Tool 13: Addressing Learner Needs and Interests

The initial research stage of curriculum development requires a thorough exploration of who the audience or learners are for the materials to be developed. It’s not enough to simply say "this resource will be for kids," which is a mistake too often made. For example, those new to curriculum development to support youth programming may assume that their materials need to be "for kids." An intensive exploration of the goals, objectives and settings in which the materials will be used may show that the audience or learners are actually the adult and youth volunteers who work with kids aged 5 to 8 in nonformal educational settings. In this example, two audiences of learners need to be considered as materials are developed: the volunteers who will use the materials and the 5- to 8-year-olds who will be ultimately involved in learning experiences as a result of the materials.

Learners of all ages have widely diverse beliefs, personalities, learning styles, developmental needs and cultural characteristics, and they have varied access to resources such as supplies, equipment and learning materials. Through research, assessment and questioning, curriculum developers can strive for clarity in their answers to the question "who is our audience for these materials?" This tool will help you explore the areas of developmental stages, learning styles and multiple intelligences, other areas of audience diversity, and ways in which adults and youth can partner in the learning process.

Learning Experiences for Different Developmental Stages

Understanding the characteristics and tasks of learners at various stages of development will help you provide opportunities and experiences that are most appropriate for differing age groups. Here’s a brief outline of the general physical, social, emotional and intellectual characteristics of developmental stages and their implications for curriculum development:

  • Ages 5 to 8: Youth in this age group are trying to master large and small physical skills and tend to enjoy opportunities to move around. They like to make things with their hands but are often more concerned about the process of doing things than on the final product. Their fine motor skills are still developing, so kids this age may have a hard time perfecting skills such as cutting, sewing, hammering and gluing. Kids aged 5 to 8 tend to be concrete thinkers based in reality and accuracy and may be confused by abstract concepts. They are beginning to understand the notion of cause and effect. They are learning how to be friends and beginning to place more emphasis on other people. Youth this age are beginning to be able to take another’s perspective and feel empathy, but they’re still largely focused on themselves. The influence of family and family relationships are very important.

    Implications for curriculum development: Focus on one idea at a time and keep concepts clear, concrete and simple. Create experiences and activities that are hands-on, active and fun. Include opportunities for the group to get up and move around with breaks for rest and quiet time as well. Use humor and silliness generously! Nurture their developing sense of empathy by including short discussions and activities that help them learn about people and how their actions affect others. Include connections, communications and opportunities for family involvement in the learning experiences. The approval of other adults and peers is important to them, as well. Focus on cooperation, nurture their love of learning and limit exposure to competition and awards. Use a variety of methods and strategies to draw on the multiple intelligences of these learners. (More information on multiple intelligences can be found later in this section.)
  • Ages 9 to 11: Youth in this age group show steady increases in muscle development, strength and coordination. There is wide variation in physical maturity, with girls generally ahead of boys. Nine to eleven-year-olds like to do things and move around, and may get bored and antsy if forced to sit and listen for too long. Youth this age may prefer to be with members of the same sex and generally prefer to learn in cooperative groups. They admire and emulate older youth. Kids this age tend to show increasing skills in reasoning and emerging abilities to think abstractly. They tend to enjoy trying new things, learning new skills, collecting things and exploring various areas of interest. Family relationships are still very important. They may begin to question parental authority and look to other caring adults for guidance and as role models.

