Mobile Presence – Rapid Response. Research Report on Mobile Youth Work

Aino Tormulainen & Eila Kauppinen


The scope and content of youth work has developed significantly over the years, and the coronavirus pandemic in particular has increased the need for youth work that takes place outside of youth facilities. In addition, regional development is leading to the numbers of children and young people decreasing in many areas while simultaneously increasing strongly in growth centres. This trend calls for the review and development of service provision and exploration of new ideas and approaches. Some of the possible solutions are online youth work, outreach youth work, and mobile youth work.

This research project formed a definition of mobile youth work and analysed the added value it brings to regional youth work, the skills it requires, and how it functions as part of multi-professional cooperation. In addition, the project investigated young people’s attitudes towards mobile youth work.

The research data consists of interview data collected specifically for this study as well as diverse ethnographic data based on participatory observation. The latter includes field observations made while participating in vehicle-based mobile youth work and engaging with young people as well as various remote network meetings and events related to the work. Experiences of mobile youth work have been collected through interviews and Wauto activities from 16 different municipalities, and participating in the study have been youth workers involved in the mobile youth work network from a number of localities. Data has also been acquired from the reporting data for Children of the Station’s Wauto activities. Since 2015, Children of the Station has made it possible to experiment with mobile youth work in different localities through its Walkers camper vans (Wauto activities), which provide municipalities with a vehicle for mobile youth work, a locally applicable operating model and training for local workers and organisations. The Wauto camper vans were indeed used in this study to carry out ethnographic observations in the various localities, and the study examines Wauto activities as an example of mobile youth work. As an external study, independent of the organisation implementing the Wauto concept, this research analysed the establishment and role of Wauto activities within the framework of municipal youth work, the experiences of different actors during Wauto periods, and the strengths and weaknesses of Wauto operations.

This study examined the needs, future prospects and opportunities for mobile youth work through listening to the experiences of the different actors involved in the work. The results indicate that, in keeping with the youth work ethos, mobile youth work succeeds in creating spaces for interaction and building bridges – the camper vans, mobile activities, and time spent where the young people are all have their own important role to play in this form of work. Mobile youth work strengthens young people’s relationships with other young people, with trustworthy adults, with the service system, and with their own area and immediate surroundings.

It is important that the objectives of mobile youth work take account of local operating conditions and environments, and that the more specific goals of the work are set at the regional or local level. Because of the importance of identifying and responding to the local needs, every local expression of mobile youth work is unique. Nevertheless, the study’s conceptual work succeeded in defining, in cooperation with actors from the field, the essential characteristics of this form of work. This definition identified the following characteristics as essential to and at least partially distinctive of mobile youth work: 1) a wider operating area than work carried out on foot, by bicycle or by public transport, 2) a meeting place provided by the car in a leisure environment chosen by the young people, in public or semi-public spaces, 3) some kind of opportunity for young people to influence the activities and experience participation, such as by requesting a visit from mobile youth workers 4) the possibility to react quickly and flexibly to the wishes and needs of young people based on the specific case, situation and operating environment.

Mobile youth work is able to offer young people equal access to services in different areas and can also engage with young people in peripheral areas and other young people who may not otherwise have contact with youth work services. Mobile youth work is guided by a preventive approach. It enables workers to be present in young people’s leisure environments and to thus have a calming effect in some areas. At the same time, it also makes it possible to provide service guidance to young people who need it. In addition, professionals gain a snapshot of the youth-culture landscape in their area when they move around in the young people’s own environments, and the use of a vehicle increases the visibility and awareness of youth work among both young people and adults. Phenomenological data gathered when moving around in youth work vehicles may also be an opportunity to intensify networking and cooperation as well as concrete participation in mobile youth work across professional and sectoral boundaries. Indeed, the strengthening of cooperation networks and exploration of their potential is one area of mobile youth work that requires further development. Mobile youth work is a flexible and adaptable way of doing youth work that responds to local needs and phenomena. Its introduction and development in different municipalities requires an assessment of the need for mobile youth work as part of municipal youth work as a whole – and often also requires prioritisation. Mobile youth work is not needed in all municipalities. The work requires human resources and other resources, a vehicle, support from the work community, an identified need, and a clear place within the area’s youth service system. Wauto activities enable municipalities to experiment with mobile youth work by loaning them a vehicle for the work. The operating model of the Walkers brand and the support of the background organisation are perceived as partially facilitating municipal experimentation. However, the Wauto model also brings certain obligations for participants, such as recruiting and coordinating Walkers volunteers, and this is felt to be cumbersome.

The study data indicates that the young people reached through mobile youth work are, at least in part, those who do not otherwise participate in youth work or who have few regular hobbies. The young people encountered within the framework of mobile youth work may have a special relationship with the activity precisely because of the specific features that this model allows, such as being able to request visits, the significant mobility of the activities, the vehicle context, and the creation of a safe space. Young people’s experiences range from quick, short encounters and a chance to warm up in an indoor space right through to multi-year, process-oriented relationships of trust that can strengthen a young person’s relationship with adults, other young people, services and their environment. Mobile youth work is appealing to young people because it is flexible and does not require any sort of commitment.

Keywords: youth work, municipal youth work, mobile youth work, Aseman Lapset ry, Children of the Station, Walkers activities, youth worker competence requirements, young people, young people’s free time, youth work operating environments