Lots of people believe that online is less engaging than face-to-face. That it’s hard work. That young people won’t join in, that the barriers are insurmountable. That “real youthwork” isn’t going to happen online – not really. Well, during the Covid crisis we’ve had no choice but to explore what can actually be done in an online setting and of course it’s no surprise really that need, as ever, has driven creativity. There are indeed ways of making a group video call engaging and many of you have already been discovering what works and what doesn’t in that setting.

Paper Aeroplane

In an online session at the Digital Youth Work Summit 2020 Laura Kemp (Youth Scotland) and I set out to explore what makes online worth doing. During the session I did some learning on the job in more ways than one, with great inputs from several other contributors and fantastic ideas being shared by delegates. We knew that if we were running a session on this topic then we would want our delegates to feel comfortable and involved, actively participating in the session and with plenty of different choices. So we were definitely trying to model an engaging session as well as discussing it.

Here are some of the tips – some that Laura and I came with, others that we learned along the way.

1. Be prepared, but be prepared to change

The first thing that happened in our session was that I forgot to cue Laura to play a game with everyone after doing the welcome. We’d discussed it in advance, I even had the programme carefully planned in a Google doc on my laptop, but I was trying to hold too many things in my head all at once which is always a recipe for disaster on my part. But of course it didn’t matter. No-one else knew what the plan was, Laura wasn’t sure if I’d skipped it deliberately to save time, and we quickly got into the main business of the session, giving ourselves time to breathe by popping all the delegates into breakout rooms – just as if we were in a physical space and could get people talking. Being flexible is one of those absolutely golden rules of youth work, and it’s no different online. Things might go to plan for once, but then again…..

2. Get people talking early on

One of the best features of Zoom, the newly popular video conferencing tool that hardly anyone had heard of before the pandemic, is of course how easy it is to get people into small groups. We had around 50 people at the session we were running, so we needed ways to help everyone to contribute and feel involved. That’s a challenge in one large group, but once you get people into groups of around 4 – 6, it’s much easier for everyone to feel comfortable.

Many of us engage better, learn more, connect more if we have the opportunity to say hello, introduce ourselves and contribute our thoughts and ideas to the conversation. I’m like that. I have to remember to zip it and go into listening mode more often, but the break-out rooms are a place to chat and relax and learn from each other.

There are other ways to do it too. Once recently while involved in some actual youth work (rather than just talking about it) I watched as another volunteer, welcomed each young person into the call, using their name, forming a connection through some simple chat and then moving seamlessly into an informal game. That worked!

Remember if you are using breakout rooms, that you will need to risk-assess and decide how to manage these. For example, you may have a rule that you need two youth workers to be in the breakout room at any one time, to make it a safe-space. Make sure you check your organisation’s guidance and/or think through what’s appropriate.

There are other ways to do it too. Once recently while involved in some actual youth work (rather than just talking about it) I watched as another volunteer, welcomed each young person into the call, using their name, forming a connection through some simple chat and then moving seamlessly into an informal game. That worked!

Remember if you are using breakout rooms, that you will need to risk-assess and decide how to manage these. For example, you may have a rule that you need two youth workers to be in the breakout room at any one time, to make it a safe-space. Make sure you check your organisation’s guidance and/or think through what’s appropriate.

3. Not everyone wants the same level of engagement or visibility

Just as in a room full of people, not everyone will want to get noticed or speak up for all to hear, and it’s just the same on a conference call. We have to be ready to accommodate those who would prefer not to speak or join a break out room, those who are on mute and maybe also have their camera off. Giving choices helps young people to feel comfortable with a decision to keep their camera or microphone off it that’s their preference. It’s worth remembering that some people find it an uncomfortable place to share and would rather stay quietly in listening mode.

4. Find the right apps and platforms and give people things to do

In our session we used the online chat function to collect up ideas and encouraged discussion while everyone was together. This of course is just the start. Draw, dance, sing, mime, zumba…. The list of active things that you can do together on a video call is long and anything but boring. Quizzes are great, but they aren’t the only fun activity available, so branch out! See “Have fun” below for more on this. But which apps are people using and what for?

Here’s what people in the session were saying:

  •  We are using Zoom, facebook meetings and facebook live for the quiz with Kahoot… and for social media Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube.
  • Screen sharing for example offers potential for collective learning, the young people can present personal projects from it or use it as a referencing tool etc
  • Our young leaders researched, and delivered online workshops on a range of topics which was well received.
  • Some young people loved meeting each other and team on our Minecraft server.
  • Visual board games such as Boggle, can use ipad and mirror from Osmo to display the Boggle board.
  • We used Google Meet and had ‘breakout rooms’ by setting up another meeting simultaneously and moving between the two via the links.

5. Have fun

It’s surprising to discover that the most talked about Zoom game of 2020 seems to be “bring me”. Somebody had the crazy idea that the popular, “old fashioned” scavenger hunt type game was just right for a conference call, and reckoned that sending children, young people, or adults off on a quest to find a fork, a loo roll, a blade of grass and the oldest thing in their house was fun. Turns out that it honestly is and I have played the game myself with groups of various different ages, all of whom entered into the spirit of it, no problem.

If you’ve done that one and are looking for more ideas, find a long list of Zoom Games here, lovingly curated and freely shared with whoever wants to use them.

