Youth Development as Non-Formal Education

October 4, 2015 Comments Off on Youth Development as Non-Formal Education
Youth Development as Non-Formal Education

This paper defines youth development in clear, practical terms. Written by Joyce Walker and Trudy Dunham on behalf of the faculty at the Center for 4-H Youth Development, University of Minnesota, 270b McNamera Center, 200 Oak Street SE, Minneapolis.

Non-formal teaching and learning carried on outside the formal school system. Generally, non-formal education is sponsored by community groups that provide particular types of teaching and learning experiences for specific youth populations. It is not an alternative to formal education offered in the schools; it is another kind of education essential for helping young people grow to optimal maturity.

The schools that provide formal education are “society’s most legitimate and formal system of teaching and learning.” (LaBelle, 1981, p. 315) They are typically chronologically graded and hierarchically structured. They offer credits, grades, and diplomas to document learning and achievement. Increasingly, schools are asked to document more closely the competency of their learners as proof that the credits, grades, and diplomas have real value.

For several reasons, non-formal education provides the ideal system for youth development education to take place.

  • Youth development organizations are most often voluntary, reflecting the values, priorities, and goals of the adults and young people who support them.
  • Non-formal youth development programs identify their own mission, their curriculum priorities, their population of learners, and their teaching methods.
  • Non-formal youth programs commonly use club structures, camps, sporting activities, regular group meetings, expressive arts, and youth-conducted events to carry out their educational work.
  • Non-formal programs operate largely outside the scope of public funding and public policy directives, hence they can respond to community-based agendas.
  • Non-formal programs typically reward learning, achievement, and positive growth through recognition and incentives such as certificates, ribbons, badges, and increased opportunities for leadership.

The Curriculum for Non-Formal Youth Development Education

When curriculum is defined as any planned sequence of learning experiences, (Schneider, 1983), a curriculum for youth development education has two major components. First, the curriculum has content or subject matter upon which the planned sequence is built. Second, the curriculum has a method or a set of principles that guides the design of the learning experiences. The synergy of content and method promotes learning and competence in life skills critical for the healthy development of young people.

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Experiential methods of learning are most commonly associated with youth development education programs in non-formal settings. These emphasize exploration and critical thinking and focus not only on learners doing work, but on sharing, processing, analyzing, and applying the understandings or skills gained. This method is a powerful approach for learning life skills essential to socialization, skills that rely on interaction and demonstration over time.

    The subject matter for youth development education programs overlays the five basic competency areas identified by Pittman (1991) as essential for success in adulthood:

  1. Health and Physical Competence – Good current health status plus evidence of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure future health.
  2. Personal and Social Competence – Skills for understanding self and having self-discipline; working with others, communicating, cooperating, negotiating, and building relationships; coping, adapting, and being responsible; and finally, making good judgments, evaluating, making decisions, and problem-solving.
  3. Cognitive and Creative Competence – Useful knowledge and abilities to appreciate and participate in areas of creative expression for thinking, seeing, feeling, tasting, and hearing.
  4. Vocational Competence – Understanding and awareness of life planning and career choices, leisure and work options, and steps to act on those choices.
  5. Citizenship Competence – Understanding of personal values, moral and ethical decision-making, and participation in public efforts of citizenship that contribute to the community and the nation.

While these five competency areas are an ideal focus for intentional learning experiences for non-formal youth development education programs, they are also central to many school curricula. It is the educational design and delivery system that commonly distinguishes formal and non-formal education.


Learning Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

Neither subject matter content nor experiential method alone tells the story. In the hands of leaders and teachers, they combine to create the curriculum, the planned sequence of learning experiences. But it is only when the learner enters the picture that life skill competencies and the fundamental tasks of healthy youth development are understood. This dynamic evolves from the process of youth engaged in active work on topics of interest that build competence and address basic youth developmental needs.

The elements or needs essential for the healthy development of young people, particularly adolescents, have been described by Konopka (1973) and Pittman (1991). To grow and learn to optimum capacity in healthy ways and to function successfully in the adult world, young people benefit from opportunities to:

  • feel a sense of safety and structure
  • experience active participation, group membership, and belonging
  • develop self-worth achieved through meaningful contribution
  • experiment to discover self, gain independence, and gain control over one’s life
  • develop significant relationships with peers and adults
  • discuss conflicting values and formulate their own
  • feel the pride and accountability that come with mastery
  • expand the capacity to enjoy life and know that success is possible.

These eight factors, along with the five basic competency areas, become legitimate criteria to assess the impacts of teaching important life skills in a youth development program. As an example, young people may decide they want to learn public speaking skills to build their personal and social competence. Youth development professionals would then be responsible for assuring that the activities and materials used in the learning experiences foster a sense of safety and structure; allow for active participation; provoke self-understanding; and demonstrate that success is possible. Not every intentional learning experience will address all of the needs identified as essential elements for healthy youth development, but performance outcomes based on meeting these needs are as important as content competency. Indeed, they are often more important, depending on the age of the child and the stated goals of the program.

4-H: A Non-Formal Youth Development Education Program

The primary 4-H learners are children and youth 5-19 years old; however, 4-H does educate adults, particularly parents and volunteer leaders who work with the young people. The primary teachers in 4-H are the parents and adult and older teen volunteers who take responsibility for community clubs, project clubs, special events, and a wide range of community-based educational programming. County extension educators, once called county extension agents, also play a major teaching role, working with both adult and youth audiences.

Young people in 4-H join voluntarily, and they select projects and areas of involvement based on personal interests. Working independently or in groups, young people experiment, work, demonstrate, and produce educational products in areas like rocketry, animal science, entomology, food preparation, environmental study, fishing, photography, leadership, and clothing and textiles. They also work on group programs like community service and cross-age teaching on topics such as pregnancy prevention, alcohol use, nutrition, and fitness.

Learning takes place in kitchens, living rooms, community centers, church basements, community parks, county fairgrounds, gymnasiums, and barns — anywhere young people and adults gather to pursue their work. Young people come to the active learning environment with different skills and abilities. They approach new situations and ideas by exploring, engaging with others, reflecting, and questioning in order to discover answers and implications.

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