Learning in the Non Formal Setting? Is it important?

Working in a non-formal organisation with young people with disabilities can prove tough but rewarding, as long as your goals for them are relaxed.

Since I have been working in my new role here as music coordinator at CEDA - my previous experience didn't at first manage to help me much in adapting to the situation. Previously working in youth clubs, PRU's, schools, special schools and colleges - I had always found that it was necessary to focus very much on the product/outcome and this is something I had become very customed to. Evidence became such a key part of my work. Even in youth clubs, the young people wanted a recording of their song when it was finished to show what they had done/learnt.

Adapting to this new setting started off as a challenge to me as the young people aged between 5 and 18 who came to CEDA were 'sent' here by their parents/carers for respite - but came here to 'PLAY' and to experience their own choices and to exactly what they wanted. This included building sandcastles, playing in the soft play room, painting and playing trains to going on Facebook, sitting in front of Youtube  or playing computer games. My job was to introduce music as a core offer to the young people here and I even I imagined initially that it had to be based on products and results of the young people learning music. 

The whole basis of the approach to Youth Music was that these young people were probably excluded from alternative music provision at school because of their needs and that CEDA hadn't really embraced music so much for the young people here. After a few months of aiming to teach simple guitar/DJing, songwriting etc. through various methods including certificates and more, I started to realise that if the young people really are here to PLAY, then why am I trying to push LEARNING? For those interested the definition of PLAY is 'freely chosen activity motivated by the child'.

I soon began to realise that more often than not learning came into PLAY and it was a natural combination. Rather than learning guitar and 'how to hold it' with young people - it became more beneficial for the young people to hold a microphone and hear their voice amplfiied and begin singing. After reflecting on our bid to Youth Music, it really wasn't about the learning and evidencing a product - it was more about opening up an experience to music that they never had the opportunity to. Learning comes second place to the fact that a young person with disabilities can sing and 'make the choice' to sing in front of others - gaining confidence in the meantime.

We've had plenty of practitioners visit CEDA and they have sometimes felt 'disheartened' that only 4/5 young people made the choice to get involved out of a group of 25. But more often that not - the choice the young person has made often leads to moments of magic and learning which that young person would not have had the opportunity to do so before.

To summarise, working in a non formal environment with young people with disabilties (from very complex to minor learning difficulties) is one that probably most people might not come across too often. Allowing them to make the choices to get involved in music, with your influence and enthusiasm as a practitioner is all you can do. More often than not - great results can happen and for these young people it is hugely rewarding us, but even more so for them.     

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” 
― Galileo Galilei

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Jacqui Haigh's picture

Hi Mike, you make some interesting points here. I am managing sound splash which is Bristol's Musical Inclusion programme and at our working group meeting yesterday we discussed the issue of numbers. If we are genuinely going to offer free choice to the young people we are working with we cannot assume every one is going to choose our activities! You talk about "relaxed goals" and flexibility as an important element of working in this context. We need to be able to reflect and recognise what skills we are using to make effective decisions about what and how we offer musical activities and feel confident in valuing young peoples' choices. We need to be able articulate this so that we can talk confidently about the value of non-formal settings. Unfortunately play is often undervalued and is difficult to quantify easily and fit neatly into measuring success - we need to stand up for choices and a bit of chaos as we live in a society that pays lip service to "choice" in so many areas of our lives. Perhaps some of the musical activities we have the privilege of offering young people will give them the opportunity to practice making choices for themselves.