CYC-Online 96 JANUARY 2007
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Another look at activities

Jack Phelan

Abstract: This article describes a model for activity programming that views play as a major approach to use for families and youth to create competence and hope. The communication experienced through activity can be radically different and more helpful than verbal strategies. The role of the child and youth care worker is redefined as an experience arranger, who supports change through physical activity rather than cognitive processing.

In the February 1999 edition of the South African Child and Youth Care journal, which had the theme of “Engaging,” one article described “connecting kids with their world ... to the universal things they will find in life which are available to us all – fun, games, sea, sport, mountains, walks ... and ideas and knowledge. Is it possibly a sign of our own tendency to expect the worst that we offer all these cliche skills to troubled children – conflict resolution, problem solving, anger management, self-defense ...? I wonder how necessary these things would be if we offered them experience in sailing, vegetable growing, soccer, playing bongo drums or fixing bikes.” (Scott, 1999, p. 3). This article struck a chord in me because it is so simple and profound. I have spent many years ignoring a deep truth about our work: we are most successful with people when we do things with them. When we run problem-solving groups we are doing things to them. Work with youth and families is best done in an activity, not in a conversation.

I recently visited a college in Holland that teaches students to be social pedagogues, a European version of child and youth care work. This school has over 900 students preparing for careers in human service across the life span, from early childhood to old age, including adult correctional settings and mental hospitals. Many of the students plan to work with youth and families in social service settings. This school bases its approach on the Danish model of social pedagogy, which stresses using activities and programs as the main tool in working with people. Some of the ideas in this paper are a direct result of my visit and the conversations I had with the staff there.

My definition of child and youth care work encompasses family support work, school-based, community work, residential settings, and treatment foster care support, as well as mental health and juvenile justice programs. The usefulness of activity-based approaches is not restricted to “recreation time” or simply playing games, although this form of activity can be very helpful, and they apply to family work with parents as well as with youth and children. These ideas are also applicable across the age span, as the college in Holland is demonstrating.

The model
The activity model, in its basic form, posits that people are stuck with negative labels and social restrictions that are mostly self-imposed. These labels are generally based on past experience and inhibit people’s ability to change in the present because they already have predicted a pessimistic future for themselves. This negative story about self creates a filter or lens through which all of the external world is seen and understood. The task of a change agent is to create a safe way for people to let go of these rules and labels, so that they can experience different possibilities for themselves. Play and creative activity are excellent avenues to develop these experiences with people.

The free place
Our task is to create a free place for people to safely and consciously let go of constricting roles. Old expectations and patterns of behaviour do not automatically emerge, and this creates an experience gap, which is the present moment. Many of our youth and families will be unfamiliar with living in the present moment because they are trapped in a tragic past which creates a hopeless future, with no room for the present to exist. As we support people entering the experience gap, we also arrange for them to have a new experience of themselves as capable, hopeful, and free.

The child and youth care worker’s challenge is to create a living moment in which there is minimal interference from these self-defeating messages, so that new experiences can happen and be acknowledged. Safety and trust are key issues; the inclination to let down one’s guard and to experience freely what is happening, to relax in the moment, are simple and also profound dynamics to establish.

Safety and trust
We create the free place by gradually developing boundaries that are safe and can be trusted. I am struck by the connection between the philosophy of the program in Holland and my own framework to explain the development of skills in the new worker. Inexperienced staff must focus on developing safe and predictable boundaries for themselves before they can create safety and trust for others. They must also engage in a process of letting go of their own labels and categories that have defined the social rules for safe and trustworthy interactions. Experienced workers have a relaxed, confident manner that signals that they are grounded and fully present for the youth and family. This requires skills around using routines, rules, and respectful and honest approaches that create the external control needed to allow both youth/family and staff to safely enter into an engagement in the free place.

