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Age as a Factor in Programming

by on August 22, 2019

My background is in anthropology with a focus in archaeology, so when I needed to create a summer teen program, I decided to have a cake dig. This program takes a cake with objects baked into it or sections of the cake cut out and hides objects in it; in order to create a mock archaeology dig site. These objects can be representative as in licorice for insects or actual such
as sunflower seeds for sunflower seeds. Do not bake anything that will fall apart or melt – pro- tip. As participants dig through the cake they find the objects, clean them, measure them, weigh them, and catalog them. At the end, they talk about what they found and where and hypothesize
what circumstances would have created this site. Archaeology requires meticulous combing through soil, keeping descriptive notes, and staying in one position for a long time.

I had many parents and caregivers call in and ask what the recommended age for the program was. I find this question difficult to answer because children develop at their own rate. Compatibility is not a question of age, but of interest and focus. Instead, I explained to parents/caregivers the nature of the tasks, the need to be methodical, and the ability to think both
abstractly and concretely. The day of the program, I was shocked to see toddlers signed up to participate. Since there was no hard age limit, parents and caregivers felt comfortable bringing children of all ages. The majority of participants’ ages ran from 10-13, which felt like a good match. Before starting, I separated parents and small children from the program and had them play with building blocks. This left me with 20 participants with the youngest being eight and the oldest 15. I was surprised to discover that they weren’t ready for this kind of program and pretty much just wanted to stick
their hands into cake and eat it. Apparently being filled with seeds and the germs from 19 other people did not deter the consumption of sugar. I definitely did not have the right age for my program.

I look at this experience as a reminder of two different and equally important programming problems; setting hard age limits on programs and finding the right level of difficulty for the desired age range. This program would have done best with adults and some teens who were already interested in learning more about archaeology. Instead, my open-ended-age allowed toddlers to excitable tweens to come in wanting to eat cake, making the program less attractive to older teens and overlooked by adults who would assume they could/should not participate in a teen program.

As much as I did not want age to keep participants away, setting a firm age range is necessary for a program. Historically, I had problems getting teens into my teen programs, so turning anyone away felt painful, but leaving things open-ended put me in a bind. Toddlers are not able to do this program the way that it was setup and it would have saved a lot of headache to just clearly state that. If there is a lot of interest outside of that range, it is time to reconsider who this program would appeal to. A lot of tweens and some teens were very interested in this program, or at least
the cake in this program, but they were outnumbered by preschool and kindergarten-aged children, who were possibly more interested in the cake in this program. Every solid program idea can be geared toward different ages and abilities.

If I consider this from a who-is-interested-in this-program perspective, it becomes clear that I needed to make a larger cake with large and simple non-edible objects that toddlers can just crumble away and discover. Like eggs hidden in Easter grass only with cake. If I consider this from a who-I -wish-to-reach with my program perspective, it becomes clear that I need to market to young adults who are either decided on collegiate education or who are considering collegiate education or deciding on a major. If I consider this from a how-to-get-tweens-to-a-library-program perspective, it becomes clear that I just need a lot of cake.