Rebecca Fabiano, Bartol Board Member and Co-Founder of PopUpPlay, shares her insights on how to engage youth of all ages. PopUpPlay believes that all people learn best through interactive, hands-on playful experiences. In this entry, Rebecca shares her thoughts and tips on how to best engage youth in elementary, middle, and high school.
Children in elementary school learn through play, storytelling and songs, so engagement with them should be playful. Their imagination can be very vivid and “untainted,” so you can encourage creative thinking by asking open-ended questions and creating opportunities for them to move their bodies! Then, you can provide time for them to rest and regroup. Providing routines and rituals which the children can count on signals to them what they can expect. Also, knowing how to transition from one activity to the next can help create physical and emotional safety and help manage expectations.
Keeping children engaged can reduce undesired behaviors. At this age, they will do a lot of mimicking, so how can you utilize this as a strategy to engage them? If you’re willing to be playful, they are more likely to as well. When you show them the wiggles, they’ll do it! To get them to regroup, consider holding up one hand and counting down from five, while keeping the other hand over your lips, signaling quiet. Ask them to copy you every time they see you do it. Also, sing the “clean-up song” (clean up, clean up everybody cleans up!) as a way for everyone to clean up. You can also tell them to get back to their circle by tip-toeing without talking by the time you count to five, and you can do this with them.
For middle-schoolers, harness the power of the group! Peers are of utmost importance to pre-teens. Middle-schoolers are going to be really concerned with being judged and what their peers think of them, so you may have to show them how to recover from making mistakes. Their interests are constantly shifting, which is exciting, though it can also be frustrating because adults often interpret that behavior as being unfocused. Instead, you can see it as an opportunity to introduce youth to a variety of techniques, instruments, etc. You can also consider rotating the offerings every three weeks or offer a flexible menu from which they can choose each day, allowing them to select options depending where their friends are going that day. Lastly, keep it concrete. Children and youth at this age/stage are still thinking in terms of right and wrong or fair and unfair, without much room for nuance or abstraction unlike older teens who are more able to see shades of gray in a given situation.
At this age, youth are often able to spend more time going deeper into a topic or artistic pursuit. Most youth are able to explore abstract concepts with more skill as opposed to middle-schoolers, who typically still need concrete directions and projects. You can keep expectations high when it comes to participation and outcomes (whether it is a project or product), and also make connections to their near future, such as summer jobs or college. Identify with them—and name for them—the skills and qualities they are learning and using, and explain how these skills and qualities are useful in particular careers, or as a responsible citizen or stellar student. You can also think about bringing in guest speakers, who can discuss their careers and their journey as artists
Knowing where your students are developmentally will make your work together more successful. Watch Rebecca talk more about this at the Bartol National Teaching Artist Video Library of TA Tips here.