Michael Durrant talks about experimenting with new behaviours without fear of failure (Durrant, 1993). This is the same dynamic. The focus from the social pedagogue perspective is to use a multitude of physical, non-verbal mediums to achieve this new experience. Staff are not therapists, but fellow travellers. Durrant describes supporting from behind and not playing the expert as key methods for staff. Karen VanderVen (1999) has written extensively about the need to do things with youth to create movement and health. VanderVen (1995) also has strongly criticized point and level system approaches to create control and change behaviour, and I heartily agree with her.

External control issues
Experienced and capable staff know the value and the limits of external control. It develops safety, but at some point it inhibits the possibility of real choice and risk. It isn’t possible for new, inexperienced staff to develop a free place, because they are not grounded enough. It is important to have safe boundaries for both youth/family and staff in order for real challenges to be experienced. It isn’t useful to have safe choices that are really false choices constructed by staff who don’t trust the process of handing power and control back to the youth/family. For these “experiments in experience” to occur in a meaningful way, there has to be the real opportunity to succeed or fail. Bicycle riding is a good metaphor here – the adult starts by holding the bike and guiding, then training wheels create more freedom, then free flight – all carefully evaluated and relatively safe – yet the rider knows that he or she will be totally in charge at some point.

Play is one of the few places in life where we are more inclined to relax the usual rules of living and be free to experience ourselves without the social filters we place on experience. Play has been defined as “free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being not serious. In effect play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place” (Caillois, 1961, p. 31). The somewhat natural inclination to play without having to wear your usual faqade is something that we all have experienced. The Child and Youth Care worker, by sharing the intimacy of the living space, creating trust and safety in the relationship, and being skilled in creating play moments, is in a wonderful position to support youth and families to be temporarily free of hopelessness and despair. We can connect the person with the freedom of play, either playing together with them or supporting them to play.

The use of activity and playful dynamics is clearly not a random or haphazard process of “what-would-you-like-to-do-today-to-pass-the-time.” There are ways to utilize the daily recreation schedule to create many strategic moments. Our task is to create a free place for people, removed from the typical constraints and rules that usually surround them (e.g., needing to be tough or helpless). This concept of a free place is crucial to activity work, and trust has to exist for it to occur. Children play only near the centre of a playground when there is no fence around the perimeter and yet will use the entire area if a clear boundary or fence exists. The need for a boundary around the person who is experiencing this free place has to be understood and arranged by the child and youth care worker. In this carefully arranged free place, there is little need to carry the daily baggage of labels and rules that limit our ability to allow new experiences of ourselves to be absorbed and integrated into our self-image. The work of narrative shifting can occur at this juncture, which means that the child and youth care worker can support the person to begin to change his or her personal story, to allow a more positive and hopeful story about competence to be included.

The experience gap
Many people with whom we work have a story about themselves based on past experiences which they use to define themselves as powerless, incompetent, and unable to change. This personal story keeps the person trapped in a past history of defeat which is a tale with a long tail. The tail/tale dragging behind him or her creates a future picture of hopelessness, and the cycle then feeds on itself. There is no room to experience the present moment in a new way, because the person can’t allow the present moment to be free of these self-defeating themes. Our task is to assist the person to let go of the past story in the present moment so that we can create an experience gap, a different state of being which is new. The concept of an experience gap is very important. There exists an inability to be present in the moment, based on the twin pincers of past defeat and future hopelessness, which immobilizes the person. The stuckness often observed in our youth and families, so frustrating to encounter by “logical” professionals who assume that there is a shared ability to be present in the moment, create labels like resistant and unwilling to accept services.

The environmental and relational ingredients that combine to make this dynamic possible, where the person can be free of labels, personal frameworks, and fears, are all within the ability of a skilled child and youth care professional to sculpt. The way to create this is to be in the life-space and to support the dynamic through presence, not just words. This experience gap state allows the person to develop new pictures of him or herself (as competent, hopeful, happy) that challenge the story in the self-defeating cycle, creating cognitive dissonance.

