For the first time in the history of the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, there is (or at least there was before the global pandemic hit in March) a substantial number of teenagers hanging out at the Museum. However, these teens do not come as guests. They are a part of the Teen Volunteer Playworker Program (TVP), which is now entering its second year.
Much like our adult volunteers, Teen Volunteer Playworkers are trained in risk management, creating a fun and engaging learning environment, and resetting exhibits. These are some of the critical components of our volunteer community and they are what makes our volunteers such a valuable part of our Museum.
Teen Volunteer Playworkers also engage in workforce training and community service, as well as goal-setting and receiving feedback, which helps them continue to develop social skills. These opportunities better not only our guests’ Museum experience, but also our community as a whole.
The TVP Program invites young people between the ages of 12 and 17 to apply to become part of the Museum’s Playwork team. For many of these individuals, this is the first professional environment they will experience. The Program takes this newness into account by intentionally revolving around the real-world skills our participants will need as they move toward their future jobs and careers.
We work on timeliness. The Teen Volunteer Playworkers are expected to arrive at their scheduled time. However, unlike at jobs they may have in the future, they are unlikely to get reprimanded for a late arrival. Instead, we will have a conversation in which we discuss the impact of late arrivals to the Museum’s operation. We also talk about reliability as an essential aspect of most organizations. We then work on a plan together that will ensure future punctuality.
We work on professionalism. Teen Volunteer Playworkers are expected to carry themselves the same way as any of the staff. This includes the same dress code that our employees adhere to, specifically the Museum apron. We stress the idea that when our guests see that apron, everything that an individual does reflects the Museum. The perception of our guests is a big responsibility at the Museum, and our Teen Volunteers are more than up to the challenge. Because of their overwhelmingly excellent and skillful playwork, these young individuals routinely receive compliments as they interact with Museum visitors.
We work on communication. In all areas of life, communication is essential. We provide a safe environment where Teen Volunteer Playworkers can tell us what they need, what they don’t, and how they might need help. This skill is tough for most people, regardless of age. New volunteers come into a community full of positive examples. Museum staff work hard to communicate positively with and in front of the teen volunteers , and some of our more experienced teens also model this behavior. While it takes some time, the Teen Playworker Volunteers are often the most receptive to positive communication, and usually end up teaching us a thing or two!
Goal-setting and Feedback
A primary function of the TVP Program revolves around goal-setting and feedback. At the beginning of every shift, Teen Volunteers are encouraged to set a goal for their time at the Museum. Most individuals struggle with this skill, especially at the beginning of their tenure with us. Most teens today don’t have many opportunities to set their own goals or create their own schedules. Other people, obligations, or circumstances tend to remove those options. Even school classes offer only limited opportunities to choose what they want to learn. When we ask our Teen Volunteer Playworkers what they want to learn, experience, or do during their shift here, they often draw a blank. One young individual even told me, “I thought you were supposed to tell me that.” But no, it’s not that easy!
At the Museum, we give the Teen Playworker Volunteers the tools they need to begin making their own choices. We reiterate that they have control over their experience at the Museum and are responsible for setting their own goals. To help them, we start by presenting the concept of a SMART goal, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. The SMART process helps people transform vague ideas into achievable tasks. We then reinforce these concepts through conversations as our Teen Playwork Volunteers come in to work a shift. A typical goal-setting discussion might involve questions about their goals for the day, as well as things that worked well or that they liked. They talk about successful moments from the last time they were there. We also encourage them to think about how, and when, they will know their goal is complete.
Sample Goal-Setting Dialogue
TVP: “I had a lot of fun helping kids work the crane in the Quarry!”
Museum Staff: “Right on! Maybe you could do something in the Quarry again today?”
TVP: “Ok, I’d like to play with the blocks with kids.”
Me: “How will you know when your goal is complete?”
TVP: “After I play with three kids.”
At the beginning of every shift, a Museum staff member helps facilitate the goal-setting process. The TVP receives feedback throughout the initial conversation, as they work towards their goals on the Museum floor, and finally at the end of their shift. At this time, we encourage them to think about their next time. As a result of this process, our young volunteer can think about, communicate, and pursue their own goals at the Museum. This process gives them an essential tool to use later in life.
The Social Element
The Museum’s Teen Volunteer Playworkers have developed a robust social dynamic that helps them continue to grow in this role and also benefit the Museum. We try to host social events for the group every month or two, and they are encouraged to organize their own experiences as well. We have had pizza parties, game nights, and we even went to an escape room. A genuinely awesome thing happens when you put a bunch of empowered, communication-savvy, goal-driven young people together: they use all of those skills to groupthink. The ability to create a shared mental model in a group is a wonderful result of this program. That shared mental model can be anything, from deciding on a fort they will play a game of Uno in, to creating a group culture for themselves. The Teen Volunteer Playworkers are able to make group decisions quickly, effectively, and with total buy-in. There are many adult groups that are not able to do that.
To learn more about the Teen Volunteer Playworker Program, click here.