Fostering Positive Youth Development at the Smithsonian through National Collaborations

Throughout summer 2023, the Smithsonian partnered with 4-H and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to unleash the potential of museum visits and out-of-school learning

A man in a navy blue shirt and khakis leads a large group of students through an art gallery
An educator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum takes 4-H youth on a tour in the galleries exploring how artists have used their medium to tell stories of empowerment and perseverance. Jeremy Norwood, Norwood Photography

In a world where technology continues to advance, it's crucial to recognize the importance of genuine experiences in shaping the future. A visit to a museum can offer much more than just a simple field trip. With the support of the Smithsonian’s museum educators and positive youth development organizations 4-H and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Smithsonian exhibitions can ignite a sense of curiosity, encourage critical thinking, promote empathy and communication skills, and inspire creativity within young minds. This can be especially important for rural or urban youth who may not have easy access to museums in their home communities. Museum visits can lead to the development of lifelong learners who are eager to explore the world around them.

Igniting Curiosity and Fostering Critical Thinking

The Smithsonian is full of fascinating exhibits that can inspire curiosity in young visitors. From ancient artifacts to scientific wonders and historical narratives, each display has the potential to stimulate a youth's imagination. Smithsonian museum visits provide opportunities for youth learners to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving activities. Smithsonian educators design learning experiences to provoke thought, encourage youth to analyze information, draw connections, and make sense of complex concepts. By encouraging youth to ponder historical events, scientific phenomena, or artistic expressions, Smithsonian museums help develop analytical skills extending far beyond a visit.

Over the summer, the National 4-H Council and Boys & Girls Clubs of America collaborated with Smithsonian educators to spark learning with over 1,100 participants from the organizations visiting the Smithsonian. These facilitated experiences with Smithsonian educators aimed to promote positive youth development and increase access to the Smithsonian's educational resources.

Smithsonian educators conducted facilitated experiences (tours) aligned with the Educating for American Democracy Framework. These tours revolved around themes such as Connection, We the People, Institutional and Social Transformation, Contemporary Debates and Possibilities, A People in the World, and Changing Landscapes. Additionally, tours connected to 4-H and BGCA themes on Democracy and Civic Engagement, Social Justice, and Environmental Awareness.

Youth engaged in critical thinking and dialogue during tours at:

  • Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s exhibition at the Smithsonian Libraries "Women and Music of Social Change” tour focused on how women’s leadership is central to the American story;
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum’s "The Power and Perseverance" tour, youth explored how Americans without power are resilient or persevered when challenges arose, and how artists engage with issues of power, or the lack thereof;
  • National Portrait Gallery’s "Visualizing Democracy" tour, youth investigated how portraiture can convey democratic ideals;
  • National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition "Cellphones: Unseen Connections" youth pondered, ‘What does your cellphone mean to you?’ and participated in a workshop at the Q?rius science center to explore the inner workings of the cellphone, and connected it to the environment, civics, and social transformation.
  • Outdoor Smithsonian Gardens’ “Gardens of Change and Resilience” tour, youth explored how environmental issues, accessibility, community well-being and mental health, and climate change, can be addressed in public gardens.
  • National Museum of American History youth contemplated "U.S. Democracy, Challenges and Opportunities" as they explored the contested origins of the U.S., as well as how people have expanded and struggled over the meaning and membership of U.S. society.
  • National Museum of the American Latino's "¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States: Civics, Citizenship, and Communities" signature exhibition taught youth about the contributions of Latino communities to the United States, with a focus on community building, Latinos shaping the nation, immigration stories, and wars of expansion; and
  • National Air and Space Museum’s "One World Connected" tour demonstrated how the histories and technological advancements of our past shape the way we interact with our future.

Youth in each organization received a booklet developed by the Office of the Under Secretary for Education (OUSE)—Boys & Girls Clubs Guide to the Smithsonian and 4-H Guide to the Smithsonian of specially-curated resources and activities based on each organization's specific themes to extend learning while in the museums and online through the Smithsonian Learning Lab once they return home. 

