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Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar® on Tour

August 24th, 2016

We asked different agencies who work with youth (both in school and after-school) to take Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar, test it out and tell us what they think.  Today’s review comes from a teacher at Cameron, a Lead Public School.


Brain Boosters has been a lifesaver for me this semester. My school leadership council has been having a hard time connecting with one another as well as being motivated to participate in the group. I use Brain Boosters for Groups In a Jar® with them everyday now and they LOVE it! I use it at the start of our meetings to get their thinking and enthusiasm going and sometimes at the end as a fun way to close our meetings.


I have also recommended it to other teachers at my school because it is so quick and easy to grab and go! We have an advisory period each week and Brain Boosters has been an awesome way to connect and have fun with our advisory groups. I love that there are over 100 activities, it is fast and easy, and most of all TONS of fun! It is so much better than having to look up different games and icebreakers online and sifting through all of them to find what I want. ALL of the activities included in the jar are age-appropriate, easy to understand, and take just a few minutes to do. They are all different, unique, and don’t take any planning. I have even used these activities at Professional Development with my co-workers. I highly recommend Brain Boosters to any one working with groups both teens and adults!

– Ashley Parker, Cameron, A Lead Public School

See a sample of Brain Boosters in action below (the leadership council assisted in the making of the video):



Click to order:

Helping Youth Find Their Sparks

June 20th, 2016

What are you doing when you lose all sense of time and are surprised to see how much has gone by? What gives you energy? What’s your day like when you get to DO the thing you love to do most in the world? What’s your day like when you DON’T get to do it?

This was the kick-off of our training yesterday with youth directors.  We spent time together looking for clues to our inner fire and how we can help the youth we serve find theirs.

Passion. Energy. Meaning. Purpose. Sparks. It goes by different names but it is at its root that “thing” that gets us up in the morning excited about the day. The idea of it is universal. It’s what every human being wants in life – that “thing” that makes us feel alive, is energizing and gives our lives personal meaning and value.

For many, this journey to discover their spark is done in solitude, can take a lifetime, or may be discovered by happy accident. The work of discovery is rarely done in community or out loud with intention. It’s just not normal dinnertime conversation in restaurants or homes. When we meet people, we ask “what do you do?” and conversations tend then to move into ones on the “doing” tasks of our lives. Seldom do we ask, “What do you live for? What makes your eyes light up?” or “What is your bliss?

Beginning the Sparky Journey

In our training, we focused on how to change that paradigm and to begin those crucial conversations and offer deliberate activities to provide opportunities for youth to discover their own unique inner passions.

A first step is to simply have conversations with youth about what matters to them, and to really listen to what they have to say and clarify. Ask questions. Don’t assume you know where they’re going. Let them tell you. And, make the conversation two-way. In telling YOUR story of what you love, they may find clues to follow for themselves.

Next, build in activities in your youth program that lets them think about what they love, dislike or are indifferent about trying or doing. Remember the game Take a Hike? We rewrote that old game into Sparks Walk for our upcoming book, Groups, Troops, Clubs & Teams: The Essential Handbook for Youth Leaders. When someone is in the middle of the circle, she calls out “take a hike if you love to . . . (play basketball, build engines, go to the beach, listen to others)” and everyone who loves that “thing” scrambles for a new spot in the circle and not to be the person caught in the middle.

Simple games like that provide a way to think about sparks in an interactive setting. And you, the youth director, can listen for activities mentioned and note which ones you can offer as part of the program, or talk about further with your youth.

Offer a variety of things. Pique their interests. Look for sparks to emerge.  Look for where they perk up with a sudden smile, or by straightening up or leaning forward. Watch for facial and body language that shows they are engaged.

In deliberately taking these steps, you are helping youth begin a crucial part of their journey, the journey to discover their inner fire, the “thing” that fuels them, their sparky selves. And they’ll know they’re not alone. You’re there to support them and help them in their discovery.

“Each of us has a fire in our heart for something.  It’s our goal in life to find it and to keep it lit.” – Mary Lou Retton

Boost Your Brain: Dance Moves 5-6

April 18th, 2016

Movement is an important brain booster.  And dancing is a great way to bring in oxygen, get the blood and heart pumping, reduce stress, build friendships and have a good time.

For this week’s dance moves, in our little series, we bring you two related to equipment. Can you combine them into one dance seamlessly?

Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar® – Sneak Peak

April 13th, 2016

The power of playing games in groups has unlimited potential. The research shows that we can relieve stress, help the group bond and learn. But did you know that play can also help boost brain power? When games are intentionally crafted with an eye towards the research on brain development, you can create another form of “Play with Purpose.” (our mission in life!)

Build the group. Build the brain. What a great way to impact youth! In Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar®, we offer 101 different ways to engage youth groups.   Engaging activities include games that tap into music, movement, challenge and more (all brain boosters).

Here’s one example that helps boost our sense of novelty. Try it with your group and see what they come up with.


Divide into even-numbered teams. Give each team 8 minutes to draw a useful invention. The catch? The invention must utilize a broom, a mouse pad, a drinking glass, and a basket. Present the inventions to the group. Decide which ones people would use.

libray inventions

Photo: Co-author Susan Ragsdale (middle crouching) leads some of the Nashville Public Library staff through Brain Booster activities as part of a training.

Get the jar directly from Free Spirit or online from Barnes and Noble or Amazon.  Click to order:

*Excerpted from Brain Boosters for Groups In a Jar® by Susan Ragsdale and Ann Saylor, copyright © 2016, forthcoming. Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.


Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar®

April 12th, 2016

Did you know that you can boost brain power through play? Brain Boosters for Groups in a Jar® includes activities that engage the brain through music, movement, challenge, conversation, novelty and more. Some of the games are very individual in nature – draw a card and perform for the group. Some are more group oriented – inviting the whole group to play. Some games include props that should be on hand: pencils, paper, or tape.

Players always have the opt-out option to keep the environment safe so if someone pulls a game card and doesn’t want to lead it, he can put it back and pull another card out. (This option may help with cultural gaps of understanding as well as any language issues.). Have fun boosting brainpower!


Game Creations*

Divide into even-numbered teams. Give each team 8 minutes to create a new game. The catch? The game must utilize a mirror, a suitcase, a ball, and a shovel. Present the game to the group. Have each team share how to play the game.

game invention

Anthony proudly displays the game he and Emily Sue created.

Get the jar directly from Free Spirit or online from Barnes and Noble or  Amazon.  Click to order:

*Excerpted from Brain Boosters for Groups In a Jar® by Susan Ragsdale and Ann Saylor, copyright © 2016, forthcoming. Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

Boost Your Brain: Dance Move #4

April 11th, 2016

For this week’s dance move that we learned from youth we know, we bring you the Running Man.

Ask your teens? Is this still hot? Or has it gone cold?  What IS the latest, greatest move?


The Power of Re-directing

March 11th, 2016

Guest blogger: Vanessa Helbig

Vanessa shares about the intentional action steps she took as a result of attending one of the trainings towards getting her Youth Worker Certification.

I started working with the girls at my site on December 1st. They are a very lively and spirited group; however, they often channel this energy into negative outlets. The classroom was often in chaos with students speaking loudly, arguing, complaining, and acting unhappy with a variety of new teachers coming in and out throughout the semester. They were feeling abandoned, with little structure. So there I was, the third teacher these girls have had walk into their lives in the past three months. They were very skeptical of me and the changes I had to implement. Each day felt like a battle. I spent most days trying to quiet angry students and redirect everyone to positivity and completing tasks.  I started to notice that when I walked into the school, I was bracing myself for certain students to act out as they always had in the past.

However, in the training, we talked about not pre-judging our students and that has sat with me for a while. As much as I wanted to look at each student with new hope every day, I looked at them through my own survival mode. I noticed their misbehavior first, instead of the sharply-tuned skills they were trying to master. Most of their negative behaviors were their own survival modes. Some were guarding themselves from another person walking out of their lives, venting the overload of emotions from a dramatic day, or trying to navigate growing up. In those moments they were responding with their gifts and talents in the only way they knew how.

I wanted to guide them into finding positive outlets for their natural strengths for the betterment of the group.  I channeled my discouragement of loud students who always want to talk and be the center of attention to encouragement of the student’s talent for leadership and communication.  I would look at angry students who were always upset with someone, and value their passion for friendship and loyalty. When a student would act out and I was not able to reign them back in, we would step aside for a chat. I would tell them how thankful I was for their leadership, passion, etc., and I would make sure they knew how special their traits were. Then I would ask them to help me lead the classroom with respect and kindness. Then I would address their specific misbehavior.

