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Youth work in Estonia has a history of more than 100 years as the roots of youth work go back to the 19th century with the creation of forerunners of youth work. The first act regarding youth work was accepted in 1936 (Youth Organization Act), which included the age group of young people (all students and other citizens under the age of 20), tasks of the Ministry of Education regarding youth, the definition of youth organizations, and funding youth work. During the first Estonian Republic, 1918-1940, extra structures were created in order to socialize young people – e.g. pupil’s leisure time activities organized by schools, associations created by young people, etc.
After the first independent republic, Estonia was under the occupation of different countries. During World War II, Estonia was under the occupation of Germany, young people were used in helping with agricultural work. During the occupation of the Soviet Union, only one youth organization called Comsomol was allowed and all other organizations were demolished. All the activities targeted to youth were ideological and connected with raising a good Soviet person with the correct ideology. From the positive side, during that time there was a wide range of activities, which was not the case before the Soviet Union – for example, there were hobby activities, hobby schools, sports, summer camps, working camps, etc. In addition, the first steps were made in order to create youth policy and national programs.
In 1990, in the Ministry of Education, a department called youth service was created, which aim was to create the basis of youth policy and national programs that would ensure young people with more possibilities to develop. They also started the process of figuring out the structures and system of youth work, and the creation of laws, documents and programs needed for implementing the policy.
Estonia restored its independence in 1991 and after that, lots of youth organizations were created or re-created. The national system was re-organized and a new foundation for youth work was set. In 1991, the Estonian Students Association was created, being one of the oldest youth organizations in the history of second independent Estonia. In 1992, the Child Protection Act was accepted (put in force in 1993), which was the first step in child protection. In 1993, Local Government Organization Act was accepted, which put the responsibility of the organization of hobby schools and hobby activities to the local municipalities. In 1999, when the first Youth Work Act was accepted, the local municipalities got the responsibility to organize whole youth work in their area. The same year, the first Youth Work Forum was held, which aimed in discussing youth work organization with young people, youth organizations and people working with youth, and the Estonian Youth Work Centre (EYWC) was founded. EYWC was a legal successor of numerous forerunners, e.g. the ESSR Children’s Excursion and Tourism Center (1965-1980), ESSR House of Young Tourists (1980-1990), Estonian Youth Tourism House (1990-1994), and Estonian Youth Initiative Center (1994-1999). The Youth Policy Council was established in 1999 and its aim was to consult the minister of education in issues concerning youth work. Since 01.08.2020, Estonian Youth Work Centre amongst with other organizations under the Ministry of Education and Research, were reorganized into one institution called the Education and Youth Board.
In Estonia, there is a set definition for youth work in the Youth Work Act, which defines youth work as following:
“Youth work is the creation of conditions to promote the diverse development of young persons, which enable them to be active outside their families, formal education acquired within the adult education system, and work on the basis of their free will.”
This means that youth work is done outside the family, work and formal education, is based on free will and promotes the development of a young person.