3.6 Themes

It can be tempting to start program development by choosing a theme — this is often the most fun and appealing element — but don’t give in to the temptation of letting the theme drive the entire program. Start with the outcomes and the participants you want as a basis, and figure out at least the basics of your format, activities, and facilitators before running wild with a theme.

The theme of your program can facilitate peer supported and interest driven learning. Look for interesting connections to make between traditional topics. Combining a “fun” theme with an “basic” academic topic can put a new spin on an old program, or attract teens who might not otherwise feel like the program is for them. This is another area where leveraging potential partnerships could result in a unique and compelling program. Whatever theme or themes you choose, make sure they are teen driven and not “librarian driven.”1


The SciDentity project at the University of Maryland used a superhero theme to encourage learners to identify as scientists. These slides from Dr. June Ahn describe the experience.

The basics

Broad academic topics – math, history, etc. – are often good starting places for themes. You can narrow (“women jazz singers”) or widen (“the history of music”) the focus, depending on your goals for the program. If you have a recurring program, you can choose a broad topic and rotate subtopics, or just keep the theme broad and let the teens drive what happens from session to session. A teen services librarian in a western suburban area told us “a couple summers ago, we had Friday afternoon science roundtable discussions, because a kid said that she wished she could just sit down with other kids and talk about science.”

The arts

Support for learning about the arts — music, painting, acting, fashion, etc. — is becoming more important in some areas where arts funding is being cut from schools. In addition, art can be a great way to engage teens in different topics they might not be automatically drawn to, or push them to take the extra step towards “geeking out.”

Augmented Graffitti



“Fun” themes

Fun themes can be drawn from television, film, literature, sports, or other elements of popular culture. You can draw themes from fads or current memes (“learn to dance Gagnam Style” might have been popular at one point) or from franchises that have more long-term appeal (like baseball, or Harry Potter).

Minecraft Camp


Digital Youth Network

[I] listen to the kids that come into the teen scene, try to really track what they’re talking to me about, what they’re interested in… that’s why I have a Doctor Who party, and I’ve done Minecraft.

— Teen Services Librarian at a western suburban library

Current events

Current events can be a great way to not only attract teens’ attention, but also to help them make connections between what they’re learning and real-world applications.

Program Design Activity: Theme

Will your program have a theme?

1: Velasquez, Jennifer, and YALSA, 2016. Teen Programming Development: Making It About the Teens from Start to Finish.