Skip to main content

One step at a time to intentional program design

By Nancy Hegland

“You don’t climb mountains without a team, you don’t climb mountains without being fit, you don’t climb mountains without being prepared and you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain on accident – it has to be intentional”.  Mark Udall, former U.S. Senator from Colorado, now working with Outward Bound.

Turning the calendar to 2016 causes me to reflect on the past year and make efforts to do some things better and with more intentionality.

Attending a workshop taught by my colleague, Sherry Boyce on intentional program design also sparked my thinking and reminded me that intentional program planning requires a fresh approach every time. During the first part of the workshop, we were asked to identify a youth program that we had been part of either as a participant, volunteer or professional, and conduct a program audit. I found this to be very insightful, as I thought about the experience my kids have as members of the 4-H program. They’ve had many opportunities to be involved in 4-H club, county, regional and state programs. Some of their experiences have been intentionally designed to meet certain learning objectives, while others have been less structured and at times chaotic.

The mountain you are climbing may be a youth mentoring experience, a summer camp or a whole new initiative in your organization. In every case, intentionality is crucial. What benefits do you see for programs that have intentionally matched their program content with positive youth development principles and quality? Have you been able to review a program and make changes that significantly improved the learning experience for youth?

As we think about being more intentional in program design, we must also explore ways to provide learning opportunities for youth workers to understand the field and grow. Keep asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and “What will the youth gain from it?” In other words, be intentional.

In a white paper a few years ago, my colleagues laid out the importance of professional development for youth workers and the need to create more intentional professional development venues and a wider range of learning opportunities for youth workers at all phases of their careers. What professional development opportunities are you seeking in your role? What training do you need but can’t find?

Whether we are climbing mountains, designing programs, or seeking professional development opportunities, we must take intentional steps to reach the highest peak.

-- Nancy Hegland, Extension program leader

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.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Intentional is perhaps my favorite word, and certainly one I utter frequently when i speak about youth development. For a long time providing activities or safe places were the main focus of much of what drove afterschool and out of school non-formal opportunities -- with non-formal too often translated to mean casual or largely unstructured. Research and program evaluations over the last twenty years have consistently shown casual does not cause good things by itself -- it can lead to negative as well as positive outcomes. We need to be intentional about program design, professional development and practice if we want high quality programs, well-prepared staff and volunteers, and positive impact on youth outcomes. We need to be intentional in the way we approach, plan and support reflection in our programs if we want them to have real impact - especially on youth's social and emotional development. The age of keeping young people busy with activities is yielding to a time of purposeful, intentional youth-centric community learning opportunities. These opportunities are not just to achieve better in school but also for many other positive outcomes from social and emotional skills to better health and less problem behavior and to fun!. But the research has also shown us that we need to be intentional about the right things -- like youth engagement, youth voice and choice, the outcomes we seek for youth, the ways we encourage positive, developmentally supportive relationships, and so much more. It is not just about having intentional content or intentional prevention of problems that matter. -- in fact, focusing too much on these can be very ineffective even in reaching those goals. It is about the deliberatness we bring to our work as youth workers and to our everyday practices that perhaps matter most -- and for that we need to be, well, intentional!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Dale. I have found that the word "Intentional" has greater meaning to me after attending Sherry Boyce's workshop on intentional program design. It is critical to be intentional when we plan and develop programs and think about the professional development needed to be able to be intentional in our work. My goal this year is to keep the word intentional at the forefront of my thinking as I work with colleagues, as well as with my volunteer roles and family. What have you found to be the most difficult about being intentional in program design? What tips do you have for others who want to be more intentional in their practice?


Post a Comment