Enabler Publications

Books to feed the Mind and Spirit

Making A DifferenceMaking A Difference

practice and planning in working with young people in community safety and crime prevention programmes

Sample from this book:

Games and activities

Alan Dearling

The use of games and activities have formed the cornerstone of programmes of work with young people since the nineteenth century beginnings of youth work, which in its day was mainly conceived as a ‘child saving’ movement. Two centuries ago, the ‘heavy end’ of the justice system was not on the street, or in the community, but in the prisons, which were seen as ‘reformatories’ for young delinquents. Anthony Platt said of the child savers in America,

“…(they) were not indulgent sentimentalists; they recommended imprisonment as a means of removing delinquents from corrupting influences.” (Platt, 1969)

But in Britain, if not the United States of America, ‘recreation’ and ‘social activities’ were seen as being an important part of philanthropic youth work, even as early as 1878. Maude Stanley, an early pioneer of ‘rough boys’ clubs’, said that social activities were:

“…pleasures which helped much to educate them in other ways than book learning, making them feel that they were cared for by those above them in position…” (quoted in Booton, 1985)

The context in which games and activities can be used effectively

The reason for mentioning this very early history here, is to remind users of this book that the swings in favour, for and against the use of games and activities in preventative and intervention programmes with young people, is neither new nor novel. By the 1980s, there was a considerable backlash against the use of so-called recreational methods in the work with young people in the criminal justice system. It was seen by some as ‘treats’ for offenders, and there was some truth in the argument that intermediate treatment and youth social work evolved at the expense of mainstream provision for young people in many areas of the UK.

Now, in the age of crime prevention and community safety schemes, there has been a cautious move back towards once again utilising games and activities within both general community-based schemes in areas of high juvenile offending, and as part of more tightly focused youth justice schemes. Within general youth work provision, which is, after all, part of primary crime prevention provision, their use has never gone away. For those working either with ‘high risk’ young people or those already convicted, workers have often found that they have to do more than concentrate entirely on the individual, offending behaviour and measures of reparation and atonement. So, for pragmatic reasons, ‘social education’ as it was once known, has evolved into a ‘youth work curriculum’ which mirrors the stages of intervention better known to youth justice workers. Coles et al. (1998) from the University of York, broke the elements of youth work down into four component parts in their recent research on working with young people on housing estates:

Components of youth work

Diversionary activity
This can be defined as leisure and recreation-based activity such as sports, crafts, and discos. Its aim is principally to present interesting things for children and young people to do.

Developmental work
This work caries a more profound purpose than simple entertainment. Rather, it aims to use different activities to develop self esteem and confidence amongst children and young people. A diversionary project would be to run a youth football team, whereas a developmental project would be to help children and young people to run a football team.

Centre-based work
This is any work with children and young people based at a specific locality, for example, a school annex, a purpose-built youth club, a community centre or sports facility. Centres are likely to provide a focus for both diversionary and developmental work.

Detached youth work
Detached youth workers go into the community and talk with children and young people where they naturally congregate, for example, cafes, bus shelters or street corners. This work is often aimed at groups that may include members with problematic relationships with schools or their families. The purpose of the engagement can vary, but (in the context of this report), most of the detached work had the purpose of getting these children and young people involved in diversionary, developmental and centre-based work.

Broadly, the above model describes the general settings in which activities and games might be used by adults working with young people. In this model, structured youth justice groups would be seen as part of ‘developmental work’. However, for many workers who come to meet young people as a consequence of a court appearance and referral from a Youth Crime Panel or Youth Offending Panel, the developmental work is more clearly focused on what the Home Office has called, ‘crime prevention interventions’ (Ekblom, 1998).

Why use games and activities?

Much has been written about the use of games and activities in work with young people, including by myself and Howie Armstrong (1994, 1995, 1996) (Jelfs, 1982; Priestley, P and McGuire, J, 1983; Ball et al., 1984; Brandes, 1987 and 1982; Dynes, 1990; Institute of Social Inventions, 1990; Paget, 1990). Some of these publications focus on work with offenders and young people at risk of offending or causing nuisance, others are more general books on games and activities. Additionally, there is also a considerable body of knowledge about using the outdoor environment as a resource for creative activities with young people, both in general youth work programmes, but also in specific programmes for those perceived to be at risk of offending or known to the youth justice system (see, for instance: Cornell, 1989; Maclellan (no date); Smith, 1994; Dearling with Armstrong, 1997, and Cooper, 1998). I’ve included references to these and other resources at the end of the section, since there is no intention to replicate these publications, nor would it be possible to do so, for reasons of space.