    Implications for curriculum development: Provide activities that are hands-on and minds-on. Strike a balance of learning opportunities that engage the head (thinking), heart (emotional) and hands (skill-building). Remember that the great variation in maturity will make some kids shine and others fail at sports and activities that require physical abilities. Create opportunities for youth to learn cooperatively in groups. Environments that encourage appreciation, respect and tolerance for others tap their growing sense of empathy and humanity. Provide meaningful, purposeful activities and build in opportunities for discussion facilitated by caring, knowledgeable adults or older teens. Materials that help adult and teen volunteers effectively facilitate group learning are highly encouraged. Keep in mind that kids this age are still fairly concrete in their thinking and would generally prefer to make or do things rather than just talk about them. Use a variety of methods and strategies to draw on the multiple intelligences of these learners.
  • Ages 12 to 14: Youth in this age group experience rapid growth, with girls maturing physically faster than boys. Body image issues become extremely important to many in this age range. Awkwardness and clumsiness may be a result of rapidly growing bodies. Significant changes in social, thinking and emotional growth are taking place as well. Youth this age can be intensely focused on things that interest them. Issues of justice and equality often become very important. Twelve to fourteen-year-olds are more able to work independently on projects but still enjoy working cooperatively in groups. They want to feel like they have input into decisions that affect their learning and their lives. Family relationships are still important and they are also influenced by other caring, involved, respected adults. Peer influences - both positive and negative - are very important to this age group.

    Implications for curriculum development: Provide meaningful, purposeful opportunities for learning to occur within an experiential learning process of doing, sharing, reflecting and applying. Continue to provide engaging hands-on learning activities and include ample time for reflection and discussion so that activities don’t fall flat and seem stupid. Kids this age typically want to know the "so what" of everything, so help them see how what they’re learning applies to their present and future lives. Use a variety of methods and strategies to draw on the multiple intelligences of these learners. Give many opportunities for young people to make choices and feel in charge of their own learning.
  • Ages 15 to 18: Youth this age have generally "grown into their bodies" and most have a more realistic view of their physical strengths and limitations. Body image issues may still be very significant for some in a culture that over-emphasizes looks and appearance. Youth this age have a need to feel a growing sense of independence and want to be put in more adult leadership roles. They want to be listened to and treated with respect. Adults who serve more as guides and facilitators will be more accepted by teens this age than those who preach, teach and tell. Teens want a say in decisions that affect them. Young people 15 to 18 years old are typically quite focused on knowledge and skill development that will prepare them for college and future careers. Their abstract thinking skills are improving and they are better able to imagine the impact of present behavior and decisions on their future lives. They enjoy considering multiple perspectives, reflection, discussion and sharing what they’ve learned. Many older teens find working with younger children enjoyable and rewarding. Teens aged 15 to 18 will quickly lose patience with activities that seem to have no purpose or meaning.

    Implications for curriculum development: Provide opportunities for teens to give input into their own learning and make choices about what and how they’ll learn. Youth this age still prefer to do rather than to be lectured at, so build opportunities around the experiential learning process of doing, reflecting, sharing and applying so that activities are engaging, purposeful and meaningful. Create opportunities for all participants to be in leadership roles within smaller and larger groups. Use a variety of methods and strategies to draw on the multiple intelligences of these learners. Help adults who work with teens focus on and strengthen their roles as guides and facilitators. Encourage and create opportunities for teens to become teachers and guides of younger children around the content of your curriculum. Provide opportunities for teens to use their voice, talents and skills as valuable resources in their communities.
  • Ages 19 and up: It’s important to consider adult development and learning issues when creating materials that need to hold the attention of adults and help them learn content and process. Curriculum developers and trainers of adult learners need to consider that adults are usually interested in satisfying immediate needs, prefer to choose what they learn, and learn best in comfortable, emotionally, socially and physically safe environments. Research shows that adults learn best from enthusiastic presenters, have a wide range of past experiences that are important to them and usually have many other responsibilities and things on their mind as they try to stay engaged in learning. Those who regularly work with young people may notice that kids have essentially the same learning needs as those presented above as adult learning needs. (For more resources on adult learning visit:

    Implications for curriculum development: Materials developed for nonformal learning environments can meet the needs of adult learners by presenting multiple options for learning and applying the material to teaching situations with young people. Adult learners like to feel in control of their learning process, so avoid giving only one prescribed approach to learning and teaching. Give adult learners choices, present material in user-friendly, easy-to-understand and useful ways, keep it short and simple, and provide copy-ready handouts, skill sheets and other materials they can easily use with kids. Adults are busy people. Give them just what they need in terms of information and then suggest ways they can learn more about the topic if they’re interested through videos, books, Web sites and other resources.

