Lessons from Running Youth Programs Virtually

Story author
Gretchen Baker-Smith

What follows are some of the nuggets that the collective Youth Ministries of NEYM have discovered and shared while offering virtual programming for the past 3 months. The reflections below build upon those captured by Maggie Nelson here. It is far from complete—we are learning how to do this one hour of program at a time. Our primary platform has been Zoom, and specific features or suggestions below refer to it.

Program Schedules

Elementary-school children max out at 1 hour. With a break, many middle schoolers can go 90 minutes. Three 1-hour sessions in one day is as much as most children can manage, although it should be noted that a significant number really do not do well with more than one or two sessions per day. Any session longer than an hour needs to have a break in it. Be prepared for those whose stamina for being in program on a screen abruptly ends at the scheduled ending time and who really cannot tolerate or fake it a moment longer—and end on time!

Attention Spans

Attention spans are significantly less than in person. Cut sessions for large group circles to, at most, half the usual time, if not a third. Many people—of all ages—get restless on Zoom fairly quickly. Keeping children engaged over any amount of time requires changing activities and using different configurations of people. Having things for children to do with their hands is helpful.

Keeping a Pulse on the Group’s Engagement and Emotions

Gauging the group’s attention is much harder because you cannot read body language or make eye contact. Breakout groups compensate for this somewhat, as does using the Chat function for each child in a large group to make one-word or short-phrase contributions. Try not to go more than 15 minutes without having some way to check in.

Assign specific participants or screens (if the group is so large the gallery view goes multiple screens) to other leaders or staff to monitor every few minutes (literally).

Consider using a group text via cellphones for staff communications during program time. Admittedly, this can be distracting and unreliable if someone is not watching their phone, but it works better than individually chatting and far better than telepathy!

Agreeing on sign language/body movements to convey emotions is helpful; e.g., hugging oneself when wanting to hug someone else, holding hands out to the edges of our images for a circle. Create a way to signal when intense emotions are being felt and need to be acknowledged. Lisa Graustein’s suggested response worked well at a recent middle-school retreat; simply teaching it to the whole group helped to acknowledge how much everyone is going through. (Here is the link)

Feeling comfortable enough to share honestly on screen takes practice for most of us. Start out with activities that are low risk and high fun but require participants to interact with each other. Many well-known ice breakers can be done in breakout groups, such as Two Truths and a Lie, Tiny Teach, (teach something in 3 minutes), and short, focused games of Twenty Questions. Feeling safe and relaxed for genuine sharing generally takes longer than in person. Spend a lot of time building those feelings of comfort and safety.


We are all learning best practices, especially using the mute/unmute function. Youth need help with this, and it is okay for the leader to “mute all” sometimes if it is necessary. But it is much more sustainable to tolerate the noises while everyone learns what is needed from each other.

Singing and Speaking in Unison

Singing or speaking in unison is a very frustrating experience due to the variations in audio delay for each person. What has worked best has been to have all but the song-leader muted. (It is preferable to have different people lead individual songs.) Teaching sign language for songs, especially choruses, provides a way for the group to experience a little of that feeling of singing together.

Program Planning

It is much harder to improvise, especially with groups of more than 12. It is challenging to try to read the group while also creating program at the same time. Having a plan (down to 5-minute intervals) really makes a difference, even if you end up abandoning the plan partway through. It takes extraordinarily little delay or confusion in the session for individuals’ attention to wander.

Allow for imperfection/experimentation, though! If something is a bust, model saying, “Wow, that didn’t work did it?!” and laughing. You will also find new things that work shockingly better than you imagined.

Start from goals and work backwards: What do you want to convey, teach, share? Think outside the box. Try doing things off-screen for 10 to 30 minutes including journaling, doodling, or doing a walking meditation and then returning to small groups for reflection. Walk and Talks – talking on a cell phone to one other person who is attending the retreat while going for a walk – have been a real success with our teens. Sending participants off to make hot chocolate or tea and then return to hear a bedtime bible story quickly became “traditions” this spring. Knowing their peers are off screen doing the same things helps them feel connected. The vast majority really will return, most having at least given the prompt/activity a try, because it’s a group activity.

