Integrating the Arts into Junior Youth Groups (2017)
Variety and a Light Touch are key with these burgeoning explorers

In its original call to the Baha'i world to develop junior youth programs, the Universal House of Justice made a specific point to emphasize the use of the arts in these programs:

"Creative attention must be devoted to involving them [junior youth] in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mold their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth. The employment of the arts in various forms can be of great value in such activity."1 (emphasis added)

Junior youth animators (facilitators) as well as training institute coordinators therefore need to give some thought to the "great value" of using the arts with the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. One can easily see how the arts can help "engage their interests," but it may take some creative attention to envision the use of the arts to "mold their capacities for teaching and service." This article is intended to offer some basic principles and some examples to assist animators in integrating the arts into their groups.

Moving beyond just drama

First off, the companion article on “Integrating Drama into Community Activities” with its discussion of games, skits and role-playing is very much applicable to junior youth. These are the most practical drama tools that you will be able to turn to time and again when working with your groups. Beyond that, however, Drama Circle steps back from promoting drama specifically and instead encourages a broader vision that includes the many avenues through which creativity may flow. Notice how the House of Justice calls for the use of "arts in various forms."

One learning we have had with the Drama Circle is that focused, more disciplined approaches to the arts, which are effective with youth and adults, meet with some resistance at this age. A junior youth group is not necessarily the venue to delve into a comprehensive theory of an art form that they would rather just dabble in. They are more likely to benefit from the smorgasbord approach—a variety of hands-on activities that keep them moving and engaged.

Allowing their interests to lead

Now it is probably best when we allow these creative activities to emerge from the inclinations of the group itself and from the direction it is heading at a given time. For example, one group wanted to do some baking as part of a service project. So they picked a night, found a recipe, got together and did some baking. Simple enough. They didn't need a discourse on the culinary arts, just some supervision and room to explore.

Notice that in this particular example, it was not necessary for the animators to have special skills to meet the need of the situation. Instead, the animator helped in organizing the evening and in providing the kitchen stove. She was there providing the kind of gentle leadership that allows young people to experiment without that overshadowing, controlling presence that adults can sometimes revert to when working with people this age.

One could take such an activity a further step by sharing the baked goods with others or by having a bake-sale fundraiser for some service outlet. These are possible extensions, but not necessary. Perhaps the goal is simply to build a sense of group-belonging, and a night of baking serves that purpose.

Sharing and integrating your skills

In some cases, the inclinations of the junior youth group will pass beyond their capacities. And if the stars are aligned correctly, an animator will be skilled in just that area. In other cases, it is exactly the animator's skill in a certain field that makes the junior youth participants eager to try it out.

For example, in the Triangle cluster in North Carolina, we had the blessing of having a bunch of djembes (hand drums), and we also had a number of animators who could play the drum. It is only natural that our junior youth want on-the-spot lessons in drumming. So a mindful animator might teach them a drum beat pattern to the "O Lord, my God! Open Thou the door..." prayer, for example, so that they in turn would be able to play that beat during the devotional portion of the meeting. Therefore, the skill of the art is not external to the experience of the group, but gracefully integrated.

Supporting their blooming capacities

Powerful learning organisms that they are, junior youth are daily developing competency with all kinds of matters, and many of them possess special skills in various arts and crafts. It is only natural to capitalize on this capacity by asking them to bring those skills into the group.

For example, if one of them is an aspiring musician, you might ask him or her to play for the group or perhaps for an event sponsored by the group. Better yet, if two or three play instruments, they can be encouraged to learn a piece together and then present. (Notice this is different from forming a band, which may divert attention from participation in the junior youth group itself.)

Now it is possible, under optimal circumstances, that the junior youth will, with just a pat on the pack and a good word, succeed in executing the task—in this case, choosing and rehearsing a song together. More often, it is necessary for someone to work with them, to see them through to the completion of the task, at one time stepping forward to guide, at another stepping back and allowing them to lead. That someone is the animator, perhaps with technical help from a volunteer trained in the relevant art.

It is no insult to say that junior youth, on the whole, have not developed the skill set necessary to take a project from beginning to end without assistance. This is where the animator plays a critical role, in introducing just the right amount of encouragement and planning both to achieve the immediate objective and to instill an example of commitment and a pattern of step-by-step task management that will serve them for years to come in their own personal endeavors. Otherwise, junior youth who cannot take a project from beginning to end soon become adults who cannot do the same.

Expanding into new areas

A further variation on their delving into a creative field is when the junior youth decide to pursue a course which requires a skill set that neither they nor the animators possess. In this case, the junior youth may themselves know of someone who is trained in just the right field. If not and if the pursuit seems justified, the animators should be able to help bring someone in that can help the junior youth. This does not mean, of course, that when that person arrives, the animators exit gracefully. Far from it—for the animator possesses what is most essential to the group, which is the understanding of the process of a junior youth group. In such a case, therefore, the animator serves to accompany the "guest artist" in his or her interactions with the junior youth and provides moderating cues to both the visitor and the junior youth.

An example will serve well here. A junior youth group lost one of its members in a tragic incident. The group decided, after prayer and consultation, to create a memorial garden for their friend. This was no small undertaking, but it was agreed upon by all. So the animators helped the junior youth fashion a 5-stage plan over a seven-month period, and though the animators were skilled at making plans, they had no experience with memorial gardens. BUT one of the junior youth had a parent who was a landscaper. As it happened, he agreed to participate.

The short of the story is the junior youth worked hard, made all the important decisions and pursued with perseverance the fundraising, the physical construction of the garden as well as a befitting dedication service. From beginning to end it was a blessed process, but more on point: While that father worked sacrificially on the project, it was because of the consistent involvement and interaction of the animators that the junior youth did not feel overrun. Instead, it was always clear that this was their project, their gift to a dear friend. 

In general, it is better to avoid elaborate projects, as they can overshadow the other aspects of the junior youth program. They can also start to feel anticlimactic and, if abandoned, can chip away at that growing self-belief in the junior youth’s capacity to take a project from start to finish.

1  Letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 21 April 2000.