As we explore what it takes to thrive in the 21st century, it is hard to ignore the growing amount of literature that suggests the right side of the brain is needed more than ever. Right-brain abilities - artistry, empathy, design, big-picture thinking, creating something that the world didn't know was missing -- are hard to outsource or automate and in high demand in workplace and community settings. Left-brain abilities -- the logical, linear, analytical, spreadsheet kind of skills -- are important but not sufficient for success.
So what does this have to do with the field of youth development? The answer is that it is directly related.
Our field plays an important role in helping young people to gain 21st-century learning skills and abilities to thrive in a global world. Here are some tips for building right-brain abilities through the learning environments found in youth programs.
Critique the learning environment
With youth take time to critically reflect on the types of activities in the program. Ask age-appropriate questions that informally assess the learning environment, such as "How are we learning?" "Does this program promote right and left-directed thinking" and, if so, "How?" "What do we need more of, less of, or the same?" Make time to pause, reflect and adjust.
Cultivate creativity in design
Do youth have a role in the design of their learning experience? Promoting this role can tap the natural curiosity, creativity and imagination that youth possess by fueling their motivation for learning.
Listen to youth as they tell their stories. Then, work together to create a collective story about the program that allows youth to see them themselves as part of that narrative and an important force in moving that narrative forward. This provides an opportunity for youth to develop big-picture thinking skills and to see how their contributions matter.
Do not interrupt
Youth have the ability to concentrate; they simply need space and time to do it. So, avoid interrupting their concentration with misplaced questions such as "What are you learning", "What are you doing?" and "Why are you staring off to space?" Wait for them to come to you. I know this is a hard one, but giving youth space to concentrate will reinforce their natural tendency to learn, while building autonomy.
Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. In youth-driven play, young people practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
An important thing for one to learn is the capacity to recognize embedded assumptions and challenge them. So encourage youth to discover their assumptions in life, challenge premises, and bring false premises to the surface. Use reflective methods such as reading, writing, dialogue, discussion, role play and simulations. This can be a liberating experience of discovery that not only builds critical thinking skills but also artfully creates new meanings in life.
Empathy is commonly defined as identifying with and understanding another's situation, feelings, and motives. Build empathy into everyday programming by modeling it, reinforcing it among relationships, and encouraging this avenue over snap judgments or apathy.
The environments in high-quality youth programs are ideal for fully engaging youth in whole-mind thinking by learning through what interests them. Think about your own practice. What right- and left-brain directed skills do you use in your everyday practice and how do they influence the work you do?
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