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Understanding Youth Development Work

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, MN 55455. Phone: 612-624-2116 or 1-800-444-4238.

What is Youth Development?

Youth development is the process of growing up and developing one's capacities in positive ways. This typically takes place in the context of the family, the peer group, the school, and the neighborhood or community.

Many young people do not have the advantages that promote optimal, healthy development of the body, mind, and spirit. Many youth do not have opportunities to experience positive stimulation for growth or nurturing support from family, friends, and community. Youth development is a natural process, but it cannot be left to chance. As the Youth Development Committee of the Lilly Endowment noted (Pittman, June 1991):

"Youth development ought not to be viewed as a happenstance matter. While children can, and often do, make the best of difficult circumstances, they cannot be sustained and helped to grow by chance arrangements or makeshift events. Something far more intentional is required: a place, a league, a form of association, a gathering of people where value is placed on continuity, predictability, history, tradition, and a chance to test out new behaviors."

What is a Youth Development Organization?

A youth development organization exists to promote the positive, healthy development of young people. Youth development organizations are different from agencies and systems that exist to provide social control, treatment, or training for young people. The socialization of youth is the youth organization's primary task (Pittman, 1993). Their mission is to provide the challenges, experiences, support, and help young people need to develop to their fullest potential. These community-based organizations work to meet needs in the environment and enhance the learning experiences of young people. No single organization does it all.

Youth development organizations involve young people of all ages and both sexes, although some target certain audiences. They encourage long-term involvement and provide a progression of activities promoting developmental growth. They emphasize learning strategies based upon fun, play, action, and group and individual challenges teaching life skills rather than academic lessons.

4-H is the oldest and largest publicly funded youth development organization in the United States. Begun in the early years of the 20th century as a vehicle for extending the learning of the land-grant university to the children of rural communities, 4-H today has a presence in every county. It is a part of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded through a partnership of federal, state, county, and private resources. 4-H is open to all interested young people and their families.

Youth Development as Non-Formal Education

Non-formal education is organized, systematic 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.

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.

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:

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.


Konopka, G. (1973) Requirements for the healthy development of adolescent youth in Adolescence, VIII, 31, Fall.

LaBelle, T. (October 1981) An introduction to the non-formal education of children and youth in Comparative Education Review, 25(3) pp 313-329.

Pittman, K. (May 1993) Seminar with 4-H Faculty, St. Paul, University of Minnesota.

Pittman, K. (June 1991) Promoting youth development: Strengthening the role of youth serving and community organizations, Washington D.C.: Academy for Educational Development.

Pittman, K. and Fleming, W. E. (September 1991) A new vision promoting youth development, testimony, Washington, D.C., House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.

Schneider, B.J. (September 1983) Organization and policy: An action plan for Minnesota 4-H (Unpublished).

Wynn, J. Richman, H. Rubinstein, R.A. & Littell, J. (1987) Communities and adolescents: An exploration of reciprocal supports. Chicago: University of Chicago, Chapin Hall Center for Children.

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