In the last twelve months, how we view and use spaces has changed dramatically. Our homes are now our work spaces, public spaces have been quiet and empty, and virtual spaces are now the new norm for meeting with colleagues, friends and family. Until we found ourselves without physical spaces for meeting and being together, I hadn’t paid them much attention – now I miss them dearly. I had also taken for granted the impact the spaces we occupy have on the work we do but it is clear they play an important role in our engagement with young people.
Last March we witnessed the closing of community centres, classrooms and other dedicated youth spaces across the country. Without much notice at all, those who worked closely with young people were thrust into the virtual world and had to adapt quickly to running online youth group activities, offering support online and from a distance, and learning how to build and maintain relationships with young people without ever spending time together face-to-face. Suddenly the impact that physical spaces have on participation and engagement became very clear.
On Care Day, young people and those who work alongside them reflected on the importance of physical spaces in a workshop hosted by the Trust. The themes of ownership, belonging and safety were consistently reflected in the discussion.
Feeling ownership of a dedicated physical space allows young people to be more authentic and genuinely themselves. This leads to a feeling of belonging and safety. The ability to decorate the space opens up options to display their work and express themselves creatively. That ownership then feeds into possibilities of addressing any power imbalance felt between young people and the services they engage with in that space – suddenly the young person is putting the kettle on and showing you where the toilet is. They feel comfortable and safe. They feel welcome. They feel more in control.
We also heard many stories about the importance of food and sharing meals in dedicated spaces. Those can be the gold-dust moments – preparing food or passing the salt and pepper across the table – that allow relationships to bud and blossom, friendships to form and memories to be made. And as a result, we see more positive engagement and participation from young people and they feel their presence and contributions are valued.
In stark contrast are the reflections we heard about spaces where young people did not feel welcome. In those spaces young people didn’t open up as much or respond to the opportunities around them. They perhaps disengaged or their attendance wasn’t consistent, they didn’t feel they could make full use of the space because it wasn’t theirs or they were reluctant to be truly themselves because they didn’t feel completely safe in the space they were in. The importance of feeling welcome was powerfully illustrated by one group who told us about a caretaker of a shared public space who wasn’t particularly friendly or warm towards the young people and that was enough to spark a decrease in participation.
Although we know how important physical spaces are and there is a hunger from young people and workers alike to reclaim those spaces, we must not overlook the positives drawn from our sudden venture into the virtual world. The breadth of online opportunity that has sprung up over the last twelve months has allowed for further reach and improved accessibility for some young people. It has ensured that young people’s voices continue to be heard and it has also played a vital part in tackling the isolation and loneliness felt by many.
Given the pace at which we have all had to learn about how to occupy virtual spaces and the wealth of knowledge and experience we have developed, it would be a real shame not to give thought to how we provide safe and welcoming spaces online as well as offline to our young people.
My wish for us is that, as we move towards the easing of restrictions and the re-opening of our beloved physical spaces, let’s be mindful of what we have achieved in virtual spaces and take that learning with us. How can we move back to face to face work and invite the virtual world to remain a part of our participation and engagement work with young people?
The Trust is keen to share learning and practice, so please get in touch if you’d like to explore this with us.
And as for those physical spaces – well, I don’t think we’ll ever take them for granted again. I look forward to witnessing young people and the adults alongside them breathing life back into our cherished spaces very soon. We all know that magic happens within those four walls.
Laura Graham, Senior Evidence & Influencing Officer, Life Changes Trust