Informal Learning & Youth Work

In Europe they have understood the role of Youth Work as a part of the learning network of a young person’s life for some time.  The Youthpass now in its tenth year is an example of that understanding that young people learn outside of formal settings. However, that understanding is not universal. Though the literature articulates the role of Youth Work very clearly. Youth Workers work with young people in voluntary relationships to design and implement activities, projects and services defined by the young person (Sapin, 2009).   In Australia, youth workers work primarily with young people aged between 12 and 25 years.   Generalist youth service programs act as a primary means of engaging young people.  The engagement can be through an activities program, a music program, an outreach program, information provision or a link with the local TAFE College.   

The National Youth Association in the UK sets out a framework for understanding youth work practice.  According to NYA (2006) Youth Work helps young people learn about themselves, others and society, through informal educational activities which combine enjoyment, challenge and learning.  Their work seeks to promote young people’s personal and social development and enable them to have a voice, influence and place in their communities and society as a whole.

Good youth work equips young people with a range of personal and life skills. It is planned and purposeful.  It supports young people to develop structure and direction for themselves. Youth workers are skilled professionals who can help young people use information and judgment to make informed decisions for themselves. Youth workers work with other professionals bringing skills, trusted relationships with young people and building relationships with other health professionals (Unite the Union, 2010).


Professional youth work as a particular vocational practice is similar to, but not the same as, the work undertaken by other professionals and groups who work with young people (e.g., teachers, therapists, counsellors, mentors, recreation specialists, arts workers, social workers, welfare workers, religious practitioners) (Broadbent & Corney 2008).  Historically good Youth Work practice has used a range of tools and educational frameworks to assist in providing young people with the skills needed to traverse adolescence. This includes building relationships, improving personal development and encouraging a level of self-reflection, resilience and self-esteem for young people and their communities (Irving, Maunders and Sherrington 1995; Bodilly & Beckett, 2005; Gambone, Klem, & Connell, 2002).

A recent study by the European Commission, Working with young people: the value of youth work in the European Union (2014), identified a focus on young people, personal development and voluntary participation as key components. According to the report, Youth Work helps young people to develop skills and competences in many areas; but it also helps them to strengthen their network and build positive relationships. This is an important contribution that is made to the coherence of any society whereby the activities undertaken in Youth Services around Europe offering the chance for contact, exchange and engagement among young people


Youth work and non formal learning


A Council of Europe (2011) working paper on pathways to employment reported that the informal learning opportunities undertaken by engaging in Youth Work activities mean that young people learn while simply being active. The report referred to the social, cultural and building of a young person’s personal agency, often called "soft" skills. All learning in the youth field enables young people to acquire essential skills and competences and contributes to their personal development, to social inclusion and to active citizenship. These are all important employability skills.


Pathways to non formal learning

Similarly the OECD (2010) undertook to review the contribution that informal learning makes to young people employment opportunity The assumption behind the work reported here is that all learning has value and most of it deserves to be made visible and recognised. It is a clear possible option, and a plausible alternative to formal education and training, to have non-formal and informal learning assessed. Many countries are putting recognition of non-formal and informal learning at the top of their policy agenda and the time has come for a thorough evaluation of what it entails.

Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning


This concept of Youth Work and informal learning is not new, but is a different lens to how Youth Work has been previously viewed in Australia. Young, 1999 and Smith (2002)   outline that learning takes place in the context of personal rather than formal relations and that voluntary participation and freedom of choice are essential.  Notably they add that the need for this kind of learning is not primarily to resolve personal troubles of difficult children, which is often the way in which Youth Work has been reported in Australia. However, it must be prioritised as a public issue for a democratic civil society so that participating in youth work becomes a way of participating in the larger community.


YOUNG, K. (1999) The Art of Youth Work. Dorset: Russell House

SMITH, M.K. (2002) Individualization And youth work, in: Youth and Policy/6, 39

© Commonwealth Alliance of Youth Workers 2018