opportunity to engage these youngest of students in a fun learning task that could have offered rich opportunities to work on those life-long skills of literacy, writing, collaboration and problem solving. Students might have worked in teams to come up with the show's theme. Teachers could have helped students reflect on how their collaborative process facilitated or created barriers to their learning. Disagreements and social dynamics could have provided the context for working on problem-solving, conflict management, communication, and sharing. Leadership and followship skills would have emerged.

With teacher help, students could have written (or at least dictated) their script. Learning their lines would have helped students practice sight reading. Costume and prop design and creation might have promoted visual motor development and art skills and offered outlets for artistic expression. And not to be underestimated -- children might have taken pride in their effort and their ability to work with each other to achieve their goals and they would have experienced the validation of their proud parents' and teachers' applause and praise.

Perhaps this was exactly what teachers engaged the children in doing in preparation for the kindergarten show. If so, it's unfortunate that someone did not recognize the educational value of this beloved tradition.

How does this extend to upper grades? What might "fun" learning activities look like in the upper elementary grades? In middle school? In high school? In youth programs? How do you make fun activities, or "recreational" activities, educational? What lifelong skills are you attempting to address in the process? If you were an educator and faced with a similar situation, what decision would you have made?

-- Cathy Jordan, director and associate professor

University of Minnesota Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium


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 14, 2014

To improve your program, change your habits


Mark-Haugen.jpgMuch of our everyday life is done by habit. In 2006 a Duke researcher found that more than 40% of our everyday actions are habits, not decisions. How can we use knowledge about our work habits to make programs and organizations better?

We are what we do. Our programs are what we as leaders do. A habit is fairly easy to understand with a few minutes of reflection; we all have them! I challenge you, the champions of youth programs; use your habits to make your program better.

hopscotch-board.jpgYouth programs throughout Minnesota have champions that strive to provide high-quality experiences for our learners. We are succeeding and we also have room to become better. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, said, "Champions don't do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking...They follow the habits they've learned."

Duhigg's description of how a habit works is a great place to start learning about their power. Maintaining a habit is easy (especially the bad ones), but changing a habit or creating a new one can be hard. A habit begins with a trigger that causes an action. The action is our routine, our automatic way of doing something. We recognize the trigger and complete the action because of the final component; the reward.

Mark Twain suggested that a habit "... should be coaxed downstairs a step at a time." If you want to be a champion you can use the following strategies to make your program better. When you identify a few items that you want to change remember to focus only on one or two at a time. Small intentional changes will help your program mature to the highest quality possible.

Remember that changing a habit is easier than quitting one!


Before you set out to develop new habits or quit old ones, reflect on the habits you currently have. Can you adapt any of your habits to result in an improved program? It is much easier to use the same trigger and reward while changing only a routine.
  • Do you want to increase the use of reflective questions in a youth program? It's easier to incorporate this if your group gathers together at some regular time in your program. When your group is together, ask a few reflective questions. Make that your routine!

Invite an outsider to take a look at your program


We often fail to notice our own everyday actions, so invite someone to observe and share their observations. The University of Minnesota provides a deeper review using the Youth Program Quality Assessment tool. You too can use the process. For deeper information, check out the Weikert Center. The process we use to assess, plan and improve is valuable!
  • Informal observations: I know it can be awkward to hear about things that need to be improved. It can also be affirming to hear about your program's strengths! At times we need to remind ourselves that we don't know what we don't know. Ask your learners, their parents or others connected to your program to share their thoughts. Ask for specifics.
  • Formal observations: The YPQA provides a clear process, supports and specific examples of how safe environments, supportive environments, interaction and engagement can be improved in your program. This proven tool will help identify points where you can develop your strengths further or address an area where you would like to improve.
Do you have a habit you want to change? How could changing only a routine of one of your other habits help you improve your program?

I challenge you to reflect, plan and share one strategy of how you can use habits to improve your program. Bonus points go to all of you who can tell a story of how they have done this already!

-- Mark Haugen, Extension educator, regional 4-H youth development programs

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 7, 2014

Our brains are wired for social learning

kathryn-sharpe.jpg
Psychologist Louis Cozolino describes the brain as a "social organ," saying there is no such thing as an individual human being, because we are so fundamentally shaped and co-created by our relationships. He explains that human relationships actually sculpt brain tissue: Our positive relationships trigger our brain chemistry to be more plastic, enabling us to learn more easily. Traumatic experiences, on the other hand, negatively alter the brain and can shut down learning. Our brains and bodies are constantly being shaped at a cellular and genetic level by our environments as we live. Our brains are constantly evolving through our interactions with each other.



Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland says "I am who I am because my brain is what it is," perfectly describing the rapidly developing realm of neuroscience and the insights it holds for youth development.

Our brains evolved in a tribal context, where learning was done through relationships and oral tradition. Modern education generally disregards this -- leaving young people hungry for it, and therefore vulnerable to groups like gangs that do incorporate these elements. But relationships help to engage the social networks in the brain that enable learning.

During the past two days, as I attended our center's social and emotional learning symposium, "Assess it to Address It," I was reminded of the need to incorporate this knowledge into youth programs.

As we work with adolescents, rather than resisting these aspects of their development, we need to make space for them to bring their full selves to the program. We can harness the social motivation to learn, which is a highly effective learning strategy. The more that learning is couched in social networks and connections, the better our retention.

Practical ways to apply this approach in youth development

  • Introduce new content through stories as much as possible.
  • For things that are challenging to teach with stories, encourage youth to learn it "so that they could teach it to someone else"--this engages the social motivation to learn and social networks in the brain (Leiberman). Our Youth Teaching Youth programs are a great example of the effectiveness of this approach to learning.
  • Consciously cultivate what Cozolino calls a "tribal environment" through the use of small groups, cooperative learning, cultivating attachment, encouraging play and story telling, fostering equality and democratic participation, and making a safe space for vulnerability and uncertainty.

By combining the insights of neuroscience with the developing realm of social and emotional learning, how can we better equip young people to develop and thrive?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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.
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