Starters That Support Well-Being

“Can’t I just be 10 minutes late?” pleaded my daughter. We were driving to her Brownie troop meeting and I could see her unhappy face in the rearview mirror. “Why don’t you want to be on time?” I asked. “Because they always make us play a stupid game at the beginning,” she replied, a tear leaking from her eye.

Some kids love silly games and never seem embarrassed when asked to do something crazy. Others cringe whenever they hear the words ‘icebreaker’. They dread being made to appear foolish or just don’t see the point of such activities.

Starter activities set the tone for a gathering. We include them because we want children to feel comfortable and connected before we move to the primary focus of our time together. Yet we sometimes forget that children’s different personalities, past experiences, and cultural contexts affect what will accomplish those goals. 

Rather than risk alienating some of the children in your group, consider substituting one of these positive interactions for your usual silly icebreaker. Each draws on research related to the psychological needs of children as they learn to be confident and spiritually centered people.

Feelings Check-In. Learning to understand the how and why of emotions is a basic childhood developmental task. Help children attend to this task by setting aside 5 minutes at the beginning of each group gathering to do a feelings check-in. Use a mood chart that associates colors or facial expressions with emotions and invite children to identify which color/expression represents how they’re feeling. Ask each child to also give a one-sentence explanation for why they are experiencing this emotion. This simple step helps them see connections between their feelings and experiences.

Setting Goals. Having an achievable goal for their time with the group helps children focus and builds confidence. Use the first 5 minutes of your gathering to invite children to state their goals for the day. Write their goals on a whiteboard or add them to a shared e-document. Then encourage them to note the steps they have taken toward their goals as they participate in various activities. For example, a child whose goal is to “treat others with kindness” might track how many times they affirm another child’s efforts. Or a child who wants to learn 3 new things about environmental justice might record each new idea as they discover it.

Affirmative Self-Talk. Children often doubt their abilities and question how they are seen by others. Researchers have even found that kids who seem to think too highly of themselves (narcissists) are actually masking deep insecurities with their self-promotion and cutting words. Take 2 minutes when you gather for affirmative self-talk. Provide children with a list of positive self-affirmations (“I can do this”, “I make valuable contributions”, “I am persistent”) from which they can select one or more statements. Encourage them to say their affirmations quietly to themselves or go around the circle sharing them out loud. Suggest that they repeat their statements several times throughout your gathering. You might even call for an “affirmation pause” periodically to reinforce this practice.

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