Youth Work’s Vitamin E

By Jane Quinn

The term “enrichment” is gaining currency in education and youth development circles, yet precious little has been written about what this means in actual practice. As with art, many of us think we know it when we see it. But that doesn’t help much, so I’m taking a shot at the assignment.

Enrichment is an approach to youth programming that incorporates three major elements:

Exposure – Introducing young people to new ideas, information, places and relationships.

Experience – Providing opportunities for young people to apply their knowledge and skills through hands-on activities.

Engagement – Encouraging young people to fully activate their minds, bodies and spirits (a key factor in genuine learning).

Nearly any kind of youth program can take an enrichment approach, as long as it includes these three ingredients. While some people think of enrichment only in terms of academic achievement, this approach can build young people’s skills in a variety of other important areas. Here are some examples:

Chess clubs can promote critical thinking and problem-solving, persistence, teamwork and self-discipline.
Cooking programs can allow young people to practice their reading and math skills (through measurement, fractions, estimation) and to learn and apply basic science.

Visual and performing arts are terrific vehicles for applying literacy skills (reading, writing and speaking) in engaging ways; exposing kids to the mathematics in music; applying math skills through set design and construction; and practicing goal-setting, decision-making and teamwork.

Sports programs can offer many of these same opportunities if they are “enriched” by, for example, encouraging kids to read books about their favorite athletes and to apply math skills through calculating batting averages or graphing scores over time.
Community service programs can encourage young people to read about current issues, testify at hearings, map their neighborhoods, write guides to community resources and chronicle experiences in journals.

Computer clubs can not only teach about technology but also provide opportunities for practicing literacy skills through newsletter or website production.

Poetry clubs and “slams” can expose young people to the writings of others, encourage creative self-expression and provide opportunities for public presentations.

Field trips are a must, especially for low-income youth, if we are going to provide much-needed exposure to the world beyond their schools and neighborhoods. But not all field trips are created equal. A trip to Six Flags will certainly be fun (a key factor in engagement), but the trip becomes enriching if young people are encouraged to plan the logistics themselves: reading brochures and maps ahead of time, finding out about the history of the area, calculating mileage and the best travel route, preparing a budget for the outing.

Seasoned youth workers also recognize that young people need exposure to more than the world’s amusement parks. That’s why they organize excursions to museums, libraries, parks and cultural centers, enabling young people to learn how to use their home communities as resources for lifelong learning and development.

I think of enrichment as the Vitamin E of youth work practice because it serves as an important supplement to children’s learning at home and in school. This approach is well-grounded in the research literature. For example, educational researcher Reginald Clark found that the critical difference between economically disadvantaged children who succeed in school and those who fail is how they spend their non-school hours. According to Clark, academically successful students spend between 20-35 hours per week engaged in “constructive learning activities” of the types outlined here, while less successful students use their free time to watch television, play video games or hang out.

Clark offers a nutritional analogy to make his point, noting that failing students absorb a junk-food diet of activities while their more successful counterparts pursue activities that are well-balanced and “nutritionally” rich.

While young people are agents of their own development, youth workers can play a key role in cooking up programming that is loaded with this Vitamin E.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: aneq@childrensaidsociety.org.


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