Luigi, Yoshi and Mario

Ideas that were contributed during the session include:

  • Provide resources if doing an activity – some examples – baking – give them the materials before hand, some had done online campfire and they toasted marshmallows which they sent out beforehand
  • Take a bike to bits and put it back together, whilst online, oh yes, and make it competitive
  • Draw a picture to order – but with the paper on your head, or with your eyes shut
  • Play traditional games with a twist
  • Run a quiz
  • We have done Zoom singalongs and Zoom “Big Night In” with lots of music and dancing!
  • We are also doing a digital café – sending out little cakes and stuff for tea/coffee and doing activities in break out zooms.
  • We send out food from a country each week and focus on that country. Sharing the food and trying it for the first time together has been good.
  • Our 16+ mainly engaged in FIFA nights which have been really effective. Wee tournaments/ friendlies.

6. Tackle the barriers

Marie McMartin from West Dunbartonshire Council shared about how the council have created a hub to ensure that all their digital activities are happening in a safe and well controlled way. Well done WDC!!

The potential barriers to making online engaging are of course many and various – whether it is making contact with the young people, getting consent, getting permission to use a particular app or helping young people to get the device that they need to get online in the first place. These and many other barriers have been tackled by feisty youth workers in the last few months, with great results.

Many of us feel that our own lack of knowledge or experience is a barrier, which is why opportunities to share ideas and help each other along are so valuable.

Thoughts contributed during the session include:

  • Digital youth work gives the opportunity to check in regularly with more isolated young people. Simple messages can still be really appreciated.
  • Think about language and communication – keep messages concise and understandable – long posts don’t land! Use photos/memes/videos.
  • I think there is a fear of digital youth work for some – all the ideas are amazing and I am sure people would love to do them all – but lack of training on how to use these platforms (Zoom, breakout rooms, rules and regulations around it) – its moved so fast that staff are trying their best but not feeling equipped to set these up and know how they work.
  • We are just struggling with the equipment and permission to use many on line platforms.
  • Teens have been more difficult to engage online than under 12s
  • One thing we discussed that we thought was important was offering opportunities to access support more regularly. It is much easier to pick up on a young person’s mood and emotional wellbeing in person, and so offering more opportunities where they can tell us how they feel or if they need support (anonymised of course) would perhaps solve this problem.
  • Relationship is key, along with consistent connection/engagement. I feel the tool/subject we use to engage with yp (art, cooking, writing, issue based discussions) should come from the yp.

7. If you scale up, look for ways to keep it personal

Another great story came from Kirsty Haxton at SU Scotland. When a real, live, actual five-day festival complete with bands, big top, and lots of young people camping all got cancelled in the summer because of Covid, the answer was clearly to run something online, but how was that going to be engaging?

Kirsty tells the story of what they did and why.

Not only did 1000 young people tune in to the online version, but the event was set up so that local youth groups could participate together and share the experience – helping to make the big event meaningful and relational.

8. Online suits some more than others

One learning from lockdown is definitely that people all respond differently. There are some people who seem to thrive with online activities while others shrink away, and it’s not necessarily the people that would be to the fore in a physical setting. The separateness of a video call can create a space where people who might struggle in a face-to-face setting feel able to contribute.

Other tips about helping to make an online group time relational include…

  • Getting young people involved in planning and delivering sessions.
  • Pay attention to relationships – not just fun stuff but keeping in touch and making support available and accessible.
  • Every online group we did a check in where they closed their eyes then when asked they could raise their hand if they wanted a 1:1 check in outside of the group setting…this kept it anonymous and allowed then to reach out for additional support.
  • I have delivered training for young people using the lockdown/lowdown results taking one of the issues that was raised, giving those involved an opportunity to discuss feelings and issues some were facing hopefully dealing with other issues in the future using zoom I was surprised that they actually enjoyed it! it wasn’t all singing and dancing but a wee bit different!
  • Chats on messenger (or similar) have a slightly different feel to chats in-person. It has been important to spend a while working out where the yp is coming from and whether/why they want to chat. This is much easier to read in person but online it is necessary to take some time to suss out what the yp is looking for… and also to be aware that yp will sometimes disappear from messenger abruptly at times – don’t take it personally:) And use loads of emojis to set yp at ease!
  • Treating it as if you are engaging face to face when engaging online.

9. Listen…. yes actively listen!

How we respond when people share their thoughts is one of the keys to helping to build relationships and it works online as well as in face-to-face settings.

Jill wasn’t able to make it along to the Summit, but here she is explaining more about Active Listening.

10. Offer time to reflect

Finally, towards the end of our busy session, we allowed a couple of minutes of quiet for people to think about what they’d been hearing or sharing and to consider what was useful for them. They could post in the chat, or they could jot down their thoughts, but none of us were to speak. As one of the facilitators for the session I found it a challenge to change gear and stop talking myself, changing the tone to a moment of quiet, and no doubt other noisy people found the same. But undoubtedly there was value in doing just that. Zoom calls can feel frenetic, so ways to slow the pace, but still keep people engage seem to work well. One of my own favourites is to doodle while listening to long talks online – helps to stay focused and no-one else on the call can see my attempts at art.

These 10 thoughts are by no means the only ideas to flow from our session about making digital more and more engaging, and with a topic like this we are never going to claim to get it all finished and neatly sewn up. We’ll go on with our quest to find great ways of involving young people in online youth work activities that are fun, creative and genuinely engaging. Amazing practice and fantastic ideas were shared as part of this session, so a massive thank you to everyone who contributed by talking, writing, scribbling, listening, humming or just being there.

And a special big thank you to Laura from Youth Scotland who got involved at fairly short notice, had to put up with my unpredictability and also contributed a fantastic session later in the day when another speaker pulled out. Ever resourceful!

Hilary Phillips
September 2020