Analogue communication
This new and radically different message about self is communicated through a sensuous, non-verbal experience, and is supported by the child and youth care worker’s presence. This approach is not “therapy"; the practitioner creates an atmosphere and a physical situation as well as engages in the activity and experiences a parallel process. Words are not important; sense data acquired through experienced behaviour are the key. This interaction with the world has been referred to as analogue communication, where senses rather than words communicate. The term for this “place in the present moment where the usual rules don’t apply” might be referred to as an analogue free place (J. VanRosmalen, personal communication, 1999).

Child and youth care workers have a powerful role in this system, in which the task is creating an atmosphere of safety where the other person can let down his or her guard and feel free to play, relax, enjoy the moment. The goal is to create an experience gap that allows a new experience of self to emerge. As these new experiences of feeling capable, trustworthy, and/or happy accumulate, the self-defeating past story and future picture of hopelessness lose their power.

Child and youth care work involves creating these free places through a process of arrangements. Child and youth care work becomes the arranging of experiences that promote the possibility of new beliefs for the people we support. The skill of arrangement can be defined as a strategic process of creating situations that can support a person to exist in an analogue free place where new experiences happen. The ingredients that support this strategic process are:

As we think differently about play activities, it should become clear that competitive, win/lose dynamics are not helpful. People who have a hopeless or self-defeating story about themselves will not benefit by competition, particularly intensive or emotionally charged competition. Activities can be challenging and engaging without having a win/lose dimension (Burns, 1993; Orlick, 1982).

Activities can include expressive arts; skill development (manual dexterity, use of tools, etc.); music, singing; drama and stage production; dance and movement; sports and exercise; physical relaxation activity; emotional discovery games; group games; individual projects; cooperative games; outdoor and wilderness activities; photography, videotape, audio activity; cooking, carpentry, construction; exploration and discovery activity; and role playing and simulations.

A concrete example from the Holland program may be useful here. A man is in prison for embezzling funds. He has always been an important person, with great responsibilities. He believes that there is no purpose to his life anymore because he will no longer have the same status. A dramatic play is being put on in the prison and the worker encourages his participation. When the man volunteers for leadership jobs (director, stage manager), the worker re-directs him to the most menial tasks. As the activity progresses, the man becomes able to enjoy and picture himself in a new role, one that he would not have considered before.

Experience arranger
The child and youth care worker is an experience arranger, who uses relationship skills, the environment, knowledge of play, investigation skills to get information about people’s stories, and strategic change dynamics. This framework espousing the value of activity as a basic, fundamental change strategy clearly requires a professional child and youth care worker, because the “being with” dynamic is an essential ingredient. The new thinking required is very compatible with solution-focus and resiliency-based approaches, and it builds on narrative approaches, so it can be explained to other professionals. The action/ experiential implications are actually very far-reaching and will require some re-thinking for practitioners who see them–selves as mainly providing external control and supervision. The implications for working with families will reinforce the need for family support workers who are able to create activity both inside and outside of the family’s home. Gender differences, which is a topic of concern in the field, is another area that will need to be appreciated.

My belief, which I share with many writers and workers, is that living well with our charges is much preferred to assessing and categorizing the deficits observed. Play is the playing field to support the development of competence and strength, and we are well positioned to create these opportunities.


Burns, M. (1993). Time in. Samia, ON: Burns and Johnston Publishing.

Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play and games (M. Barash, Trans.). New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Durrant, M. (1993). Residential treatment, a cooperative, competency-based approach to therapy and program design. New York: Norton.

Orlick, T. (1982). The second cooperative sports and games book. New York: Pantheon Books.

Scott, K. (1999). Connecting kids with their world. Child & Youth Care, 17(2), 3–4.

VanderVen, K. (1995). Point and level systems: Another way to fail children and youth. Child and Youth Care Forum, 24(6), 345-367.

VanderVen, K. (1999). You are what you do and become what you've done: The role of activity in development of self. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13(2),133-147.

This feature: Phelan, J. (2000). Another look at activities. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 14(2), pp.1-7

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