Within the context of community safety and crime prevention work with young people, some of the reasons for using games and arts and crafts are more specific than in general ‘play’, ‘recreation’, ‘sport’, ‘arts’, ‘leisure’ and ‘youth work’, but taking the general reasons first, they provide opportunities for:

  • having fun;
  • excitement, stimulation and creativity;
  • social and physical interaction;
  • improving co-ordination and communication skills;
  • developing a new hobby, sport or leisure pursuit;
  • building confidence and social and other skills.

In specific developmental youth work settings, such as group work with young offenders, games and activities may be purposely chosen and adapted to help young people:

  • develop trust, sensitivity and awareness;
  • improve their relationship building skills with both adults and other young people;
  • improve their literacy and numeracy;
  • identify personal (and group) problems and develop strategies to overcome them;
  • consider drug and alcohol abuse, sexuality and relationship issues;
  • take responsibility for, and become accountable for, their actions;
  • cope with aggression, stress, loss and other difficult to deal with situations;
  • consider the effects of their own behaviour on others and help them change their behaviour;
  • look at, and interact with, the built and natural environment and their local community;
  • carefully consider very specific incidents of offending behaviour.

Importantly, games and activities give the adult workers new opportunities to build relationships with young people. From this base, it is possible for staff to develop more appropriate and effective work in other ways such as reparation, mediation, mentoring, cognitive behavioural and restorative justice programmes.

What sort of activities and games are useful in prevention and diversion?

The following games and activities are all ones that have been used in social groupwork programmes with young people. They are adaptable and can be used in a variety of settings, including, in fact, staff development training. Because they are often passed on by word of mouth, it is difficult to give an exact source of many of the activities, but I have given a reference to the place where I first discovered the particular activity.

Planning is a vital part of using games and activities, as is the need for staff to feel confident that they understand what an activity entails, potential pitfalls and the need for sensitivity and possible debriefing at the end of a session. In my experience, it is also useful to consider a mix of activities which are ‘lighter’ and ‘heavier’ in their content and purpose. Often the opening game or activity is referred to as an ‘icebreaker’ or warm-up game, whilst more personal sequences are known as ‘relationship games’. Other games are sometimes classified as ‘trust’, ‘contact’, ‘co-operative’ or ‘group task’ games. Using a combination of these and possibly some arts and crafts or outdoor activities allows the young people (and the adults) to feel less threatened and encourages participation. Finally, it is important that workers see activities as something they are willing to participate fully in themselves. At times this may make staff feel uneasy or vulnerable, but if adults expect young people to take risks and be honest, then they must do the same!

Height, age and name
This works well at the very beginning of a new group. Ask everyone to organise themselves in a line by height, ending up with the tallest person at the front. When they’ve done this successfully ask everyone to give themselves a clap. The sequence ensures that everyone will make physical contact and will have moved around the room a bit. Then, ask them to organise themselves by age. This means that they all have to talk to one another. Again, when it is completed, ask everyone to say their age in order, which helps break the ice and gets people used to talking in front of the group. A further variation is to ask the group to sort themselves in order of the alphabet by first names, so Adam would come before Alan, who would be in front of Anne. The trick is to make sure that these sequences are completed fast.

I first met up with this ice-breaker when it was used by Philip Hope, who is now an MP. In a largish group, tell everyone to take off their shoes and put them in the middle of the room. Then, the facilitator quickly scrabbles all the shoes up, stands back and tells everyone to put their shoes back on as quickly as possible. The result is usually something of a physical riot, so best not done in the room next to the Principal Social Worker!

Seriousness of offences
This is based on a sequence described by Priestley and McGuire (1985). The idea is that members of a group are given a list of about twenty offences. Alternatively you can write them up on a flip-chart. Then ask each person individually to rank them in order of seriousness with the most serious at the top of the list. Another option is to get each person to choose the four most serious and the four least serious offences.

I’ve also run this sequence using votes. Everyone has five or ten points which they can award in any way they wish to what they view as the most serious offences. After the voting, it provides the basis for a discussion on similarities and differences in the way the offences have been ranked, and on whether crimes against property or people are seen to be the most important.

