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14 MARCH 2000
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Activity groups

Brian Gannon

I: Goals, planning, and getting ideas together
The best activities are those which start with what the youngsters can already do, things they are good at. But with kids in your program there might not be things they are good at, and we have to start somewhere else.

Child care workers will make much use of activities in work with deprived and troubled children. Most of the young people you work with are short on life experience, and this can leave them clumsy, awkward, shy and unwilling in tackling their daily personal and social tasks. In child care, it is never enough to put children in cosy cottages and to pretend that now everything will be alright. We have to recognise the limitations and shortcomings they bring with them, and work at these in some systematic way. One of the best methods is doing things with children.

There are many things which children will gain from activity groups – some obvious and some quite complex and clinical. But let's make a list of some of the simpler gains they can make ... and you try to add to these as you think of them. This will give you your own list of goals as you plan activities for children.

Here are some ideas to start with:

satisfaction of making things
ideas ...

There are times when we will plan activities just so that we all have fun. There will be times when we involve a child for a more special and individual purpose. Patricia is too self-conscious and shy to try anything new in front of others – we run a group where all of the group members must learn some thing new so that she sees she is not alone in this. Keith finds it hard to wait his turn or to take instructions from other people – we run an activity with formal rules (like soccer or monopoly) where the rules are part of the game, and he learns why there are rules. Most of us learned things about life simply by doing things. Activity groups give children in our program opportunities to learn things they never had the chance to learn before.

In the most rewarding activity groups we know there are three keys to success: planning, planning and planning – which the children should never be pressured by or aware of. The planning is a matter of having ideas and materials at your fingertips, to be used on a given activity group day or set aside for another. The choice depends on the immediate needs and moods of the children. Materials for projects should be prepared and easily accessible. If, for example, you are using a record player or other special equipment, have it set up and ready to go. Make sure it is in working order. Balls or other play material for which you have planned a special game should be assembled so you need not leave the children while you scramble about trying to retrieve the items. If you are an inveterate list-maker you will, perhaps, make out a proposed schedule for the day – or just list the different ideas you have. Why all this? After all, it is not a military campaign you are planning. But remember the brief attention span of youngsters... ten minutes, maybe? You need to be ready to move into some new activity quickly as their interest flags. Older children might be expected to stay interested for longer, but what if the project you planned just doesn't strike a chord or takes less time than you expected! You need some thing else in its place. More planning means more flexibility. Flexibility is the key word. Your group may be low keyed one day, quite equal to listening and to doing quiet activities. The same group may have switched into high gear another day and more time outside is in order, or, if that is not possible, then some moving around activities inside are necessary. Be ready to switch the order of activities to suit the mood of the day or even of the moment. Be prepared to spring into a little exercise period in the middle of an art project before returning to it. It will be helpful if you take your cue from schools. they preach a rule of thumb for activity groups – “quiet followed by noise; still followed by movement." The one automatically sets the stage for the other. After running about, a child is ready to sit quietly and listen to a story; after drawing a picture he is all set to use some of his larger muscles. For a basic idea of what might be included in your day, consider the following: free play, arts and crafts, music, story, refreshments, nature or science project, games, time outdoors. Such a list sounds more intimidating than it is in practice. You would not, of course, do all of those things every time. The idea of having to set up anything 'scientific' or 'musical' may overwhelm you, but overcoming such apparent difficulties is what the activity group planner must do. The best groups include very simple activities, right for the children and right for the average child care worker to tackle with the group.

What to do?
This last section on planning was adapted from Broad and Butterworth's book The Playgroup Handbook, which is directed more at young children. However, we must remember that activity groups with older children in care are often aimed at catching up on experiences missed earlier in their lives, so that ideas from the age when they should have been playing can easily be adapted for our use. I remember reading Beatrix Potter to twelve-year-olds, and as if that wasn't far enough out the age group, there were always a few fifteen and sixteen year-olds sitting at the fringes of the group! And why not? Broad and Butterworth suggest a number of categories for activity groups. Of course there are more, but try to think of some appropriate activities for your own group under each of these headings.

