Open Connections

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The Choice Program in Action: Developing Essential Life Skills

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of the OC Magazine.


From the Open Connections Program Descriptions: Choice I, II, and III offer young people the chance to explore eight different content areas of their choice each year over the course of four 8-week segments. New Choices are offered every eight weeks. For each of the four 8-week segments, there are two or three morning and two or three afternoon options from which to choose. Our goal is to provide new input, appropriate amounts of invited instruction, and space for self-motivation to emerge. The 8-week segment format of these programs allows for youth to truly immerse themselves in subject/content-specific areas for an extended period of time.


In addition to the vast and varied content youth are invited to explore in the Choice Programs, there lies the opportunity for them to develop and refine many broad and essential life skills. Below, Choice Facilitators cite examples from recent program offerings.

From Amy:


I had the privilege of exploring the art of nature journaling this fall with youth in Choices I and II: Nature Exploration and Journaling. While all of the youth shared that they enjoyed being outside and interacting with the natural world, for many, the skills and ideas introduced in this Choice offering were new to them. When we think about important life skills that we try to foster and support here at Open Connections, one set that comes to mind are intrapersonal skills. This Choice offering gave youth practice with two specific intrapersonal skills—practicing self-care and having exposure to experiences that develop grit.


Every week, our group headed outside to grow our observational skills. One activity that we came back to week after week was Weekly Sky Scenes. Youth would sit in one of OC’s meadows and spend time looking up at the sky to just notice what was happening. After looking at the sky for a bit, youth would open up their journals and document what they saw with watercolors or colored pencils. These Weekly Sky Scenes offered a way to practice mindfulness. The sky is always above us, but how often do we just stop and look at it, paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. By doing this exercise each week, youth now have something they can come back to in everyday moments of stress, busyness, and chaos. Mindfulness is a fabulous way to practice self-care and offer restoration.


Youth also had the opportunity to explore using watercolors in their nature journals. For some youth, this was a first-time experience and required them to exhibit patience with themselves as they developed a new skill. I overheard several say that they were “not artists”. We talked about how art, like most skills, is something that can be developed with practice. By offering experiences like this in low-stress environments, we can give youth practice developing the grit that is needed as they move through our world, helping them hear the voice inside of themselves telling them not to give up when things get challenging.


From Rick:


Imagine. Create. Problem Solve. Reflect. Each young person found themselves in one stage or another of this creative process throughout the 8-week Choice II and III offerings that introduced Adobe Illustrator as a tool to create physical objects with the machines in our Makerspace. Each youth was encouraged to follow their own curiosities and dive deeply into those areas. The variety of their interests could be seen through the projects that emerged. Custom t-shirts and sweatshirts, stickers, puzzles, wooden boxes, a 3D spaceship, a keychain, a medallion, a custom plaque, static window clings, and living hinges were all created.


The complexity of the software and the unfamiliarity of the machinery provided ample opportunities to develop and hone problem solving/implementation skills—identifying the problem, breaking complex projects down into smaller tasks, and thinking critically and flexibly. Since there were no predetermined projects in this Choice offering, each youth faced different challenges. In some cases, objects cut from wood on the laser cutter did not fit together which then usually required more than one iteration to correct. In another case, stickers were printed without a cut line and therefore were unable to be peeled off the vinyl backing. Determining the appropriate size for a sticker or a graphic for a t-shirt led some youth to stop and assess what scaling would look best to them. As youth created more complex designs in Illustrator, solving problems required new tools and techniques that had to be asked for and understood such as using layers, working with the pen tool, and manipulating anchor points and end points. All of these challenges, and more, made for a meaningful, real work experience that, in the end, led to moments of pride and new found confidence.


From Alexandra: 


During the “Apollo 50” Choice offerings for Choice I and Choice II, I witnessed countless examples of problem solving at work. There were situations I had anticipated, such as math activities where youth worked together to solve space related challenges, but then other situations that came about organically.


One week the youth were challenged to make a model that showed the distance between the Earth and the Moon. I was focused on the distance, and making a scale (i.e. 1cm = 1 mile) and had not considered that the youth would also want to figure out the size difference between the earth and the moon and how that factored into the distance and their model. I observed how each group of young people (the “Moon Group” and the “Earth Group”) pushed their laptops together and began to compare notes. I watched them negotiate and figure out what material to make their models out of, what scale to use, and how to compare calculations. At times, I felt almost superfluous being there, which I find to be a really rewarding experience as a Facilitator.