(examples, in no particular order)

Setting fire to a building
Driving over the speed limit
Stealing sweets from a shop
Burglary of a TV and video from a house
Stealing a car
Driving without any insurance
Being arrested for drunkenness
Maiming a cat
Breaking a shop window
Taking £5 from your mother’s purse
Beating someone up
Carrying an air rifle without a cover on it
Exposing yourself in a public place
Stealing CDs from a shop

Situation cards
This is one of the most adaptable methods of promoting discussions between group members on topics which may be ‘difficult’ or ‘confronting’. Howard Armstrong and myself described this in our very first Youth Games Book compendium back in 1980. You have to plan this one in advance, making up a set of cards which are appropriate to the ages and experiences of group members. We’ve also made up sets for staff training to enable workers to think about potential problems and situations that they may face for real. With a group of young people who have been involved in a range of delinquent or nuisance behaviour, cards could include:

What would you do if a mate had taken some crack cocaine and was experiencing serious problems?

A friend offers you a portable phone which you know is stolen.

A fourteen year old girl who you know well tells you she thinks she is pregnant.

A friend tells you he has beaten up another person earlier in the day and wants you to provide an alibi if the police catch him.

A policeman seems to always be picking on you.

To run the sequence usually requires preparing about 20 cards. Then the group facilitator invites people in turn to take a card, read it aloud, and then to give their response to the situation as though it is actually happening to them there and then. The facilitator should then encourage everyone in the group to express their views on the particular situation. There is no one answer to any situation but there may well be legal points which are worth raising as well as possible moral ones.

Ideally, allow enough time so that everyone has had at least one go at dealing with a situation.

Meeting the police
This is based on the programme developed by the Save the Children Hilltop Project (Ball, 1987). Often young people only see the police as negative authority figures, and their contact with them only occurs when there has been an incident of some kind. Inviting a police office, a magistrate or some other adult, possibly even an ex-prisoner, can be an opportunity for young people to challenge their own prejudices and also meet an adult figure on neutral territory. At the time of writing this book, I’m involved in a local youth video project in Dorset and our Youth Team invited the local community policeman, Nigel, along with the Mayor, Arts workers etc., to our planning meeting. He was regarded as just another adult, albeit in a uniform!

Likewise, Hilltop suggest involving police and other adult authority figures in ways which avoid being confrontational. They ran a pre-meeting brainstorm session with the young people during which a range of possible questions are suggested. After getting them written up on a flip chart, the questions are written onto individual cards and each group member asks one or more question during the meeting. Hilltop stress that it, “…ensures that the questions asked are the ones which members want to ask, and provides anonymity for whoever wrote the questions.” They add, “…it is important to prepare the speaker for the session by explaining what is expected.”

Does crime pay?
This is a discussion session devised by Lucy Ball and Theo Sowa (1985). The aim is to get group members to consider what they have gained and lost through offending. The facilitator needs a flip-chart and a felt pen.

The first stage is to ‘brainstorm’ (ask everyone in the group to quickly call out the good things that they’ve gained from offending). This might include ‘money’, ‘having fun’, ‘excitement’ etc. Then repeat the process with the bad things that have happened to them as a consequence of offending, perhaps sentences, a criminal record, rejection by their family etc.

Finally, the facilitator leads a discussion on the two lists, including options for getting the ‘good’ things legally!


Ball, K et al., (1987) Worth the risk? SCF Hilltop, Yorkshire.

Ball, L and Sowa, T, (1985) Groupwork and I.T. London Intermediate Treatment Association.

Booton, F, (1985) Studies in Social Education 1860-1890. Benfield Press.

Brandes, D and Phillips, H, (1977) Gamesters’ Handbook. Hutchinson.

Brandes, D, (1982) Gamesters’ 2. Stanley Thorne.

Cooper, G, (1998) Outdoors with young people. Russell House Publishing.

Dearling, A and Armstrong, H, (1994) New Youth Games Book. Russell House Publishing.

Dearling, A and Armstrong, H, (1995) New Youth Arts and Craft Book. Russell House Publishing.

Dearling, A and Armstrong, H, (1996) World Youth Games. Russell House Publishing.

Dearling, A with Armstrong, H, (1997) Youth Action and the Environment, Council for Environmental Education and Russell House Publishing.

Dynes, R, (1990) Creative Games in Group Work. Winslow Press.

Institute of Social Inventions (1990) Social Invention Workshops. Institute of Social Inventions.

Ekblom, P, (1998) Community Safety and the reduction and prevention of crime. Home Office.

Maclellan, G, (no date) Talking to the Earth. Capall Bann.

Paget, D, (1990) The art of craft. Cassell.

Platt, A, (1969) The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. University of Chicago Press.

Priestley, P and McGuire, J, (1983) Learning to help. Tavistock.

Priestley, P and McGuire, J, (1985) Offending Behaviour. Batsford.

Smith, A, (1994) Creative Outdoor work with young people. Russell House Publishing

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Making A DifferenceMaking A Difference

Compiled by Alan Dearling and Alison Skinner

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