Youthentity column: Outside the classroom, education of a different kind awaits

Kirsten McDaniel

I have a confession: When I look back on my formative high school years, I remember little of my classroom experiences. In my defense, I know I’m not alone when I say that my day-to-day academic exercises were not the most impactful part of that time of life. When I reflect on what truly helped me to develop as a young person, it is the extracurriculars that stand out.

Experiences such as volunteering at a youth therapeutic riding camp, attending a young journalists conference, a summer job at a small local business — these are the experiences that helped foster the qualities that would prove to be the most formative in building my character and would provide transferrable skills for adulthood. At each, I took an active role in determining my success as an individual and team member; I learned that my contributions directly affected outcomes; and I learned to develop my skills and voice in experiential hands-on settings that lacked the hierarchies and expectations of my grade school classrooms.

At Youthentity, we obsess over the composition of a truly engaging learning experience, asking ourselves: What is the formula that results in sparks of imagination and new possibilities? And just as important, we ask ourselves what the critical, life-changing developmental takeaways will be for our students. While this is in no way an all-encompassing list, three stand out:

Leadership and mentorship

When students work in groups — particularly smaller groups — they learn to contribute positively to a team in a dynamic setting while having the space to develop their leadership potential. Working in smaller groups can also eliminate comfortable anonymity or inaction — everyone’s contributions matter — and encourage taking responsibility for and learning how those actions affect others. Mentors serve as examples and guides and are a critical part of helping kids understand their leadership potential, while teaching them that leadership can take different shapes.

Understanding themselves and others

Experiential learning programs are inherently collaborative and rely on exchanges of information. In hearing how others approach a project and seeing new ways of doing things, understanding increases. This is where synapses are grown. Experiential programs also typically allow kids to make mistakes in a safe place; learning from mistakes is critical to developing maturity and resiliency.


One of our former students once shared with me that one of the reasons her program participation felt special was because, “It was my own thing, separate from school.” She explained that Youthentity gave her the chance to step out of her day-to-day and forge new friendships. Activities that include peers from outside their social group can give kids the freedom to be who they really are. Learning experiences — especially when everyone starts at the same beginner stage — are a powerful glue for lasting connections.

While grades and classroom learning are certainly an important part of high school, it is those hands-on experiences that engage kids, helping them to learn skills and become critical thinkers who welcome new perspectives and are proud of their newfound competencies.

Kirsten McDaniel is the executive director of Youthentity, a Carbondale-based youth development nonprofit that offers career exploration opportunities and personal financial literacy education to over 5,000 youth throughout Colorado.

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