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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

Where the Rubber Meets the Road- Planning a Successful Afterschool Activity

kids activity

Building on the concept that the most productive learning comes through active involvement, the effectiveness of any program that seeks to develop skills in youth must be rich in activity. Remember, most of the students sit for almost 7.5 hours a day! They are eager to be involved in activities that allow for action and interaction. Enthusiasm is contagious and movement essential.

You do not need a repertoire of several hundred activities. Such a large selection is simply not practical and, more often than not, proves too cumbersome. Most games and activities require minor adjustments to keep youth interested.

Remember, how you play is more important than what you play.

Variety is important; however, you can teach a multitude of skills through almost any activity by applying a few effective strategies. When you select activities, keep in mind age group, facility use, and safety. Skill level is important, also—all youth should be able to participate, regardless of ability. The following five groups of questions can help you filter the multitude of games and activities available.

  1. Is the activity adaptable? Can it be played inside or out, with or without equipment, with a large or small group, or various ages?
  2. Is the activity available? Does it require specialized equipment or facilities? Is it safe? Does it fit within the rules, beliefs, or framework of the partner organization?
  3. Where is the disguised learning? What other lessons can be gained by playing the game?
  4. Is it inclusive? Can anyone play regardless of ability? Does anyone get eliminated or left out? Does it foster stereotypes or biases?
  5. How do students react to the activity? Do they enjoy it and ask to repeat it?

Walk through an activity with staff members prior to using it with a group of youth for the first time.

You can more easily refine setup and directions, and address and resolve issues of safety prior to adding the energy of youth to the activity. When you implement it with your students, keep the rules simple. Then, let the youth do the activity to learn how it works.

Avoid getting caught up in explaining the activity so thoroughly that there is little time to do the activity itself. If too much time is wasted picking teams or organizing the group and materials, youth will become disillusioned and the momentum for learning will be lost.

Briefly show them and then let them go! Simply monitor and adjust as the game plays out. Also, don’t be too tied to the official rules, or one way of implementing the game or activity. As the youth interact with each other, they will come up with extremely creative ways to make things more interesting and engaging.

When the activity is finished, debrief to help the participants focus on the lessons learned.

This is an extremely important step. Structure your activity to allow for sufficient time to reflect, discuss, and bring closure. If you run short on time, revisit the learning later. The procedure is very simple; asking the right questions is the difficult part. Effective activity facilitators ask questions that encourage youth to analyze the thoughts and emotions that result from their participation. Below are some simple strategies to design questions that help generate thoughtful answers:

  • Avoid asking “why” questions. They are often seen as aggressive questions and usually solicit one of two answers: “because” and “I don’t know.” Ask “what” questions instead. Rather than asking, “Why did you do that?” ask “What just happened that caused you to make that choice?”
  • Ask questions that help youth identify their feelings and their thoughts. Help them personalize the activity by relating it to something in their experiences, such as relationships, school, or home life.
  • Use Benjamin Bloom’s Higher Order Thinking Skills (H.O.T.S.). Bloom’s hierarchy of questioning strategies is designed to move from simple to more thought-provoking questions. Too often, the questions we ask come from the lower three levels of knowledge, comprehension, and application. This, however, is only the beginning of encouraging participants to think about what they are learning. Questions that require analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of new ideas are far more difficult to answer but provide the greatest depth of learning.
  • Ask open-ended questions that help participants take a stand, devise a plan, offer an opinion, and support their views with facts, not just feelings.

Below are some questions designed to focus learning outcomes on positive skills and behaviors.

  • What about this activity would help you make better choices regarding who and where you spend your free time?
  • What in this experience reminds you of the challenges you face as you problem solve in your life?
  • How does this activity demonstrate the effect your peers have on your decisions?
  • How did this activity reveal your character strengths and areas where you may struggle or lack confidence or skills?
  • What did this activity teach you about communicating with others and making your relationships more productive/supportive/fulfilling?
  • What helped you and your group be effective and how do those skills translate into real-life situations?

Below is a list of numerous websites that offer descriptions of hundreds of free activities and games. Use the following activity and description below to assess how you might use each activity in your program:


Creates a positive atmosphere and helps participants relax and get to know each other. Can also be used to energize and motivate students and break down social barriers.


Helps groups acknowledge, accept, and work with a variety of people. Can vary in intensity and usually has a specific tasks to complete. Is often used as a precursor to the more complicated problem-solving, decision-making, and communication activities.


Goes beyond working together and incorporates analysis, evaluation, and decision making. More open-ended than teambuilding in how a task is completed. Requires formulating a plan, following through to implementation, and evaluating the effectiveness of the choices made by the group. Often requires accomplishing the goal(s) with limited or restricted resources.


Gets the group talking. Can involve role-playing and/or answering questions that place participants in certain situations, paradoxes, or dilemmas.


Ice Breakers, Fun Games, and Group Activities

ELT Resources

Group Games

Great Group Games: Your Ultimate Group Game Resource

Youth Group Games

Ultimate Camp Resource

Fun and Games

Activities Center

Training Games

For breakfast I had Eggo Waffles with applesauce!

Author Profile: @gkgorke

This post originally appeared on the Breakfast Club Blog on February 16, 2010.

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