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Activity Groups with Children and Youth

Brian Gannon and Jeannie Karth

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.

Goals
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: interest, involvement, fun, companionship, satisfaction of making things, learning, exploring, self-expression, achievement, mastery, co-operation, competition, patience, excitement, attention, 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 care opportunities to learn things they never had the chance to learn before.

Planning
In the most rewarding activity groups we know the key to success has been planning, planning and overplanning — which the children should never be pressured by or aware of. The planning is a matter of having ideas and materials at your finger-tips, 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 something 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 intimidating than it is in more 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 section uses ideas from Broad and Butterworth's book The Playgroup Handbook, which is directed more at preschool 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 nest 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.

Child 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 later 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, 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 programme in the first place?

Involving the children
Many children will jump at the chance to be involved in planned activities; others will tell you to jump in the lake. Those who are unwilling to participate present a dilemma for the child care worker, because children who are admitted to expensive services like children's homes and places of safety must at some point become involved in the intervention programmes offered. Otherwise we will just be running R50 to R75 per day dinner-bed-and-breakfast hotels! There are a number of considerations to be borne in mind:

The right time
We are all sensitive to the needs and feelings of troubled and anxious kids, and we know that timing is important. Most will agree with the idea that newcomers to the programme need some time to 'settle down' or 'find their feet'. This is especially true for youngsters in crisis, those who have just been through some significant loss or trauma like a family breakdown or a court appearance. However, it is crucial to judge this time accurately. We don't want to expect too much too soon from youngsters who still need some respite or time to reflect on their changed circumstances. However, we also don't want youngsters to wind themselves into a protective and too-comfortable cocoon from which they will soon be unwilling to leave. Child care workers must carefully set the time at which 'life must go on', and when children can and must become involved in the programme.

Contracting
One aspect of contracting is letting children know from Day One what will happen in your programme. It is not helpful to surprise a child, three weeks or three months into a programme, with the news that you have new plans he never heard about. So essential are planned activities that we need to inform youngsters about them up-front. "In this place, each child has to participate in at least three activity groups every week; there is a good choice available (for example, the list of categories above) but we all have to take part in at least three." Staff need to 'book time' with kids in this way. This ensures that we will get the opportunities we are going to need, to do things with youngsters, to interact with them, to observe, to model, to train, to counsel -- in smaller or larger groups.

Couch potato or hideaway?
A common animal to be found in many children's institutions is the child who burrows his way into a defended position (this can be a place, a role or a routine) from which it becomes harder and harder to budge him. Some children can manipulate their environment quite powerfully to retain their way of functioning and to palm off any attempts to challenge or change them. They can leave us in no doubt that they are very comfortable thank you just where they are, and they will growl at those who approach. We have allowed many of these kids to set up these fortresses — and sadly it may be too late to do anything about them. Others are simply frightened to re-engage with life and people. They have been hurt, they fed that they have failed, and they would prefer not to go though this again. They do not trust, but they would like to. Child care workers generally know how to start rebuilding this trust, and to get children to the point where they can re-engage. Many of these children show the classic signs of anxiety in the face of treatment. Anything which seeks to stimulate them to growth and change, to let go of longstanding de fences and angers, Is going to be unpleasant. It is always messy to sift through one's past; it is always scary to let go of old ways; it is always challenging when confronted with new learning. Again, child care workers must work at understanding the unwilling child so as to know how best to proceed. What they must never do is leave the kids where they are.

Going with the flow
With many youngsters it is a mistake to think that we can start with nicely organised group activities. Just as they will test any bridge we ask them to cross, they will try their damnedest to wreck our group. It will be sissyish, boring, a trick, for babies or idiots, inconvenient, so instead of trying to start new things, often we have to start with what the kids are already doing.

If they are eating at table, that's a group. If they are watching TV, that's a group. If they are playing a rag-tag game of football, that's a group — and a toehold for us to build some new shape and purpose into their activities.

Suggest that they invite some one to dinner (family friends, special guests, whoever) so that there is something to work towards, to plan. Get them to agree on a video to rent, so that there is a discussion, some negotiation needed. Think of a team (from school, from another children's home) they can play football against, so that there is a challenge to sharpen their skills, build teamwork.

The point is that many troubled youngsters will be engaging in activities passively, or to avoid facing up to things or to indulge negative or destructive impulses. The child care worker tries to turn even these apparently valueless things into opportunities — for relationship building, for challenge, for positive achievement. We try to turn immediate gratification into something which develops, which needs work, planning.

