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Olympic spirit: Motivation for inclusive learning environments

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgAll eyes are on London this summer for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games. Like many people across the globe, I find the Games to be so inspiring. I am particularly drawn to the Olympic spirit of diversity and inclusion and that same spirit motivates me in my youth development profession.

In fact, each time I build a youth program, I ask myself this question: How can I build an inclusive learning environment? We know from research that programs serve youth best when the learning environments in which they function are intentionally inclusive. But the word inclusive can be rather hollow if you are not sure how to apply it. Here are some tips to consider when building inclusive learning environments.

  • Mind your own language
The way we speak about young people reflects our attitudes and influences what youth programs can achieve. Use language that honors youth. Phrasings such as doing things with youth, rather than for or to youth show that you value young people and that you do not view them merely as recipients of programs or problems to be fixed. According to Nicholson, Collins and Holmer, collaborative language can lead to stronger youth-adult relationships.

  • Talk about culture and race
Developing a positive identity is especially challenging for youth who are marginalized in society, but marginalization affects all youth -- and all people for that matter. So, in everyday programming, go ahead and discuss culture and race, and invite youth to critique and reject negative stereotypes. Also, help youth to find adults who acknowledge, rather than dismiss, the emotional impact of "isms" or other destructive encounters. To learn more about these types of conversations, watch this video of Beverly Tatum, a psychologist and the president of Spelman College, about her book Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.

  • Create a sanctuary
At a minimum, a learning environment in a youth program can be a refuge from slurs and oppressive actions about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, body size and shape, and other common forms of discrimination against young people. At best, the environment provides a safe and supportive space within which to positively develop one's identity as a person separate from those negative influences according to
Chang et al. So, co-create a safe environment with youth that affirms the identity of each young person, is a sanctuary from discrimination, and is a place where youth can thrive in developing a strong sense of self.
  • Create a youth-centered atmosphere that is embraced by the community
A youth-centered environment where young people feel embraced by the community distinguishes successful programs from others that do not view young people as the most important stakeholder. Young people thrive when we listen to them, respect them as contributors and leaders, and engage with them in meaningful investment in the community. So work with youth to build authentic community-based programs and the learning environments in each will naturally reflect the diversity of the community.

There are many more practices to consider. The art of building inclusive learning environments is a perpetual process of improvement. Here are few resources you may be interested in exploring: Teaching Tolerance, Reclaiming Youth International, Intercultural Communication Institute.

What do you do to build inclusive learning environments? What resources have you used?

While you are thinking about that here is an Olympics trivia question: What does YOG stand for?

Answer: YOG is an acronym for Youth Olympics Games. The games are for young people ages 14-18. They are held every four years in staggered summer and winter events. The first such event was held in Singapore in August 2010 and the next will be held in Nanjing, China in 2014.

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

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  1. Thanks for your post Jennifer. What a relevant topic as I just got back from visiting our 4-H overnight camp, which for me is always an amazing example of an inclusive learning environment. Camps offer such unique environments to connect youth from different backgrounds and build cross-cultural understanding. We build this environment by offering multiple opportunities for youth to work together in teams towards a common goal (for example cabin and small group challenges and a final night talent show). We encourage reflection and build connections between young people (for example campers give “snaps” or compliments around the campfire to give others positive feedback).
    These are things all programs can do, yet there still seems to be something different and more inclusive about camp. I often wonder how can we recreate this type of environment where youth from different backgrounds come together to learn from each other and develop deep relationships in our everyday programs?
    There is something about bringing youth into a safe space, outside of their normal worlds where they are free to be themselves. Where everyone looks goofy singing camp songs and youth have the opportunity to break down their masks and get to know each other as individuals. Maybe it requires sleeping in close quarters on bunk beds to have the time and space to have those conversations about race and culture and get to know each other on a more individual level, but I do believe there are many ways to try and recreate the camp feel. To offer youth a safe space to develop their identities and learn from each other. To use your words, a “sanctuary”.
    -Erica Gates

  2. Thanks for a great and inspiring post Jennifer and Erica, what a fun camp experience you've put together for 4-Hers!
    Jen, I think you've brought up the most important elements in creating inclusive environments and the one piece that comes up to me when reading things like this, is that it is not rocket science. We often feel overwhelmed, lost, or confused as to how to create safe, positive, and inclusive environments for all youth, when in fact it can be less difficult than we think.
    I think your post provides practical ideas that youth workers can take and implement any I encourage all of us to being to try them out!

  3. Hi Erica -
    Thanks for bringing up the value of camping environments. I couldn’t agree with you more. Those environments can be ideal for bringing together young people from different backgrounds and inclusion can be built into every part of the program (e.g. recruitment and training of camp counselors, staff training, activities, campfire stories, rituals/traditions like songs and use of flags, cabin norms, youth grouping/teams, outcomes, objectives, greeting campers when they arrive and so on). So like you indicated it can be effective to borrow some of the elements of a camping experience and transport them to another learning environments like a summer “day” program, retreat setting, or afterschool program so that youth have opportunities to experience interpersonal and intercultural relationship building and bonding that often occurs in a camp setting. Especially in the cases of cultures that do not value overnight camps or the idea of co-ed residential camps. Even the word "camp" has a negative connotation from some because for historical or political reasons. So, the benefits of "camp" do not have to only play out “only” in a camp environment.
    Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and insights!

  4. Exactly, Josey.
    People who work with youth have opportunities all around them to build inclusive learning environments.
    Thanks for your post and encouragement.


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