By Sam Piha
Why is learning enhanced when it is meaningful?
Research tells us that if we hope to make a difference in young people’s learning, we need to provide opportunities for learning that is meaningful. If young people are engaged in meaningful participation, they are empowered to be self-directed, make responsible choices about how to use their time, and participate as group members in making decisions that influence the larger program and what they learn about.
They are also given the opportunity to learn group leadership skills and to assume leadership roles in planning activities and projects. They have opportunities to “give back” by contributing to the program, to other young people, or to their larger community.
We know that young people experience their participation as meaningful when they report feeling a sense of belonging and ownership in the program. When they are participating in meaningful ways, they feel that their contributions are valued, and, by participating, they “make a difference.” In a program that fosters meaningful youth participation, adults serve as mentors and facilitators to build the skills of the young people. “Fostering meaningful youth participation means providing opportunities for problem solving, decision making, planning, goal setting, and helping others, and involves adults sharing power in real ways with children,” writes Nan Henderson, prevention specialist.
What MEANINGFUL learning looks like:
Three things you can do right now to promote meaningful participation:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this meaningful principle.
2. Encourage self-reliance and responsibility to the group: Allow young people to responsibly address their own needs, whether it is access to the drinking fountain or to art supplies. Design your program space and storage system in a way that allows young people free access to needed project supplies, materials and equipment. The privilege of access comes with responsibilities of caring for and returning things to their proper place. Brainstorm the needed agreements with your group to ensure the respectful use of these materials.
3. Incorporating the Interests of Young People: Regardless of the teaching and learning methods you employ, it is important to incorporate young people’s interests in your program. You may want to survey the young people in your program about their interests, and then work to incorporate opportunities to learn academic and life skills into activities that reflect these interests.
You can build on learners’ existing knowledge and skills. When introducing a new topic or project, begin by allowing young people to show what they already know. There may be some true “experts” among them. By building off the momentum of their knowledge and prior experiences, you can help them both test and deepen their present understanding. Equally as important to designing programs with young people’s interests in mind, is ensuring that programs are relevant to the learners. It is crucial that staff understand young people’s life contexts, including their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and have the flexibility to design programs that are relevant to participants.
To learn more see our Youth Development Guide 2.0. This 165- page guide is available as a free download or can be ordered as a spiral bound, hard copy.
By Sam Piha
In a previous post, Is Play a Waste, we made the case that now is the time to reexamine the value of play, educate our stakeholders, and be unashamed to make play an important part of our afterschool programs. Below we open the door to this by explore some of the benefits of play and resources that may be useful.
Many afterschool programs prioritize an extension of academics and homework completion over organized play, free play, and physical activity."
The Benefits of Play
According to experts “play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.” (2)
The gift of imaginative free play has been getting the short end of the stick for some time…play does not exclude learning. Play is the essence of learning and we have the research to back it up…We need to get this concept back into circulation with the mainstream that play is the highest form of learning!"
Rebecca Fabiano is Founder of FAB Youth Philly, which supports organizations and individuals that work with children and youth by focusing on improving program quality and providing professional development for staff. FAB Youth Philly also works directly with teens. In a newsletter, Rebecca wrote, “There's been so much interest in the last few years in the various ways that play can positively impact children's learning and their overall health and well being. Play is so important that this report from August 2018 describes the ways in which doctors have begun to 'prescribe' play to their patients. ‘Play is not frivolous,’ the report says. Rather, research shows that play helps children develop language and executive functioning skills, learn to negotiate with others and manage stress, and figure out how to pursue their goals while ignoring distractions, among other things.”
Is Play Good for Older Kids?
We tend not to give older kids a chance to play. When I taught 6th grade, my students loved visiting the kindergartners - not to be helpers or mentors, but to get a chance to play with the building blocks and other play things. In teens, we see play take different creative forms – theater, project-based learning, making beats, adventure challenges, etc.
Hilary Conklin was a middle school teacher and is now an associate professor in the college of education at DePaul University in Chicago, where her research interests include the preparation of middle school social studies teachers. She writes, “One of the casualties of current education reform efforts has been the erosion of play, creativity, and joy from teenagers’ classrooms and lives, with devastating effects… And while play has gotten deserved press in recent months for its role in fostering crucial social-emotional and cognitive skills and cultivating creativity and imagination in the early childhood years, a critical group has been largely left out of these important conversations. Adolescents, too—not to mention adults, need time to play, and they need time to play in school…purposefully infusing play into middle and high school classrooms holds the potential for a more joyful, creative, and educative future for us all—a future in which kids have more interesting things to do in school than count down to summer break.” (4)
Is Play Good for Adults, too?
In a recent newsletter, Rebecca Fabiano writes, “The importance of play for children is well documented. Now researchers are turning their attention to its possible benefits for adults. What they’re finding is that play isn’t just about goofing off; it can also be an important means of reducing stress and contributing to overall well-being. This 2017 article from the Washington Post goes on to talk about why play is important for adults too. We're sharing a link to a toy we use a lot in our staff meetings and trainings with adults and teens (see photo of the cubes below). They are so popular we've lost several cubes at some of our meetings and trainings. This is just one way you can encourage play or playfulness with adults.”
Rebecca goes on to offer a few “easy and low cost/free ideas to try:
A Few More Resources
There are many resources on the topic of play. We cite a few below.
The power of play – Part 1-5: This is a 5-part series from Michigan State University The Power of Play
The Genius of Play has created easy to use activities, provides expert advice and more. And it's all FREE for anyone to use.
Videos: There are many TED talks and other videos on play. Below are some that we like.
