Recently, we were tasked with the re-opening of a Youth Center in an existing town community center. The premise was to create a place for youth to come and hang-out after school, do homework in a collaborative environment, and utilize services available to them. When we talked with local youth about what activities they envisioned in a Youth Center, we were given a list of items: pool table, ping pong, computers with internet access, video games, etc. Seeking to establish credentials with the youth by providing items on their list as quickly as possible, we procured two items immediately available: a donated pool table and an X-box 360.
Since opening a month ago, we have noticed a steady shift in the youth that started coming to the Center. The first wave of youth were excited at the possibilities of accessing homework portals, yet due to unforeseen bureaucratic red tape, items such as internet enabled computers to access Edmodo and Google Docs are still in the works. The results have been a focus shift in users – youth unable to access online information for homework either go elsewhere or have been drawn to the X-box. As facilitators overseeing how the Center is being utilized, we noticed that many of the students who originally started using the space for homework began dwindling away, and more youth who were excited at the prospect of joint gaming began showing up to do homework as quickly as possible and then “plug in”.
The dilemma this shift has caused is now in acute focus. As creators of what we call “dynamic learning environments”, R2B believes youth need to learn in many contexts with many tools. This includes the belief that in order to empower the inherent learning abilities in a student, sometimes we need to “unplug” the learning environment from technological portals so a student can see the world through their own eyes. An example of this came when we noticed students who showed up at the Center to do homework were increasingly distracted at the noise and energy of the video gaming, even when it happened in an adjoining room. We also noticed that when gaming took place, the students begin speaking to the game and not to each other. We recently watched the documentary Play Again about youth overuse of technology, and it showed a fascinating statistic stating youth engage in approximately 3 minutes of meaningful dialogue with parents on a given day, yet have over 500 minutes of “screen time” per day.
The discrepancy between leveraging what youth want and what we believe youth need is a large one. In order to engage a youthful audience and gain their trust, we need to speak their language and acknowledge their interests, without sacrificing the values that we believe to be vital for a sustainable future. Our approach at the Youth Center began by engaging youth in what their interests are, yet based on our experience with the video games, we need to begin creating models of how youth can “unplug” in order to “reconnect” to themselves. This begins next week, when the X-box will no longer be available, and youth will need to find alternative ways of “hanging out”.