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Organizing Engaging Events for Young People

I’ve recently had the privilege of participating in a number of game-based learning events for youth in the Madison area, namely through Spring Harbor Middle School and the Madison Urban League’s Spring Break Gaming and Coding Day at the Madison Central Public Library. Both events were aimed primarily at middle schoolers, with the library event inclusive of high schoolers as well. Both events were also thoroughly lively and revelatory, as events involving adolescents are wont to be. We ran the same workshop at both events – it’s been weeks, and I’m still a little tired. Teachers, I don’t know how you do it, but I stand in awe of your patience and mental fortitude.

For our workshop’s subject matter, we covered game design through the lens of interactive stories built in Twine – you can read more about that here. Suffice to say, we had a great time engaging with aspiring young developers and overall both events were a great success. That being said, I walked away from both events with some firm ideas on how to make events such as these as successful as possible. Those ideas are assembled below – hit me up on Twitter and let me know what you think!

Make sure your event has a clear purpose.

The idea is to get kids engaged, so the theming and purpose of the event should be very explicit. Along those same lines, you’ll want to develop content that also has a clear and cohesive purpose. We started our session with an introduction on game design and how it handles player choice – for the students, this created a very clear connection between video game development and the story creation tool we were using in the actual workshops.

Be careful to create content and event structures specific to your demographics.

As we all know, the K-12 journey is hugely various in terms of how kids act and feel at their individual points in that journey. 5th graders are going to have markedly different content preferences, attention spans, and contextual knowledge than 10th graders, just for instance. Accordingly, your event content should be tightly aligned to those factors. This isn’t to say that you need to narrow participation in your events to only one rigidly-defined peer group, but rather that your event should have content that provides relevant content to all participants. Which leads me to my next point…

Talk to your kids before the event, and if possible, let them help you plan it.

As adults, even the most internet-savvy among us are simply not a part of youth culture, and so we are always going to be slightly outside of true understanding when it comes to that culture. Now, I wouldn’t suggest wholly handing over the reins for the obvious reasons, but I would strongly advocate for a collaborative approach. There were definitely students in our Twine workshops who probably would have preferred to be somewhere else, and if the idea is to get students excited about a future career path, we should listen to those preferences!

Avoid the temptation to use your default approach towards events for adults.

Based on the conferences I attend, it’s hard for me to say if adults even appreciate keynote speeches. I can however say with utmost certainty that middle schoolers do not. Young people learn by doing – most conferences and events for adults default to a sage-on-the-stage speaking format, but we’ve been trying to get away from that in K-12 for years. We should extend that mentality to less formal, but still educational events like these. Wherever possible, strive to make your content hands-on. Don’t be a lecturer, if only because these kids have their entire lives to listen to people blather on and on in front of slides. Consider your event an opportunity to activate students’ embodied cognition through truly participatory content.

Standard disclaimer: this list is by no means comprehensive, but I think it gives a nice primer for folks who are new to the events-for-young people game. I’m no veteran myself, but I’ll keep sharing what I learn as I go!


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