• TED Talk by Stuart Brown entitled “Play is more than just fun”
• TED Talk by Peter Gray entitled “The decline of play”
Guest Blogger, Dr. Gil Noam
The election season is upon us. As a researcher in the field of education, I pay close attention to the ways education and youth development are discussed and framed on large policy platforms. This year, I have noticed one area consistently neglected in these high-profile discussions: educational settings that care for school-aged children and adolescents beyond the school day. These spaces are often referred to as afterschool programs, out-of-school time, summer experiences, or extended education.
This year, the Democratic candidates have largely focused their talking points on health care, immigration, trade, and gun violence with education in the periphery. When education came up in the first five debates, the most discussed issues were universal pre-K and tuition-free public colleges and universities. Some candidates also argued for raising teacher salaries and increasing funding for low-income students and schools. But every family in this country has to figure out what to do when school is out and how to pay for high quality and safe environments for learning and care.
Some Democratic candidates have more detailed platforms that include expanded learning opportunities. For example, Bernie Sanders has proposed spending $5 billion annually to expand summer and afterschool programs and youth centers in particular. Elizabeth Warren’s platform includes investing $100 billion over ten years to restore and implement in-school and out-of-school programs. Amy Klobuchar also has had a record of speaking up in favor of increasing access to afterschool programs and community hubs. On the other side of the political aisle, President Trump’s campaign platform does not specifically mention afterschool programming, but his administration did attempt to cut the only federal funding stream dedicated to afterschool and summer programs (21st Century Community Learning Centers) on three occasions.
I believe that out-of-school time should be treated with the same attention as current education hot topics like pre-K and college tuition costs. Often times, when politicians debate over resource allocation or ways to increase the quality of education, they focus on the start and end of a child’s educational journey (i.e. universal pre-school and college access). This approach often overlooks the many opportunities that could be improved upon in elementary, middle, and high school years. For example, the three months of vacation between each school year can lead to “summer slide,” which denotes the loss of academic gains during the summer months when young people are often less engaged with academic material. Also, the opportunity divide during the summer between children who grow up in poverty and those who have affluent parents is enormous.
Candidates in any party would be well-served by putting more emphasis on this topic. Unlike debates surrounding healthcare or gun regulations, it is not a matter of taking away or replacing something, but rather about the expansion and supplementation of new programs. There are more than 30 million families with children under the age of 18 in America, with the majority being employed. The workday does not correspond with the school day and that is a very serious matter. Many of these voters are in essential primary and swing states and know whether a leader takes their situation seriously. Ultimately, this is a low-risk, high-yield topic, and it’s time to give it the deserved place on the debate floor. If you don’t discuss your plan, you will be seen as being out of touch with a very significant need of every family in our nation. READ MORE.
Gil Noam, Ed.D., is the founder and director of The PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience) at Harvard University and McLean Hospital. The PEAR Institute is a translational center that connects research to practice and is dedicated to serving “the whole child-the whole day.” An Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School focusing on prevention and resilience, Dr. Noam trained as a clinical and developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst in both Europe and the United States. Dr. Noam has a strong interest in translating research and innovation to support resilience in youth in educational settings.
By Sam Piha
An important part of engaged learning is ensuring that the learning experience is active. We know that young people tend to be wiggly and need to be physically active and that they learn best when they are allowed to learn by “doing”. We also know that they are more difficult to manage when we allow them to be who they are, and hands-on projects are messier and pose greater challenges in planning and implementing activities. It is important that we accept the need for young people to be active learners and take on the challenge of designing activities that meet these needs.
What does new brain science tell us about active learning?
As the neuroimaging evidence has shown, the more a student is engaged in a learning activity, especially one with multiple sensory modalities, the more parts of his/her brain are actively stimulated. When this occurs in a positive emotional setting, without stress and anxiety, the result is greater long-term, relational, and retrievable learning.” – Dr. Judy Willis, Neurologist and Classroom Teacher
What ACTIVE learning looks like:
Four things program leaders can do to begin promoting active learning:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this first learning principle.
2. Project-based learning: If your program is lacking the use of this teaching and learning method, offer a training in project-based learning for your staff. Try adding one club that features project-based learning. The Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center in San Francisco, CA features a large number of project-based clubs for their middle school youth. They published a great guide entitled The Best of Both Worlds: Aligning Afterschool Programs with Youth Development Principles and Academic Standards. Click here to purchase.
3. Promoting positive behavior: When young people are physically active and engaged in hands-on activities, they become excited. It is important that program staff are skilled in behavior management, which is often the result of good training. You can contact Temescal Associates if you wish help in offering a training in promoting positive behavior.
4. Activity planning: Active learning requires that activities are carefully planned and the right materials are available to ensure the activity is a success. It can be very useful to require that program staff develop clear lesson plans that articulate the sequence of the activity and activity directions and list the needed materials. This takes time and it is important that the organization provides staff with training and additional time to develop these plans.
Below is a good program example of active learning:
Techbridge; Oakland, San Lorenzo, Fremont, and Concord School Districts; (Grades 6 – 8) Techbridge offers hands-on summer academies that inspire middle school youth (particularly girls and those underrepresented in STEM) a chance to explore science, technology, and engineering. Curriculum is developed with girls in mind, and includes projects like remotely operated vehicles where girls design and construct their own remotely operated boats and test them out on water; Electrical Engineering, where girls build solar night lights and learn to solder; Cleantech, where girls build solar cells and learn about renewable energy; and AppInventor, where students use creativity and technology to create their own Android app. In addition to the learning being very active, the youth also expand their horizons as staff provide career exploration to help students make the connection between STEM projects and careers. Role models and field trips are key to their success.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.