Feature Article - January 2008
Find a printable version here

Reaching the iGeneration

To Get Teens Involved, You Have to Think Like One…Sort Of

By Dana Carman

Talk to Them, Not at Them

"The worst type of conversation with a teen is to have an agenda and have outcomes set for you," Rodriguez said. "That's the quickest way to turn teenagers off." Rodriguez explained that dialogue and open-ended questions are the best way to interact with teens, but also that experienced teen coordinators should be on hand as facilitators. "When the conversation is heated or not productive, good teen coordinators can pull those teens back and focus on what we're trying to achieve," he added.

Understanding adolescent development and what makes teens tick is also key. But more, remembering your place as well as the teens' is most important. "The biggest thing to remind staff is that teens are not miniature adults," Clutter said. "We're not there to be parents but to be guides, which is huge. So, for example, the staff isn't going to yell at some kid to take his hat off, but explain why in this facility we don't wear hats."

Rodriguez agreed. "Teenagers today are more street-savvy, more aware of the things that are going on around them primarily because of the media," he said. "They want answers and ask for justification. When you do certain things, explain why you do them. People who question and want justifiability typically make good leaders. We need to cultivate that kind of culture and help them understand that dialogue is good when measured and positive."

Creating fantastic opportunities for teenagers doesn't mean anything if they don't know about them. Spreading the word to today's teens isn't as simple as putting it in the recreation bulletin anymore. Today's teens are glued to their cell phones and computer screens, which is why the Elk Grove Park District markets one of its biggest teen events,

Band Nite, on MySpace.com. "That's what teens are using nowadays," Laper said.

She's looking into ways to use the platform to market other events, such as a Halloween dance. When broadcast that it was a costume party in a newsletter, the response wasn't great. "I got the feeling they're not reading them anymore," Laper said. Since the numbers at the dances are so high, she's found that marketing to them right on the spot is successful.

Brooke Rivera, teen coordinator at Seattle Parks and Recreation, finds school fairs and job fairs work well for marketing job- and service-oriented programs. Similarly, Kelly Beavers, youth services coordinator/northern region for the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County has found cross-marketing is a good way to spread the word. "When you create partnerships with people, not even necessarily formal collaboration, whether you cross-market by exchanging Web sites or links, putting in publications, brochures or flyers, it's extremely successful," she said. The department has even leveraged the local radio stations. "DJs have a lot of influence in terms of their endorsements," Rose added.

Most agree, however, that your best endorsement is that of the teens themselves who spread the word to their peers, which is why getting teens invested in your programs is the best way to ensure success—for the programs and teens. "You cannot program for teens," Rodriguez said. "You have to program with teens."