Learning Experiences for Different Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

Most educators agree that people learn in different ways and that they have strengths and preferences within a wide range of diverse learning styles. (For information about several learning theories visit: Learning style theories are usually built around three basic senses: visual (see it), auditory (hear it), and kinesthetic (do it). Some learning style models focus on four key learning preferences: concrete, reflective, abstract and active. One’s personality can also affect learning preference with introverts and extroverts often showing different learning style preferences. Personality surveys such as the Myers-Briggs Inventory and True Colors can help young people and adults begin to see the rich diversity of styles and preferences that influence the ways people learn, work, live and grow.

In 1983, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner revealed his theory of multiple intelligences in his groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind. Gardner urges parents and educators to replace the narrow view of intelligence traditionally used (based on IQ tests that largely measure verbal and logical abilities) with a recognition of at least seven different intelligences through which children and adults learn, grow and develop. Gardner categorizes the intelligences as verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Later in his work, Gardner posits that there’s an eighth intelligence, which he calls "naturalistic," or an ability to know and learn complex and intimate detail about the world’s plants, animals and natural forces. Gardner’s theory of intelligences is grounded in research in behavioral and brain sciences. People generally have strong abilities and tendencies in a couple of areas, but most everyone has great human capacities in all areas of intelligence - if those abilities are understood and nurtured.

Multiple intelligences theory is related to learning styles with the implication that those who create learning environments, curriculum and opportunities should do so using a wide variety of presentation and learning strategies that recognize and respect the diversity of intelligences and learning pathways of children and adults. When content is enriched with methods and approaches that reflect multiple intelligences, people are not only more likely to learn the information - they will also be given opportunities to develop and strengthen multiple areas of intelligence. Here are brief descriptions of each of Gardner’s seven intelligences as they relate to teaching and learning. As you read this, think about ways your curriculum materials can involve educational activities that address all these intelligences:

  • Logical-Mathematical: This intelligence refers to the capacity to explore and understand patterns, correlations and relationships. Those with strong logical-mathematical abilities tend to like and be good at math, problem-solving, reasoning and questioning. Learners with high logical-mathematical intelligence tend to enjoy categorizing, classifying, working with abstract patterns and relationships, asking questions, working with numbers and doing experiments.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: Learners with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence like to move around and use their bodies for learning and expressing ideas. They’re often involved with and good at athletics, dance and making things with their hands. They learn best when given opportunities to touch, move and use physical movement to help process information. For example, a human graph (asking people to line up to form a bar graph) can help those with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence better understand complex statistical information.
  • Visual-Spatial: Those high in visual-spatial intelligence are good at imagining, sensing and visualizing and have a strong sense of space that surrounds them. They tend to be good at puzzles, drawing, taking and learning through pictures, videos and films. They like to work with color, images and artwork. They learn best when given opportunities to express their imagination and what they see through their "mind’s eye" through drawing, building, photographing, videotaping, filming, reading and drawing maps, charts and mazes.
  • Musical: Musical intelligence refers to the ability to use rhythm, tunes, songs, instruments and sounds. Those with high musical intelligence usually keep perfect time and have an intuitive sense of the "rhythm of life." They learn best when given opportunities to hear, create and integrate songs, melodies, rhythms and appealing sounds in their learning environment. Adolescents tend to be very music-focused during the teens years and educators would do well to build on this interest by integrating it into many learning environments and activities.
  • Interpersonal: Learners high in interpersonal intelligence like to be around other people, talk over ideas and work in groups. They tend to have lots of friends, enjoy socializing, and are joiners of clubs and groups. They like to conduct interviews and share what they’ve learned with others. Those with leadership abilities tend to be high in interpersonal intelligence because they’re good at connecting with, relating to and influencing other people. Cooperative learning, working in groups and lots of opportunities for talking, sharing and listening are good learning strategies for this area of intelligence.
  • Intrapersonal: Those high in intrapersonal intelligence would probably rather be alone than with others. They like to pursue self-defined interests and goals and they enjoy opportunities to deepen their understanding of themselves. Learners benefit from time for reflection, focusing inward, exploring feelings and following their dreams. They value their own uniqueness and like to be seen as "an original." Intrapersonal learners like projects that are self-driven and self-paced.

