Letting Youth Take Center Stage at S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center

By: Sara Plachta-Elliott, Executive Director, and Kelsey Thompson, Improvement and Impact Fellow

A dream summer for most youth is to play and create in a safe, fun space with adults who care and give them the freedom to be who they are.

Youth who attend the S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center on Detroit’s East Side engage in a variety of enriching developmental learning activities — sports, robotics, tutoring and music. A fully decked out music studio offers a real-world experience. But, a safe space isn’t enough to engage youth and keep them coming. That’s where caring adults who are trained in positive youth development come in.

Over the summer, S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center’s staff joined seven other organizations that collectively operated 18 summer camp sites across Detroit to participate in the Youth Development Resource Center’s first Summer Learning Program Quality cohort. This was funded by The Skillman Foundation through grants to YDRC and the National Summer Learning Association. This effort is an extension of YDRC’s Acting with Data Learning Community, which offers data-driven youth program quality improvement support.

In May, S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center and the cohort of summer program teams attended a Summer Learning Institute to learn about key indicators for summer learning program quality, such as helping youth gain skills through hands-on collaborative learning.
In July and August, while kids filled the building, YDRC assessors and coaches visited S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center. They interviewed staff, observed the quality of activities with the Summer Learning Program Quality Assessment, and coached the staff as they identified improvement goals.

During the full-day observation in the music studio, program partner Notes for Notes provided a particularly engaging experience for youth. Why was it high quality?

  • Staff guided youth using questions rather than giving answers.
  • They used paired work groups and gave youth opportunities to plan and execute their ideas.
  • The whole group discussed the Center’s values and how they could be incorporated into music — linking an abstract concept with a concrete experience.
  • When staff praised the youth for their great work, they included details about focus and creativity — all positive feedback that might motivate a young person to achieve more in another setting like school.

One improvement goal staff identified was working to make sure to offer youth reflection opportunities — whether on the basketball court or in the tutoring space. When adults give youth control over their own learning, in a supportive space that facilitates their creativity, anything is possible!


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