My top 10 tips for exploring heritage with young people

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We have recently completed a Young Roots Heritage Project exploring the Cultural Heritage of the Irish Community in Birmingham and exploring multi-culturalism and diversity.

Our project was hugely successful in that it challenged, engaged, developed and empowered the young people at the centre of it but that isn’t to say that we weren’t met with challenges along the way.   I can’t claim to be an expert I can claim to have some experience and with that in mind, here are my top 10 tips for exploring heritage with young people.

1. Make it dynamic (trips, experiences, training, equipment).

When working on a project with young people, one of the first challenges you face is engaging them on a consistent basis and keeping them focused on achieving the outcomes you have set out together.  One way to do this is to include as many different ways of working together as you can.  Trips to relevant places of interest, training in various fields that will help them achieve outcomes and different and fun experiences always help.  For example; for our recent “Irish Centre” project we had professional Irish dancers come in and teach us some moves and a traditional Irish cook showed us some traditional recipes to try.

2. Let them take the lead (train them and let them go)

A big part of the project is the young people’s involvement and their development.  In some ways, it is the most important part.  It is vital to give them the freedom to expand and develop their own horizons as well as the direction of the project.  Remember that you are there to guide them and steer them.  Provide them with the opportunities, training and advice and then let them apply all that they have learnt to the project.  They will always surprise you.

3. Show them their work (early edits/pics and photos of them tweeted etc.)

A heritage project can be long and keeping a group of young people interested and enthusiastic is vital to its success.  One way to do this is by showing them the fruits of their creative work as early as possible.  We often make short films and photography displays with groups, and even if the finalised outcomes aren’t ready until near the end of the project- we always show early edits and pictures and share work on social media as a way of keeping the “buzz” of the project alive.

4. Challenge them (don’t be afraid to make them work and learn. Quizzes/research projects/competition etc.)

As important as it is t be creative and ensure that your project is as dynamic as possible, it is also vital that it is balanced with work designed to help the young people learn.  Giving them laptops or tablets to use for specific reasons- such as research and to find answers to a “heritage quiz” are good ways of introducing them to research techniques and different ways of using the internet as well as targeted work in groups.

5. Be adaptable. Sometimes they throw a spanner in the works (time keeping etc.) so be ready to think on your feet, never let a session go dead-even if you go off topic.

Young people have many qualities that make working with them immensely rewarding.  But they can also be-on occasion- frustrating.  Attendance and time keeping have always been the biggest issues that we have encountered when working with large groups and this demands that you are always prepared to adapt the pre-planned day to meet the new demands of the group.  There is nothing worse than been caught off guard with no plan as it can throw the whole group into disarray, so always be prepared.

6. Engage more of them. If the young people have friends and they’re interested, find a way to get them involved. Friend groups react to one another and it grows your network for the next time ;)

We always start to work with a concise number of young people, usually 10, but as the project grows and takes shape, more and more show interest and want to get involved in some capacity.  Make time to find ways to engage them, even if it is only in a small way, and encourage them to celebrate the events outcomes with you to keep them interested in your future projects.  We took a much larger group than first expected to the St. Patrick’s day parade as part of our Irish Centre project and this led to huge interest in our current one.

7. Tell them how much they have developed and what they have learnt.  After each session, wrap up with a synopsis about what you have covered in the session and what they have learnt, reinforce in how the project is helping them and how they are doing well.

If you plan your sessions well, then you will also be able to follow the groups progress well.  And this will mean that you can offer them positive encouragement each time, which is important in keeping the outcomes of the project – for the individuals and the group- on track.

8. Evolve the project according to what they need…not simply what they want. 

Sometimes they will want to spend longer on something than something else, but it is important that you know what is beneficial to them and the project, and what will distract them from achieving the outcomes.  And be able to explain the difference.  Be confident in your planning.  They will lead the project and it is about the learning and developing, but they can’t do this without your leadership guiding them.

9. Keep parents and carers informed and involved. 

This builds confidence between all parties and opens up the possibility of a positive dialogue between parents/carers and young people. It also shares the heritage that you are working on.  Remember that you are being trusted with not only the development of young people, but also their safety and well-being when they are with you, so make every effort to communicate with parents and carers consistently about what you are doing and how it is coming along.  Trust is vital and will build a great relationship between everybody involved.

10. Widen their world.  Enhance their definition of heritage and make them aware of the opportunities to explore different heritage (cultural etc.) to promote and develop future projects that they can lead. 

When we first approached the young people about doing heritage projects, they were less than enthusiastic, but all it took was a careful explanation about how varied and diverse the term “heritage” really is and what they could learn, achieve and experience for them to become excited about getting started.  It is up to you to “sell” the benefits, the true nature and the engaging way that you can work with heritage so think outside the classroom and get them-and you-out of your comfort zone.

Above all, remember that you are exploring the heritage of your particular project to develop the Young People and it is THEIR project.  If this is always at the forefront, then you will always do what is best.

Viewfinder has been working with young people- mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds- since 2011 and we have always enjoyed the varied and challenging the work and have always made a difference in the lives of the young people we work with.  But we are still learning and each project is as unique and individual as the people involved in it

I hope that some of this helps those of you that are embarking on a Heritage project of your own with Young People and if you have any questions about us, our work and the projects we have delivered please feel free to contact me and ask me any questions at:


View Matt Ford's profile Matt Ford Feb 26 2018 - 3:03pm
  1. Thanks Matt, those are some great top tips. You can also find some suggested activities to spark young people's interest in the past in our guide 'how to engage young people in heritage.' Does anyone else have a great top tip from their project- or maybe a pitfall to avoid? Please add your stories and comments below.

  2. View Elise Turner's profile Elise Turner
    Offline | Last seen: 2 weeks 2 days ago
  3. I agree - thanks Matt.  We have just completed a successful project with young people who were looking at the dialect poetry of local poet Tom Twisleton to celebrate the centenary of his death.  I agree that it is better to keep to small numbers at the start as more will certainly join once the project is up and running.  Also, timing during the calendar year is vital as some of our young people were about to start revision for exams.  Starting a project in September can make a difference to the amount of time young people can commit.  Try to start it in April and it is definitely more difficult to recruit.


  4. View Hazel Richardson's profile Hazel Richardson
    Offline | Last seen: 5 months 2 weeks ago
  5. Matt, thanks very much for this information.  We will shortly be starting on our heritage centre in St Mary's Church, in Portbury.  We will be involving children from the adjacent school and all your tips are great.    It adds a new dimension to this aspecdt of our project.  Ann Longstaff, Churchwarden.



  6. View Ann Longstaff's profile Ann Longstaff
    Offline | Last seen: 3 months 2 weeks ago
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