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Developing high-quality learning environments for youth

What it is

Stay-at-home efforts have presented youth development professionals with a chance to develop innovative learning environments. We can engage young people online in positive youth development experiences. As we embrace this opportunity, we must pause and review positive youth development principles before designing and launching new virtual learning environments.

Focus on designing a high-quality experience regardless of the learning environment.

Ensure a high-quality learning environment

We must ensure that out-of-school-time programs offer young people positive and meaningful development experiences. Investing in the design and delivery of high-quality programs is critical. Durlak & Weissberg state poor-quality programs can damage young people.

Weikart’s model of Youth Program Quality (YPQ), based on research in positive youth development, recognizes the need to create a safe, supportive, and productive environment for youth to build positive interactions between youth and adults and ensure youth engagement. High-quality learning environments offer youth ways to expand their leadership skills, build relationships, pursue areas of interest and develop a positive outlook on learning.

In addition to designing learning environments using the YPQ framework, consider:

Why are you developing a learning opportunity?

  • Was it an identified need? How was it identified?
  • What are the educational goals of the learning opportunity?
  • How does it support your organizational goals?
  • How does this relate to your local program plan?

Who is the target audience?

  • Who is the primary audience?
  • Who is the secondary audience?
  • Is this an access point for new audiences? How?
  • How will this opportunity be promoted?
  • What is the registration process?
  • How will youth not previously enrolled in your program be encouraged to enroll?

How will the youth voice be represented?

  • How will youth have opportunities to lead?
  • How will youth be engaged in the design and delivery?
  • How are you building youth/adult partnerships into the program?

What is the role of volunteers or partners?

  • How will you engage adult volunteers? Do you have a role description developed?
  • How will you ensure that the policy expectations are met?
  • Why are you partnering with this organization? What value does the partner add to the program?
  • Do you need a program agreement?

What is the evaluation plan?

  • How will you measure your outcomes and impacts?
  • What tool or format will you use to collect the data (e.g., surveys, focus groups, interviews)?
  • Who will you engage in the evaluation - youth, volunteers, partners, parents?

How will this opportunity be shared?

  • Will the youth have an opportunity to showcase their learning?
  • Internal audience - colleagues
  • External audience - stakeholders, other youth-serving organizations, funders


The positive youth development practices described above apply when designing online learning opportunities for and with youth.  

Some elements of in-person learning environments can easily be replicated online, such as giving youth opportunities to share their learning. Engaging youth in reflection following the exploration or project activity can be replicated in the online environment. When well planned and facilitated, online environments can challenge youth to think about the next steps of their learning. Online learning environments require more planning and preparation to engage youth in the experiential learning model of  “doing” or “exploring” elements of a learning experience.

One of the challenges with an online learning environment, especially with new audiences, is building relationships with members. It will require more effort to ensure youth are comfortable and engaged. The Search Institute shares some great tips about using  technology to cultivate relationships while social distancing including having an online greeter as youth join, a chat area to start conversations, and organizing “caring circles” as places for youth to check in with each other.


Youth are already connecting with each other online. You can use some of the tools they are already using. For examples:   

  • Social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Youth must be 13 or older.
  • Video conferencing (Zoom, Google Meet)
  • Discussion boards (Slack)
  • Videos (Flipgrid, Screencast-o-matic)
  • Email

Make a plan to engage youth and support their learning

  • How will you introduce the learning and goal for the session?
  • How will you engage youth in exploring and learning prior to the online learning experience?
  • How will youth have the opportunity to interact during the online experience?
  • How will youth reflect on their learning?
  • How will the youth plan further exploration of skills learned after the online learning experience? 
  • How will youth continue to deepen their knowledge?
  • How will you design opportunities for youth to lead?

We are quickly adapting and innovating to ensure we connecting with young people and making their experiences positive. Taking the time to pause, focus on the need, and design an engaging, impactful experience takes time and is hard work. Young people deserve a high-quality learning environment regardless of distance.

Authors: Jan Derdowski and Karen Beranek, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2020

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