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Youth workers need to go out and play!

By Nicole Pokorney

Recently, while teaching a room full of youth workers, I was taken aback by a few early-career professionals who were struggling with why they were actually doing youth work. On the same day, I also met an older gentleman who was full of energy for working with youth after doing it for more than 30 years. What was the difference between them?  I believe it was passion and innovation.

Through my work with Youth Engagement Matters, a curriculum developed by the University of Minnesota, I teach participants about the Rings of Engagement, which are participation, passion, youth voice and collective action. The course shows adults how to use the Rings of Engagement in their youth work practice.  The curriculum defines passion in this way: “Becoming engrossed in or passionate about something, and based on experiencing the activity itself as rewarding, regardless of outcome or external rewards.  Passion is marked by high levels of attention, concentration, enthusiasm and commitment”.

Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, describes the necessary skills needed for youth to be continuous learners and active, engaged citizens wonderfully in his 2012 Ted Talk ”Play, Passion, Purpose.” Wagner said that through play, children are able to explore their talents and strengths, or passions. Through these passions, youth can develop a sense of purpose. Through teaching the skills, allowing a play environment and being positive adult mentors, we are creating innovators that can make a difference in the world.

As followers of this concept, Tony urges us to be innovators in our teaching. Do this by:
  • Modeling values and behavior of innovation
  • Being willing to take risks
  • Learning from our mistakes
  • Collaborating with our colleagues and
  • Being conscious of where and how you encourage play, passion and purpose every time you work with youth
Thinking back to the contrast between those early-career youth workers and the passionate, energetic older one, I turn the tables on Wagner’s point. I believe that we, as adults, need to apply the same principles of play and passion to be fully engaged in our professions and find our sense of purpose. After all, aren’t adults who actively seek what they are passionate about more satisfied in their jobs?

Let’s start the conversation!  Have you found your passions in life and how?  What are some ways that you incorporate play into your job? Are you able to be innovative in your practice and what does that look like?
-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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