Building community in youth groups

Building Community in Youth Groups, an appendix to Games for UU kids and adults
Compiled by Dan Harper, v. 0.5
Copyright (c) 2015-2021 Dan Harper

You can use games and other activities to build a sense of community in youth groups (and other groups). Here’s one model for doing this, based on the book Building Community in Youth Groups by Denny Rydberg.


Stage 1: Building Bonds

The first stage in building community in youth groups is to help youth (and their advisors) establish trust in one other. One way to build trust is to present the participants with a problem that they must solve by working together with other participants. As they work together to solve the problem, they will have to learn how to talk with one another, and physically interact with one another, to come up with a solution. Other ways of building bonds: learn each other’s names; set ground rules (a covenant); etc.

Sample activities:

Name games, e.g., The Grocery Store Game, a name game on this Web site
Writing a group covenant together
Problem-solving games and initiatives
Knots game
Various types of trust falls

Stage 2: Opening Up

In the second stage of building community in youth groups, participants are allowed to talk about themselves, and/or share details about their lives. People of all ages like to talk about themselves, if they they can do so in an environment where they know that what they choose to reveal about themselves will not be disparaged by others. Group leaders can guide groups so that participants listen (or otherwise pay attention) attentively when another participant is talking (or showing art, etc.). By learning to pay attention to others, to listen carefully and openly when others speak, the group members can begin to trust one another.

Sample activities:
forced choice exercises
personal collages
theatre games
“If I should die”

Stage 3: Affirming Others

Once participants reach Stage 2: Opening Up, they often feel a need to get to this stage, because once they start revealing who they really are, they need affirmation that who they really are is accepted by others. In this third stage of building community, participants not only listen to one other, they go further and affirm that what another person has said is of value. At this stage, participants know that they can trust the others in the group to accept them for who they are. Participants won’t necessarily be best friends with everyone in the group, but they will feel good about the group as a whole.

Sample activities:
warm fuzzies
family affirmation

Stage 4: Stretching

In order to keep on growing, we need to be taken out of our comfort zones and confronted with unfamiliar situations where we have to face and overcome obstacles. When we do this in a group, not only do we as individuals grow and mature, but the group as a whole grows and becomes more mature.

Take care when planning stretching exercises. Be aware of group members who have mental illness, a history of trauma, or other vulnerabilities. Do not use stretching exercises that rely on secrecy, because secrecy tends to erode trust rather than building trust. It is best not to use simulation games and value-testing games as stretching exercises unless you have training or experience in leading such exercises.

A well-planned stretching exercise will probably include four steps: (1) The leader(s) start by getting the group’s consent to participate in the proposed activity. (2) The leader(s) seek input from the group as they plan the activity; or the group as a whole may plan the activity. (3) The group carries out the activity together. (4) After the activity, the group takes the time to process the activity, sharing their thoughts and feelings about what they experienced.

Be aware that you can do an activity that is designed to get you through Stage 4: Stretching, only to find that trust has not increased in the group. After many years of experience using this model of community building, I have come to the conclusion that you cannot force stretching to happen.

Sample activities:
visiting divorce court proceedings
visiting a prison
meeting homeless people
anti-racism projects
service trips
public speaking
helping a group member deal with serious illness or other trauma

Stage 5: Deeper Sharing and Goal Setting

In Unitarian Universalist circles, this stage is too often reduced to exercises in which you spill your guts about the most intimate details of your life. However, such exercises really belong in Stage Three: Affirming, since that kind of exercise is nothing more than group members accepting each other for who they are.

When you truly get to Stage Five: Deeper Sharing and Goal Setting, you go beyond just talking about who you are, you also commit to growing and becoming a better person. Most people have some aspects of their lives where they would like to improve. In a truly supportive group, we are more likely to be open and honest about our strengths and our failings, and a truly supportive group will help us use our individual strengths to address our failings.

How does this happen? The group has to become a place that is free from ridicule and gossip. The participants have to be able to share openly about areas in their lives where they want to improve. The group can support individuals in reaching their goals by listening to what the individual says, then helping them talk through ways they might grow and change. The group can also support individuals by reminding each other of their highest aspirations. Finally, the group can remind each other that we all need permission and freedom to fail once in a while.

If a group can build this level of trust, youth will bring serious issues and struggles to the group. I have heard youth talk to the group about the struggle of going through their parents’ divorce, being dumped by a sweetheart, being laughed at for not drinking, being cut from the first string of the football team, struggling to be a racial minority, etc. Mind you, it is difficult to get to this point, and more often youth develop close relationships to only a few others in the group where they can share deeply and set goals. But ideally, every youth will be able to share openly to the whole group.

Sample activities:

Three things you absolutely must know before using this model of building community:

(1) Every time you bring a new person into the group, whether a youth or an adult, you will have to start again from Stage One: Building Bonds, and work your way up through the other stages from there. However, once you make it to Stage Three: Affirming, you can generally get back to that stage again in short time, if you go through several of the activities for the earlier stage of building community. For example, when a new person joins the group, you should start by playing a name games or two and reviewing the group covenant (Stage One); then you could try check-in and a forced choice activity (Stage Two); and then try one or more affirming activities. By doing this, you can help the newcomer feel comfortable with the group, and also help the newcomer see how the group members interct with each other.

Please be aware that Stage Four: Stretching is always somewhat unpredictable. With a well-established group, you can move quickly through the first three stages every time a newcomer joins, but you can’t rush this stage.

(2) Let’s be honest: Fewer than half of all youth groups really make it past Stage Three: Affirming. The youth (and adults) may think they’ve gone further, but when you look at whether the group supported individuals to set goals for growth, you will often find that the reality is the group never got there. Having said that, I think it is perfectly OK to never get past Stage Three: Affirming, because that stage is still pretty wonderful.

(3) This process works best if adult leaders also participate at an appropriate level, especially at the first three stages. When adults open up, they allow themselves to be perceived by the youth as fully human; and when adults allow themselves to be affirmed by the group, overall group trust deepens. At the same time, adults can not and should not receive emotional and spiritual support from the youth group in the way youth do. These boundaries are especially important for adults to maintain during intensive stretching activities like service trips, and it would be wise for adult advisors to learn to rely on their co-advisors for support.