Another week we created large-scale drawings of the Lunar Module and Command Module from the Apollo 11 mission. The morning group used chalk on the Blacktop while the afternoon group made string models in the Barn, as it was pouring rain outside (more problem solving at work!). The youth looked up the measurements of the Lunar Module and Command Module, drew small sketches to use as blueprints, and then worked together to create the large scale images of these structures. Not only did the youth have to interpret original Apollo 11 blueprints online to get their measurements, but they had to figure out just how many measurements (length and width of the base, length and width of the top structure, the distance the landing gear and satellites stuck out, etc.) they needed in order to create accurate representations. They also needed to communicate and work through the conflicts that arose when they didn’t agree on each others calculations. In the end, when we debriefed on the experience, the youth were all proud and felt represented in what the group had created.


We also played a “mission control” team building game during this Choice session that demonstrated in a small way how important the communication between the “Eagle” and Mission Control in Houston, Texas was during the Apollo 11 mission. A few youth would play the role of mission control. They had a map that they used to guide the youth playing “astronauts” around a predetermined obstacle course. For some groups, this activity came easily; they quickly developed a system of “go 2 steps right, then 3 steps left” and so on, and were able to finish the course fairly easily. For others, it was more challenging. Different group members had different ideas of how they should communicate, so the directions began to get confusing. I offered a couple of suggestions, but ultimately let the groups work through it on their own. These groups were all the more satisfied with their work when they completed the course!


From Chris:


The Woodshop at OC offers youth the opportunity to be creative and work with real tools in a small woodshop setting. We use practical shop math to work out simple solutions to workshop fractions, formulas, and geometric shapes. Problem solving plays a huge part in the woodshop. Working with a natural material like wood can be difficult. Things like wood hardness and grain affect if and how a wood can be used. Young people constantly come up against issues and work to resolve them as best they can.

Recently a youth was building a snow sled in the wood shop. He was having some difficulties bracing the front of his sled. He went through several iterations until he settled on triangles. By building and testing he figured out that triangular bracing was the strongest for his sled. It is nice to see a youth take something that most would consider a “failure” and turn it into a learning opportunity. Youth have the opportunity to explore everything from simple hand tools to table saws and steam benders. This freedom empowers the youth to learn, create, and problem solve!


From Nick:


In Choice I: Pantomime we spent most of our time acting out various everyday actions with great exaggeration and flair! While this is silly and fun, it is a great tool for developing non verbal communication skills. In one exercise called “Mum’s the Word” youth were inspired to think about how physical expression creates different emotions. One young person was asked to express a specific emotion or action and the rest of the young people were asked to guess the emotion. This inspired many young people who were previously observers to show how they might express the specified emotion in a slightly different manner— contributing to the expansion of each young person’s visual communication Rolodex.


The Choice III: Game Strategy offering found us exploring a variety of different types of tabletop games. As most of these games were designed for a solo victor, the focus was on creative thinking and problem solving for achieving that end. The young people explored their own strategies during card games, dice games, and board games before brainstorming as a group some of the most effective strategies. This session culminated in our last week with the game Settlers of Catan, a strategy game with an element of chance. The landscape of the game changes as players contribute to the board in order to score points, requiring the participants to constantly think flexibly. The young people were more than willing to get creative in their strategies for this game, and came up with some unique techniques for victory.


From Kelly: 


Reflecting on the Choice II/III: Creating Your Unique Style program experience, I can share that youth had opportunities to engage and develop intrapersonal, effective communication and implementation skills —all skill development that can be easily overlooked beneath the colorful, flashy, trendsetting, fashion design outcomes.

Culling through magazines, youth tuned in to their self-awareness while collecting pleasing bits of color, texture, pattern, line, and form. These were then collaged into a mood board that formed the foundation of their inspiration for their unique designs. As effortless as it may appear, discerning the difference between something that catches your eye and something that speaks to you requires focused awareness and self-direction; it is the difference between discovering and creating your own unique style, and accepting or following another’s lead.


Puzzling through proportion in drawing fashion croquis required the grit of persistence, as this was a new approach to figurative drawing. On the other hand, there is nothing new about the iterative process in design and innovation. Although the multiple phases of the process of proportioned drawings, rendering poses, and designing looks inspired by mood boards could be tiresome in today’s culture of instant gratification, these young designers were buoyed by the directions their investment was taking. Tending and tweaking, pairing and modifying, reimagining and defining engages flexible, critical, and creative thinking.

Regardless of prior exposure to machine sewing, navigating the nuances of OC’s collection of sewing machines spanning several decades takes patience—and a village. Youth applied their own logic, and relied on insight and input from peers and Facilitators as needed, to find their way from challenges to success with bobbin winding, threading, and stitching.

I find it is often the challenges faced, navigated, and overcome along the way that give the weight and sparkle to the sense of accomplishment in the end.



As it so often goes with process and product, there is much, MUCH more than meets the eye. The Choice Programs, as with all programs at Open Connections, provide young people with the opportunities to develop essential skills that will be useful throughout their lives.