Continuing the Collaboration Beyond a Museum Visit to Enhance Skills

The Smithsonian’s co-collaboration with 4-H and BGCA extends beyond the Washington, D.C. experience. Our organizations continue to work together to pilot projects with clubs back in their home communities, building on the communication skills, empathy and perspective building, and creativity sparked during the summer visits. Here’s a sneak peek of what we are up to:

Encouraging 4-H youth to engage in discussions with peers and educators builds important communication skills.  Jeremy Norwood, Norwood Photography

Building Communication Skills

Effective communication is a vital skill that plays a significant role in personal and professional development. Smithsonian museums offer interactive exhibits and guided tours, encouraging youth to engage in discussions with peers and educators, such as the tours described above. Those experiences help build communication skills, as youth visitors share their observations, listen to others' perspectives, and articulate their thoughts.

The Boys & Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County are teaming up with the Smithsonian Science Education Center to explore the Environmental Justice! curriculum. This collaboration aims to promote a deeper understanding of environmental issues and inspire positive action in the community.

The Smithsonian and Boys & Girls Clubs are collaborating to combine Smithsonian music resources with BGCA's Lyricism 101 program. This collaboration will use hip-hop, particularly cipher culture, to enhance teenagers' literary skills and expand their communication abilities.

Museums can unite youth and break down stereotypes by showcasing diverse stories and experiences and encouraging civic engagement, empathy and perspective building. Boys & Girls Clubs of America youth visited the National Museum of the American Latino's Molina Family Gallery to experience the "¡Presente!” exhibition. Jeremy Norwood, Norwood Photography

Encouraging Empathy and Perspective Building

Museums can unite youth and break down stereotypes by showcasing diverse stories and experiences. Experiencing art and history from different perspectives can cultivate empathy and a more compassionate worldview. We're developing a program for club members to discuss Social Justice and Civic Engagement with experts, piloting in three cities before going nationwide in 2026 for America’s 250th Anniversary.

Sparking Creativity and Civic Engagement

When visiting museums, creativity takes center stage. Being exposed to art, innovation, and historical accomplishments can ignite the imagination of young people and encourage them to explore their own creative abilities. As youth observe different forms of artistic expression, they may feel inspired to experiment with their own artistic pursuits, such as drawing, writing, or other forms of self-expression. Combine this with historical narratives, and it’s a recipe for civic engagement.

Currently, 4-H'ers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Jersey are participating in project-based learning with the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program. The pilot program pairs 4-H'ers with Smithsonian support and resources, and local subject matter experts. The program will eventually be accessible through 4-H's Cooperative Extension network and National 4-H Council's summits, and online through Clover by 4-H and at the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

A National Museum of American History educator welcomes Boys & Girls Clubs of America youth to the museum exhibition, "The Nation We Build Together". Experiencing history from different perspectives can cultivate empathy and a more compassionate worldview. Jeremy Norwood, Norwood Photography

Importance of Partnerships to Cultivate Lifelong Learning

Visiting Smithsonian museums offers more than entertainment; visits enhanced by Smithsonian educators foster a love for lifelong learning. Through community programs and project-based learning, youth can extend learning beyond their visit to develop critical thinking, communication, empathy, and creativity. But we cannot do it alone. Smithsonian partnerships with national youth organizations empower us to shape the next generation of leaders and innovators—and together, we’ll build our future nation. Stay tuned in the coming year for updates on these projects and more!

Editor's Note: The Smithsonian’s partnerships with national youth organizations are made possible thanks to the generous support of the Seedlings Foundation, FedEx, and the Darlene Bookoff Endowment. Philanthropic support is essential to the Smithsonian’s work to share its educational resources with students and educators across the country. Donate today, your fully tax-deductible gift of any size makes a difference.