Changing status
It is a good idea to offer activity groups which expose children to different experiences and roles. For example, plan a group in such a way that a child can be a leader and coach; plan another where he must compete with peers, and plan yet another where he is a beginner or has to learn new things. (And never forget to include the activities which are just for fun.) But these changes in status and role can be the way to involve the unwilling. Asking older kids to help by teaching one of their own skills (knitting, cricket, fixing the iron) to younger children is an excellent start. From there, it is an easy step to involving them in planning something for the younger kids — a personal goal, a practice or learning course, some event — and so to understanding the value of these things in their own lives.

To leave youngsters where they are is to fail dismally in child care work. They came to us for something different and something better. Once we have secured their safety and a caring environment, it is fundamental to our practice that we move children onward to re-engagement with life, to getting in touch once more with the realities, the demands, the efforts and rewards of life.

Resources

Equipment, materials
It would be nice to be able to say that we can always use the material resources which are free, lying around in our homes and neighbourhoods. This is only partly true: the leaves and flowers, blank walls, empty yoghurt cups. The reality is that many others have to be bought ... or, better still, begged ! It is what you can get if you take the trouble to ask. Any printing company will always have paper and cardboard scrap of all sizes — the essential starting point for many activities. Nurseries will give you seeds and seedlings, schools have old sports equipment and balls, bead shops have slow moving stocks and clothing and textile factories have off cuts of all kinds — at least in very inexpensive lots. Probably you will have to buy. certain equipment, and it is great if your Principal and Management recognise the need for some budget for paint brushes, crayons, etc. Our responsibility, in turn, is to ensure that materials and equipment are properly stored and cared for. Things are only useful when we can find them, and sensible cupboards or rooms are essential.
Staff teams should make lists of things which can be kept at the ready — tools of all kinds, how-to books, games (look for so-called 'New Games' which are marvellous for engaging youngsters in noncompetitive social games), toys, bicycles, menus, patterns, clay, paints... add your own ideas.

Essential anywhere that kids live is a basketball hoop, a volleyball net (can be used for badminton, quoits — or anything else), a wall against which a tennis ball can be hit (put a grille over that window to make It possible). The grounds of your campus themselves can be a help or a hindrance. One, huge open space (so that one child care worker can supervise all the children at play?) is the height of institutionalism. A campus which is broken up (by walls, shrubs, different levels) into a number of different-sized play and activity areas — for three kids or thirty kids) is ideal.

Human resources
While writing this, we peeped across at page 2 of this issue at the training received by child care workers in Germany, including: nursing, cooking, handicrafts, arts, music, youth literature, painting, gymnastics, guided play... Why not! This builds into child care workers the guarantee that children will find them interesting, resourceful and engaging people. Some organisations may choose to have an Activities Co-ordinator (or some such word) but the actual activity programmes should include all staff members. Many of our children are into boredom and passive enjoyment; we teach them not to be bored and to be resourceful within themselves when the adults around them have the skills and enthusiasms to do things with what's at hand — and to go out looking for what isn't! Sometimes this means finding more human resources: A child care worker went to a local school to ask for old cricket bats, tennis racquets and soccer balls for her kids but then also had the fore sight to add that she knew nothing about these games herself ... could they help! Next thing she knew, some of the children in the school offered to come along and coach her children, and (here is the crucial point) to get them involved in local clubs and teams.

Combined efforts
The point about human resources is that they add life and purpose to the material resources. A pile of wood offcuts from the sawmill will become nothing but ammunition in destructive war games if there are not skilled adults around — to help children with wood working skills to turn them into useful objects and ornaments; to give them the ability to fantasise and play and to turn the dead pieces of wood into cars, planes and houses. It is the activities oriented child care worker who turns empty institutional grounds into small garden patches and painted walls; who turns empty afternoons into interesting walks or dinner plans.

Rituals
The inventive staff team, also, will map out the coming year to ensure that its time is marked by seasons and events. How do we celebrate the fact that autumn is different from spring? How will we observe Valentine's Day (the teenagers get involved here) and Halloween (the little kids love this). Mother's Day is often a poignant mixture of reflection, yearning, making cards ... The end of the year is a time of parting (plaster-of-Paris face marks to remember each other by) and celebrating achievements (exhibitions of craftwork, prizes for teams).

...

But where are we actually going with our activity groups? They are not meant for winning tennis leagues or knitting competitions. Rather, they serve their best purpose when the youngsters learn something about their own worth, and the value of effort and reward; when they can accept their own differences and express themselves with pride; when they develop the confidence to try something new, and learn enough skills to get into the school netball team. All of our children have needs as they struggle with successive developmental stages. In most cases we can devise activities which deal with these needs — using the ordinary things of life, together with other youngsters.

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