Activities in Group Work with Children and Adolescents

The use of physical, and other, activities in group work is more than a “tool,” more than programmed content, more than “canned” exercises, and more than a mechanistic means to an end. Group work scholar Ruth Middleman aptly described the “toolness of program more as putty than a hammer, i.e., as a tool that also changes as it is used.” In addition to a wealth of structured resource material (e.g., manuals, games, exercises), there are the activities that grow spontaneously out of the living together that the group does. These are the creative applications, the group member- and group worker-initiated innovations that can be cultivated and brought to life in the group, contributing to a growing sense of groupness and rich history of experience together.

Extending the Bonds of Belonging Beyond the Group Itself

A well-conceived activities program in group work can add texture to the group experience, fueling its capacity to transform itself into a unique entity, something new and special that has never existed before. This is the unbreakable, malleable stuff that real life groups are made of, creating “something-ness” from “nothing-ness.” In group work with children and youth, physical and other activities can help to promote a sense of competence, belonging, self-discovery, invention and creativity; and can help to extend the bonds of belonging beyond the group itself.

In the development of a Children’s Mental Health Plan, for example, the New York State Office of Mental Health has formed a Youth Workgroup composed of youth consumers, to contribute to the development of the Plan, along with four complementary adult groups. At statewide forums, one aspect of the youth message has been projected through the use of a video created, in part, by the youth themselves that speaks to critical issues such as the impact of stigma. Many of these youth have become capable advocates, speaking out to large groups in statewide forums. On a one-to-one basis they sell buttons and wristbands that proclaim: Youth Power. The latter process gives them a more intimate opportunity to “sell” their message. Their motto: Nothing about us, without us. Their work together is clearly aimed at extending the bonds of belonging to youth across New York State, adding strength and support to a “youth voice” in matters that affect young people struggling with emotional disturbances.

Cautionary Notes

When using evidence-based activity manuals or other protocols in group work, I suggest that you do not blindly follow the manualized instructions. Please keep the following cautionary notes in mind:

Activities should not be used to keep kids busy and practitioners anxiety-free.

When using curricula (i.e. anger management, conflict resolution) activities should not be curriculum-driven, rather curriculum-guided so as not to minimize opportunities for interaction, mutual aid, and spontaneity.

Have a clear and above-board purpose for the use of activities and no hidden agendas (i.e. don’t use activities to “get them to talk about their feelings,” unless group members understand that it is an activity might promote conversation and expression of emotion, for example).

Be conscious that the outside world might devalue the use of activities with kids, especially when the groups are noisy or messy (i.e. there is a tendency to trivialize as frivolous, anything that is not particularly psychological and anything that looks like good fun).

Following are illustrations of two mental health groups, in two different settings, both using activities to cope with loss and grief.

Rock and Reflective Garden

A group of pre-adolescent boys and girls who lost parents in the attack on the World Trade Center prepared for the ending of their group by decorating stones to be placed in a memorial rock garden. At the same time another group of high school students attending an alternative school for students with serious emotional disturbances approached their principal about planting a tree in the school courtyard to memorialize their friend Geoffrey, a group member who succumbed to a chronic disease.

The kids in the bereavement group sat together around a rectangular table covered with newspaper. In front of each of them was a smooth oval shaped stone, roughly double the size of a portable CD player. They decorated the stones with unique designs of paint and glitter, each one a personal remembrance of their moms or dads. As they decorated, the group worker moved from one to another, admiring and asking them about each one’s design. “Mine is painted gold,” beamed Mac. “I painted it gold because my dad is like gold to me.” Jenny’s design was framed by a heart, “because my mom will always be in my heart.” On Seth’s stone were two intertwined hands, a small one and a larger one that showed “me and my dad were best friends.” Victoria painted a fire hat and said, “my dad is my hero.” On some stones they painted, “I will miss you,” on others, “I will always love you,” and on some a combination of both. Many included a patriotic theme. There were lots of stars and stripes. Each one of them touched a chord in the others as they spoke… “he’s like gold…she will always be in my heart…he was my best friend…he’s my hero…” The room was enveloped in a warm glow.

It was the end of the school year. Planning a memorial for Geoffrey coincided with the end of the group. They organized a fund-raiser that revolved around selling baked goods and homemade candy. They advocated successfully with the school administration for space in the courtyard for what they called a “reflecting garden,” that would contain a bench and tree to remember their friend.

After a week or so when the stones were dry, a memorial ceremony that the 9/11 bereavement group planned was held. This was an important ritual for kids whose moms’ and dads’ bodies were never recovered or were found only in parts. During one group meeting Alison revealed that her family couldn’t decide whether to bury her father in regular-sized casket or a baby casket. She explained, “All they found was his arm.” The ceremony was held in the evening. The surviving parents and siblings, many of whom also decorated stones in their groups, participated in the candlelit ceremony. Each one had a chance to place their rock in a spot of their choosing in the rock garden. If they chose to, they could say a few words or silently place their stone.

The installation of the bench and tree planting Geoffrey took place on the last week of the school year, a bright and sunny June day. The family of their deceased friend attended. They would later say that they were overcome with the thoughtful and sweet nature of the modest memorial. A touching and tastefully designed four-page booklet that the group designed contained the details for the memorial program. On the top of the front cover was printed in calligraphy, In Loving Memory of Geoffrey B. Underneath was a color illustration of a flower. And beneath the flower and the words, we see your love in every flower that blooms and grows. Several of the group members sang “The Storm is Over.” Others wept openly, even the some of the tougher boys, and hugged one another.

Now some time has passed. Surrounding the rock garden are benches. In the high school reflecting garden sits a bench bearing Geoffrey’s name and small tree with its first leaves. Sacred places created by caring group members. Places that they will return to for just a look or to sit for a while and remember. Two special places for young people to remember someone dear and to recall their time together as a group.


Activity manuals and curriculum guides, when used thoughtfully have great value in addressing mental health issues through group work. Of equal or greater value are the activities that come out of the life of the group itself. These include holiday celebrations (e.g. when there has a been a loss in the family a carefully planned celebration in the group can include a time to reminisce); games (e.g. making up their own games can tap into kids’ creativity and give them a chance to address issues along the cooperation-competition continuum); bringing “stuff” in (e.g. more than just show-and-tell, what kids bring in to the group, for example, as a remembrance of a deceased parent has deep meaning and can aid in the grief process); role playing (e.g. creating scenarios and “directing” the action is empowering, providing group members with greater control than they may be accustomed to); poetry, art, music, and dance (e.g. to provide alternative means of expression); and photography (e.g. in one group teenage moms, with the aid of a professional photographer they photographed their babies, developed the film, and created albums to reinforce their attachment, their bonds with their babies). These are but a few ideas that I offer to encourage you to be creative and never discount the interests, inventiveness, and creativity of your group members.

Next time a colleague asks you, “Do you have any activities books?” Give them what you have. But first, have a conversation and encourage them to look to their groups for activities too.

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