In the last decade, I’ve worked with more than 200 nonprofits across the US to help them re-envision program planning for out-of-school time programs. Organizations are wrestling because of their best intentions. My own work through The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, have convinced a generation of practitioners and planners that youth programs can do more than simply deliver content to young people. Instead, they can create program content with young people, and in some instances actually position young people to generate content with their peers. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.”
Aside from this ethical consideration, there is a practical basis to promoting meaningful youth involvement in youth program planning. A variety of recent research is increasingly demonstrating that there may be no parallel for ensuring program effectiveness. The most intuitive outcome is true: This approach powerfully impacts young people who participate in program planning along with youth who participate in programs planned by youth. Less obvious are the effects that youth-involved planning has on adults in the program, in the sponsoring organization, and in the surrounding community. If their activities include engaging peers in service to the broader community, young people involved in planning youth programs can actually affect the broad community beyond their programs in a variety of ways over the short and long term, including promoting lifelong civic engagement for young people, including developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth programs can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)
Studying my own work, along with a vast array of literature focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for engaging children and youth in program planning.
10 Steps to Planning Programs With Youth
- Think Sustainable—Create ways to ensure participants that being involved is going to keep happening after this planning period. From the beginning, infuse youth engagement in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your program. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of opportunities for them to be involved in their lives outside your program.
- Clear Purpose—Establish a clear purpose for youth involvement in program planning. Let participants, organization leaders, parents, community members, and local schools know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Clarity of purpose is often missing from young people’s lives, as school is done to them, family is done to them, and stores are done to them. Your program can be done with them, and they should know why.
- Engage The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your program to become involved in program planning. Both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can contribute to all of the various aspects of program planning. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
- Real Connections—When young people see themselves in your program, real connections are happening. When real connections happen, children and youth become engaged. While they may have obvious expertise or interests in a specific topic, its important for afterschool youth workers to help young people discover what they know.
- Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults. This means that programs don’t pretend all things between children, youth, and adults are 50/50 split equally, because in our adult-centered society that is simply never true. Equity allows young people and adults to enter into responsible relationships that acknowledge what each other knows and doesn’t know, and to work from that place instead of assuming everyone has equal ability and capacity. We’re all different; let’s not pretend otherwise.
- Grow Their Capacity—Grow the existing capacity of children and youth to become involved in planning. Both young people and adults can learn from training about work styles, assumptions, skills, and more.
- Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their contributions affect program planning is vital. Show how their participation will affect the program. Are they contributing to an existing program? Opening a brand-new course of action and learning? Working with the same adults in new ways, or partnering with new adults? Its important to remember that creating an afterschool program plan with young people is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of an organization’s efforts to create more effective programs. A clear plan should include: 1) Next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities; 3) program structure outline; 4) program participant evaluation. Setting priorities, using timelines with target implementation dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance the youth program plan’s effectiveness.
- Get Systemic—Encourage active youth/adult partnerships beyond planning. Young people can be engaged in researching their community, school, nonprofit program, or anything through PAR. They can facilitate, teach, and mentor peers, younger people, and adult. They can evaluate themselves, their organizations and communities, workplaces and businesses, and other places. They can participate in organizational, family, community, or other decision-making. They can advocate for what they care about. Ultimately, they can be engaged throughout the systems that prevail in every part of their lives.
- Connect The Dots—Establish community/school connections if possible. Collaborations that reinforce young people’s learning and support in-school learning only benefit youth programs. The partnership established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support young people in and out of school time.
- Eyes Wide Open—Open the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your program planning. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow programs and organizations to improve the overall effectiveness of youth engagement, especially through your particular effort. Make space by giving young people permission and skills they need to be partners in mutual accountability with adults. In your program planning activities with youth, set clear benchmarks and agree on celebrations when they’re met and consequences that young people can see for when those benchmarks are not met.
My experience engaging young people in program planning can benefit you. What would you add to the list from your experience?