With this change, I started to feel better when I looked at my students. I would look at them and see hope and possibilities. In addition, I now try daily to compliment each girl throughout the class time. I try to point out something positive in each one of them where everyone else can hear. In this way I am encouraging positive behaviors and building stronger relationships with my students.

Sadly, this story doesn’t end perfectly. A few of my students have been exited from the program for behavior issues, but each of them knew that I believed they could improve their behaviors and that I saw amazing gifts in them.  Through their behavior issues I had a chance to talk to them about their value and talents; this time was an opportunity we may not have had otherwise. I hope those seeds take root over time in their lives. However, I have still witnessed successes in each girl. When my girls start to get upset they will ask to speak with me so they can calm down and have a listening ear. These moments are huge successes for me because not only are they realizing that I care, but they are practicing a coping skill that will help them their whole lives.

They are learning to pause, take a breath, and communicate before acting out. In addition, one of my girls has opened up to me about her struggle to still be a good person. We are talking about all the good she is and wants to be, but she is struggling with navigating peer pressure and growing up. When she has a difficult behavior day, she always apologizes to me and we discuss what we can do for next time. That is such a big improvement, and I believe my curtailing judgement and giving of grace has helped this change take place.

My classroom is now a room where I give grace, highlight strengths, and start each day with new hope for each student! It does not always look neat, quiet and orderly but it is a place where each student is learning their value.

What action can you commit to trying to have a more positive influence on your youth?


Design for Change Global Conference – a Youth Perspective

March 7th, 2016

DESIGN FOR CHANGE (USA) is a global movement of young people who are changing the world!

This video shares a perspective from some of the students who attended in 2013.  Take a quick peek into what could be a life-changing experience for you and your team!

Learn more about how YOU can be the change here.


Service-Learning Grant Application Available from State Farm

March 3rd, 2016
State Farm® Youth Advisory Board (YAB) service-learning grant applications are available from February 29 th until April 29th.  The grants range from $25,000 – $100,000 and are designed to create sustainable change in local communities across the United States.
Public K-12, charter, higher education institutions, and non-profit organizations are eligible if they are able to demonstrate how they plan to impact student achievement within the public K-12 curriculum.  All applicants must have a youth contact and adult administrator, as the programs must be youth-driven and youth-led.
Each grant request must fall under one of these issue areas, chosen by the board itself:


  • Community Safety and Justice
  • Environmental Responsibility
  • Economic Inclusion and Financial Literacy
  • Access to Higher Education
  • Health and Wellness
  • Arts and Culture


As of August 2015, nine years after the initial launch of the YAB, the board has awarded more than $36 million in grants to organizations in the U.S. and Canada and impacted approximately 21 million lives.
Find out more at You can also check out the YAB on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube
With a passion for education and service, our youth can make a difference! Thank you for helping us spread the word.


Design for Change USA Challenge: 5th Graders Tackle a Trap House

February 22nd, 2016

DESIGN FOR CHANGE (USA) is a global movement of young people who are changing the world!

Here is one of the Design for Change USA winning projects from young people across the nation. Check out what they did to make a real difference in their neighborhood!

DFC USA Winners 2014

Charles Rice Public School, Dallas

We hope you will join them in BEING THE CHANGE! Find out what you need to do and how to enter here.

Design for Change

February 8th, 2016

We like to highlight resources of agencies that work with youth to develop leadership skills and provide opportunities for youth to give back. In this post, we want to introduce Design for Change:


DESIGN FOR CHANGE (USA) is a global initiative empowering young people to be agents of change in their own schools and communities. Through hands on training, a design thinking curriculum and robust technology platform, DFC engages young people in social change, helping them build their character, capacity and confidence. Once complete, students are required to submit a short video detailing the evolution of their project. These videos are scored and a team of young people from the USA are selected to participate in the annual DFC global conference involving students from 35+ countries.

For more information, please visit:

Check out their web for resources, lesson plans and activities to engage youth in service-learning!


Middle School Girls Tackle Disconnect

February 1st, 2016

Guest post by Christi Terefenko

When we asked a group of sixth and seventh grade girls what was important to them, their answer was, not surprisingly, their family and friends. When asked what got in the way of good relationships with their family and friends, their answer was, however, somewhat surprising: technology.

This simple question started a great conversation and initiated a very creative project with an inner-city middle school service-learning club. The girls in the club, who call themselves G-POP (short for Girls Project of Peace), attend Southwest Middle School in Reading, PA. The club is part of the Junior League of Reading’s Youth Empowered initiative designed to raise the self-esteem of youth and empower them to lead through service-learning.