Within every hour of program time, try to incorporate at least two breakout groups, one game or activity, and a short stretch break.


For the program leader(s), it’s really helpful to have someone help with the tech aspects—assigning Breakout Rooms, monitoring Chat and Screen-Sharing, responding to parent texts during program time, and compensating for poor Wi-Fi and cell coverage, old cell phones and laptops, and non-techie parents. However, the tech person also needs to meet all child-safety policies regarding background checks, be known by parents and participants, and have a solid working relationship with the program leader.

For everyone: Try for a group commitment to not monitor cellphones or other social platforms, etc., while in program together. It is very tempting to do multiple things such as tipping the camera away from you or turning your video off, using your phone off-camera, checking Facebook, etc., in virtual meetings.

Gross Motor Movement on Zoom

Our experience is that those who need more time to move are more easily frustrated/bored with many organized large-group movement activities on Zoom. They want more space to move freely and they want to be doing it in person. Those with experience leading gross- motor activities and games in small spaces are a youth coordinator’s dream right now for Zoom programming. We have had success playing “Go Find Something….”, acting out Paper-bag Skits and Charades, and offering short yoga stretches and poses. We find that ending the structured program and encouraging children to “go play” is more satisfying/less frustrating for most, especially younger children, than trying to do much organized whole-body activities.


This function provides a way for individuals to be in touch with each other on a screen. It is the equivalent of whispering to your neighbor, making a funny face at your friend across the room, giving someone a wave or hug, or making a side comment while the teacher is talking. It can also be incredibly distracting. As with muting everyone, disallowing chat can feel extreme to some participants. Sometimes it may be necessary to do, but it is important to know it is a big deal.

Learn the Technology

Keep up to date on best practices for safety, and make sure you can respond quickly should someone “Zoom bomb” or share something inappropriate. Details such as naming a co-host to help mute and unmute or screen-share, and agreeing that removing someone from a meeting literally means that—they cannot come back to that session—are really helpful. Knowing the latter prevents you from mistakenly removing someone who just needs to leave for 15 minutes and having to create a whole new meeting link to get them—and everyone else—back in. (Trust us, we know!)

Virtual experiences are much more frustrating for those with poor or uneven internet connections. Participants can try moving closer to the Wi-Fi router or modem. Using a cellphone for audio while using the video—on mute—can also work.

Make sure every person leading any portion of a program has done a sound-check so that their mic works loudly and clearly. Agree on a way to quickly alert someone who is speaking while muted or just too far away from their mic.

Zoom’s breakout groups are a great resource. Zoom’s tutorials are extremely helpful. Learn how to manually create breakout groups, broadcast messages to the group, go between them, and leave them. Make sure that participants also know how to join and leave breakout groups and how to ask for help from the host.

Other features that can be useful include

  • the audio function for optimally sharing through a device
  • the video function for viewing something through screenshare
  • spotlight (need at least 3 participants on the call) shows only the speaker—useful for important messages, viewing specific steps in a craft project, or just helping general focusing
  • Chat and Screen-Sharing, allowed or disallowed by the host
  • the ability to save the Chat stream
  • the ability to record all or partial sessions (but be clear that you are doing so and get permission from everyone ahead of time)
  • the option to hide one’s own video view if seeing oneself is distracting or stressful

Spend time at the beginning of every session, or every time you use a new tech function, to teach participants how it works. Do not assume they all know it. Miss Manners has not written the volume for virtual gatherings, so be proactive in teaching good practices to youth in your care.

Finally, young people and their families are incredibly grateful for opportunities to feel connected and loved with their spiritual communities. What you are doing—however imperfectly—with love and intention matters.