Helping Youth Find Their Sparks

March 2022

By Carrie Ann Olson, Extension Educator, Associate Extension Professor

U of MN Extension graphic

When you strike a cardboard or wooden match it will likely spark and make a flame. The flame will last only as long as the fuel is available (in this case the match). Additional fuel is needed to keep the spark going and to build a flame.  The sparks are like youth’s interests. Over time, youth may have a variety of interests. It takes additional support to fuel a youth’s spark and grow them.

“A spark is a passion for a self-identified interest or skill or a capacity that metaphorically lights a fire in a young person’s life, providing energy, joy, purpose, and direction” (Arnold, 2019).

Sparks are considered an essential ingredient of youth thriving. A young person’s sparks can provide a sense of direction and encourage goal setting. Sparks are different from mere leisure activities in that:

  • Sparks create actions that not only contribute to the benefit of the young person, but also society at large.
  • Sparks provide the intrinsic fuel for a young person’s growth in knowledge and skill.
  • Sparks enhance a young person’s networks as they encounter others with similar sparks, particularly adults with expertise who can facilitate learning and opportunities for engagement.

Sparks can offer a protective factor for young people with their intense focus on the source of their spark, keeping them out of trouble. Sparks, in turn, motivate youth to succeed in other areas of their lives, such as personal, social, and academic.  When youth are supported to grow and encouraged to overcome obstacles, they are empowered to develop their sparks and use them to make the world a better place for all.  Adults can help a young person feel comfortable exploring sparks by acknowledging that some youth may know their sparks, some youth may change their sparks, while others need time to discover theirs. Adults can be actively, intentionally engaged in helping youth people find their spark or the inner passions and interests that motivate and inspire youth towards the path of thriving.  Here are ways you can help youth find and develop their spark:

  • Notice when a young person lights up and shows joy and positive energy towards something
  • Listen carefully for ways to support
  • Help youth find ways to practice their spark
  • Attend a young person’s games, performances, and public demonstrations of their spark.
  • Creating safe spaces for youth to reflect on their sparks through individual and group discussions.  Encourage youth to openly talk about their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. 

Youth’s spark champions practice listening.  They have a two-way dialogue to find one’s inner passions and interests.  They infuse individual as well as group discussions into meetings and events that have potential to help participants reflect on their sparks.  Creating safe spaces is critical for this, especially when encouraging youth to openly talk about their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. 

For more information, please contact Carrie Ann Olson at [email protected].