This small – but mighty – group of 12 girls decided to address, in a very interesting way, the issue of societal disconnect resulting from overuse of technology. Seeing that “disconnect” was a very important issue to them, they created a day called “LOOK UP Day” along with a pledge for peers, family and friends to sign. The pledge was simple enough:

On this LOOK UP Day, I pledge to say,

I shall use technology less today

And talk to the people I do adore

And listen to people just a little bit more!

“Heads up, phones down” was the G-POP mantra and their goal was have their family and friends pledge to use technology less on LOOK UP Day so as to connect more with the people around them. In an effort explain their project and get people to sign the pledge to take part in LOOK UP Day, the girls spoke to their principal, set up informational tables for their peers in the cafeteria during lunch time, spoke on morning announcements, and even took the pledge home to their families to sign.

Look up day t-shirt back-page

After two weeks of campaigning, the middle school celebrated LOOK UP Day together with great success. In the end, this small group of girls raised awareness in a whole community about a very relevant issue and got over 350 individuals to sign their pledge. LOOK UP Day was a huge success and made a lasting impact on all those involved…especially the girls who created it. They leaned that they have the power to impact others and create change around them, perhaps the most valuable lesson of all.

2016 Tennessee Conference on Volunteerism & Service-Learning Dates Announced

December 4th, 2015

a courtesy post:

Volunteer Tennessee is pleased to announce the dates for the 2016 Tennessee Conference on Volunteerism and Service-Learning, which will take place Feb. 28 – Mar. 1, 2016 at the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs in Franklin, TN.


Proposals for workshop sessions and showcase exhibits are now being accepted.  Workshop sessions last 1 hour and 15 minutes and include a directed focus on selected topics with interaction and reflection among participants.  Showcase exhibits will be displayed in our conference exhibit hall to demonstrate successful service-learning and volunteerism programs and projects across Tennessee.

Proposal and showcase submissions are due by Monday, January 4, 2016. 

More information can be found on our conference website and Facebook page.  Have questions?  Contact for further information.

Cultural Diversity and Youth Power

August 19th, 2015

Outwardly, I fit the blonde, blue-eyed barbie image. And yet, I have Cherokee Indian, Irish, and Scottish blood in my background. I found that out when I was in middle school. What did it mean that my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee? I read everything I could and told myself that it explained a lot about my natural inclination to liking wolves (I was in middle school – of course I made that kind of conclusion!).


Seriously, what does it mean to who I am today to have connections to three different groups of people? Fast forward to today and the increase in cultural connections – be that biological or the neighbors who make up your street or the friends your youth have on-line.


Our world is huge. Young people today have more opportunities than any other generation to reach out and interact with others around the world. Cities are changing. Neighborhoods are changing. And, our groups are changing. Various cultures offer opportunities to expand the world-view in our classrooms and programs. As adults running programs, we have to become more adept at juggling values and cultural norms.


And, young people have their own culture. They embrace the digital age and are often bi-lingual. Youth culture is also characterized by their interest in certain music, food, dress, language, and the arts.


What an opportunity to learn and grow! Ask them to teach you from their perspective and understanding. In our book, Groups, Troops, Clubs & Classrooms, The Essential Handbook for Working with Youth, we collected tips from colleagues and combined them with our own to provide ideas for guiding your work in today’s youth culture and its various identifying elements.


What is a “norm” of your family? Your generation? Your culture? How does it play out against other norms you encounter?


8 Ways to Publicly Honor Youth Leaders and Contributers

August 12th, 2015
  1. Hang pictures of youth and their achievements in your building
  2. Nominate them for awards and scholarships; even if they aren’t selected, you can announce the nomination
  3. Ask for a proclamation (recognition) from the city council/mayor’s office
  4. Submit an article for a newspaper, professional magazine, or the local TV news
  5. Give youth job titles (displays importance of roles; can use on resumes)
  6. Describe their work in the company newsletter or through a display
  7. Brag about them on social media—Twitter, Facebook, Flikr, or YouTube videos (double impact because it promotes your organization as their friends see the content)
  8. Invite them to speak on behalf of your agency at public events

These ideas are from our new book, Groups, Troops, Clubs and Classrooms: The Essential Handbook for Working with Youth.  It is full of strategies to help educators, coaches and youth workers bring out the best in young people!  Check it out and share it with someone else that loves young people!