Arts and crafts: Children of all ages learn much from designing, making, colouring and playing with things they make themselves. Starting with poster-painting egg boxes and sticking them together to make goodness-knows-what, they learn a lot about the real world of what works and what doesn't work, of accuracy in getting the results they want, of patience in waiting for things to dry or set, of the aesthetics of what looks nice – and the harder lessons of mistakes, failure, and having to start again. Older children will design the decorations for a party, make a roost for their pigeons or frame a well loved poster. In each case, the end result may or not be pleasing and durable... but the value lies in the doing.

Trips and outings: There are several aspects to this kind of activity. Participating in ordinary events (like shopping, going to the library) makes up for experiences lost when they were younger. Trips to new and different places (other suburbs, open country, an old age home) provide stimulation and material for new thinking and fantasy, for discovery and a widened view of the world. We can never expect each member of the group to get the same impressions or learn the same lessons from a trip – each will experience it differently and get out something individually important or significant. The wise child care worker can make another whole group session out of that fact, as we listen to each others' impressions of a trip to the river or the local shopping mall.

Games: Remember always why we plan activity groups. For one, they are just to have fun. For another, they really are most appropriate tools for work with children. Games have a zillion uses. Individual games (a basketball net on the garage door, patience, computers, lego) can release withdrawn youngsters from themselves and their often defeated and pessimistic thoughts, competing, perhaps, against themselves and their own previous best which can be safer than losing to others while they build some personal skills. Team games (relay races, red rover, five-a-side soccer) provide excitement and get children involved at a non-threatening group level with others. Our children very often do not have the skills to get into school teams. Our activity groups could have this goal in mind: get the children up to speed, building skills and team tolerance so that we can pass this responsibility on to the school. What games can you think up for a single child, three kids, a dozen or twenty?

Story-telling: This is a lost art, not only with deprived children but also in many families. TV and movies are too strong competition – or are they really? Children have a wide range of needs, and one of these is for attention and intimacy. Many will say that it is wrong to put troubled children in front of a TV set so often, for this feeds into their immature needs for stimulation, and fails to meet their mote important needs for closeness, belonging and shared small group experiences. Children in care also have a need for ideas and imagery which help them work through their own personal situations, and there is much useful literature today which deals sensitively and positively with issues like family separation and loss, struggling families, living with alcoholism, etc. When they find it painful to face up to their own personal and family difficulties, children are often relieved when they hear that others share their hurt and can deal with it successfully. Remember, too, that one of the long-term results of our work with children is only seen when they become parents and start families themselves. We can make some contribution to the lives of children living fifteen or twenty years hence, by building some quieter and more personal experiences for their parents (our children) today.

Physical exercise: We have learned in recent years that a sense of physical well-being plays a large role in mental health. Many games will help with this, but today there is a common focus on physical health in its own right. Weight-watching, gym groups and a morning or evening jogging times will have immediate physical results, but you may be surprised at the psychological and social results which follow.

Life skills: Older children benefit greatly from activities which reflect their coming adult and career responsibilities, and children in care appreciate it when we devote some time to this. This can apply at the level of home-maker skills which they are too easily denied in an institutional setting (laundry, menu planning, purchasing, maintaining appliances); it can apply at the level of vocational skills (using tools, making clothes); and it can apply at the level of personal relationships. Ask your group what they would like in this area.

Great profit, little effort
Why do we go to all this trouble? The main reason is to offer deprived and discouraged children something new and something different in their lives, which (perhaps for the first time) allows them to end a day feeling better about themselves, with a sense of growth, success, belonging and satisfaction. In most cases such experiences do away with their feelings of failure, rejection and powerlessness, and make further treatment unnecessary. Isn't that why the children were referred to your program in the first place?

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