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The Ladder of Youth Participation in Environmental Education

Augie Gabrielli, Water Education Coordinator

Boise, ID

Youth leaders engage in Boise’s Youth Climate Summit

In my career, I have been asked to develop a fair number of youth focused programs. I have built lessons, youth engagement, youth advisory, youth summits, and more. All the time I have spent with youth and working for youth has given me quite a lot of insight into how youth operate and are perceived by their adult counterparts. Often, I see programming being created for young people that struggles to maintain longevity and consistency. There is evidence that these struggles are founded in a lack of appropriate youth participation. I believe Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation can give us insight to make better youth programming and include more young people in our organizational frameworks. Fostering youth programming that includes youth participation is critical to the success of these programs. Young people not only represent a key demographic, but a worldview that is unique to their generation. I have found that the young people of today are more empathetic, open, and engaged than usually given credit for.

In 2020, I was asked to create the city of Boise’s Youth Climate Action Council (YCAC). This council was intended to initiate youth led climate action throughout the city. During the planning process, we found that our efforts to engage youth were not satisfactory. We consistently fought with leadership over what the purpose of the program was, and how the participants would be utilized by the city. At best, the program was a way to get youth opinions on city initiatives, at worst, it was tokenism of the youth involved. We decided that our efforts would not be wasted on a program that included youth as non-participants. When then discovered Roger Hart’s ladder, which gave us a schema to build upon for YCAC.

Ladder of Youth Participation

Roger Hart published his Ladder of Youth engagement in 1992 in the International Child Development Centre of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). His ladder was modeled after the framework of the Ladder of Citizen Participation. The goal was to create a model that could apply to youth across the world. A model that would challenge organizations to rethink how they worked with youth.

The Ladder has 8 steps:

1. Manipulation (non-participation)

Young people do not understand motivations or their role in the process.

2. Decoration (non-participation)

Young people are put on display.

3. Tokenism (non-participation)

Young people may be given a voice but have very little power over communications.

4. Assigned but informed

Youth (1) “understand the intentions of the project,” (2) “know who made the decisions concerning their involvement and why,” (3) “have a meaningful (rather than

‘decorative’) role,” and (4) “volunteer for the project after the project was made clear to


5. Consulted and informed

This occurs when youth act as “consultants for adults in a manner which has great

integrity. The project is designed and run by adults, but youth understand the process

and their opinions are treated seriously.”

6. Adult-initiated, shared decisions with youth

When adults initiate programming but share the decision-making authority and

management with youth.

7. Youth-initiated and directed

Adults might observe and assist, but youth conceptualize and carryout the program.

8. Youth initiated, shared decisions with adults

When youth share decision making power and management with adults

We were able to work towards taking YCAC up the ladder. We brought in youth to plan and advise on the makeup of the program. Built in leadership positions for the youth and developed a meeting framework that removed adult intervention. I do not think the YCAC is perfect in its transference of adult leadership to youth leadership, but I know that it is better than it was at the beginning.

As Environmental Educators, we face the challenge of building programs that teach young people the value and sanctity of the natural world, but also asks that they become adults who take action to protect it. If they are not participants in the development and facilitation process, then we will never be successful. I encourage you to investigate the Ladder of Youth Participation before you build your next program.

Works cited:

Hart, R. A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship. Florence, Italy: United Nations

Children’s Fund International Child Development Centre.


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