*Ok, I’m still rubbish at titles. This one needs to be spoken with a sigh and accompanied by a weary shake of the head
I believe that children are our future…unfortunately. Therefore it’s probably a good idea to get them interested in the things that matter (and no, I don’t mean coding). That’s why youth work and outreach in the environmental sector is more important than ever. With the growing disconnection between our urbanised lives and the natural world that you’ve heard myself and many, many others ramble on about ad infinitum, we need to engage young people at all ages.
Only by investing them with a proprietary emotion towards their local greenspaces can we ultimately secure the long-term future of these spaces, but you don’t need me to tell you that, right? And with engagement with the environment dropping off the radar by secondary school, one of the only ways we can still do this is through encouraging practical conservation. Regrettably, one of the only ways we are able to do this with urban teens is through a little arm twisting.
My own experiences are predominantly in offering practical conservation of a ‘coercive’ nature, but then when the age of 15 is reached, punitive measures are often the only way to get young people out into the mud and greenery. One day, I will write a book about my experiences, but I suspect no one will believe me. My one abiding impression from my experiences is the complete inability of this generation to skive without it being obvious. Just move the rake back and forward a few times every few seconds, snip the occasional bramble, it’s not that difficult. Seriously, what do they even teach kids at school these days, that’s a life lesson right there that they should be picking up at an early age.
Youth work is perhaps not top of the list for those looking to start a career in the sector, but outreach is a growing area and one that, given the source of much of our funding, is only likely to grow. Chances are that you might have to get involved with a youth group at some point, perhaps a ‘challenging’ one, particularly if you are just starting out. So here, with undue arrogance and regard for my own abilities are a few pointers, should you ever find yourself trying to herd an unruly bunch of adolescents:
Your introduction is probably the most important part of the day – get this right and everything else should come easier.
- – Firstly, Everything they say about teenagers having short attention is true, keep it brief.
- – Clear guidelines that you can reasonably expect to enforce from the get go, but don’t get their backs up by being overly confrontational. Brevity and levity are your watchwords. It’s a difficult act to balance, by the end of my project, my introduction was a finely crafted thing of wonder.
- – Remember – You’re not cool. You never will be. I picked up bare slang during my time, blud, but if I used it, they called me ‘moist’, which is not good, apparently.
- – Pick your battles – realise what you can realistically enforce, think about what leverage you have, and be prepared to let some things slide with no more than a disappointed shake of the head and mid-level death stare.
- – Develop a death stare of varying intensity
- – Use the fact that they are probably in unfamiliar circumstances to keep them on their toes. Scare them with toads if you have to!
- – If you have other people on your team, make sure everyone is well drilled and knows the score. It’s important that there is one ultimate point of authority.
- – Positive reinforcement really does work better than negative in an outdoor setting.
- – Give them space and let them discover the wonders of the natural world.
- – Don’t be afraid to use blackthorn and bramble to your advantage.
- – Make sure you know the ultimate threat you are willing to issue (this is usually the short phrase ‘I need to call your mum’)
Anyway, that’s a very short crash course, and I’m not entirely sure all these points would work for anyone anymore than they occasionally worked for me. Seriously, it really can be like herding cats. I’ll write you a pamphlet if you want.
But I have seen progress. Even despite my best efforts to terrify them with nature, at least a handful of the teenagers on every project I ran left with a greater understanding and passion for conservation. Environmentalism as a career choice is becoming more popular (the fools!), and some of the charities I have worked for have shown a definite shift towards a younger workforce. There are positives out there in the urban youth of today for a jaded green, if you look really hard.