For additional ideas and resources about multiple intelligences visit:

Building Sensitivity to Audience Diversity

One of the primary strengths of nonformal learning environments is the freedom teachers, facilitators and learners have to create opportunities where everyone involved can build on their strengths, succeed and feel good about their contributions. The more we are willing to see and celebrate the rich diversity and qualities of humanity, the more able we are to notice and help nurture the strengths and abilities in all those with whom we work. Unlike many formal education (school) settings, uniformity can give way to diversity of needs, styles and goals of all learners with whom we work in nonformal learning settings such as clubs, afterschool programs, camps and other groups.
Curriculum developers will be sensitive to audience and learner diversity when you keep in mind the following:

  • Be mindful of the personal and material resources that volunteers, teachers, facilitators and learners have access to. Build in flexibility and ideas for ways volunteers can adapt activities when equipment, animals or specialized materials are not available.
  • Keep in mind that words and pictures are very powerful. When you create materials, be aware that the language and images that accompany materials speak volumes about the value placed on various cultural, ethnic, racial and other groups. Materials that are biased and exclusionary will communicate to some groups that they are not welcomed or valued. Choose language and images that powerfully illustrate that diversity is recognized, understood and celebrated - and that people are valued as teachers and learners regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, social class, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, physical abilities and other differences.
  • Create activities, opportunities and experiences within the content of the curriculum for young people and adults to learn about and share their cultural backgrounds and differences with others. Encourage an environment of safety and respect so that people have opportunities to build and strengthen their positive self-identity.
  • Be sensitive to the physical differences and abilities of learners. If an activity requires a high level of movement, for example, suggest ways the volunteer or educator could adapt the activity for all people in the group if there’s a participant with physical differences. A little creativity and cooperation goes a long way when adapting learning activities so that all people - regardless of physical abilities - can have a good experience.
  • When working with young people, encourage volunteers and educators to create caring, moral learning communities by integrating universal ethical values into everything they do with young people. The principles of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness and citizenship help to build unity among people as well as encourage acceptance, tolerance and understanding of the differences that exist among individuals and groups. For more information on Michigan 4-H efforts around issues of character, refer to 4-H Character Education programs.

Helping Adults and Youth Work as Partners in Learning

Respect is a key concept when developing curricula and experiences that are effective with both youth and adults. Materials that don’t reflect a deep sensitivity and understanding of the needs, backgrounds, experience and interests of potential users may appear condescending and even offensive. Young people want to be actively involved in decisions and experiences that affect them. Too often adults treat youth as objects or as recipients of teaching, which can create a hard-to-bridge chasm between the two groups. Adults who treat young people as resources and active participants in their own learning are often astounded at the potential for leadership, thinking, planning and goal-setting that emerges.

Curriculum developers need to remember that a critical aspect of experiential learning is to start with the needs and interests of the learners. Develop materials that encourage and guide adults in creating respectful learning environments that seek out the authentic voice and input of young people. This important notion applies to the ways we enter relationships with adults as well. Give learners choices about what and how they’ll learn, recognize that everyone brings with them a rich background of experiences, create learning environments that are physically and emotionally safe, and build in a variety of methods and strategies that spark and strengthen people’s multiple intelligences. Embrace the idea that young people play a large and significant role in shaping their own development. Young people’s imaginations, ideas and input are needed and valued.

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Last Updated: July 29, 2009; Last Reviewed: April, 2009
© Copyright 2008 Michigan State University.