Ask group members to describe their experience of volunteering today by using weather descriptions. They should give the forecast and then explain why they chose it. For example, “Today was mostly sunny with scattered showers. The student I was tutoring made a lot of progress, but they kept getting discouraged whenever they got a wrong answer.”
Additional Option: Draw your weather reports using pastels, crayons, or markers.
Rate the Day
Go around and have each person rate the how their volunteering went on a scale from 1 to 10. Encourage people to explain why they chose the number they did. People are free to pass if they wish.
Compare & Contrast
This is a good activity for the first day of volunteering for new volunteers.
Pre-Service: Ask participants what they anticipate from the experience:
- What do you expect to encounter?
- How do you expect to act / interact?
- What do you know about this issue / these people?
Post-Service: Ask everyone what they experienced, and compare this to their expectations:
- What surprised you about your experience?
- Were there any stereotypes you held about this issue / these people?
- Is there anything you would do differently in the future?
Bring an assortment of multi-coloured candies (or timbits) and have a list of questions that they answer for each candy they take. Below are some suggestions:
- Green: What has surprised you so far in our volunteering?
- Orange: In what way has volunteering here met with what your expectations were before you started?
- Red: What aspect of our volunteering would you like to learn more about or experience more?
- Purple: What was a moment in volunteering today where you felt most at home?
- Yellow: What was a moment in volunteering today where you felt least at home?
- Blue: How did it go today?
Have each person find a partner and discuss a particular question. Then open it up for large group discussion or do a go-around on the same question. This is helpful for breaking the ice on a topic because some people find it less intimidating to discuss with one other person. Alternatively, you could have people break into groups of three or four.
Pass around a “magic wand” and have each person share one thing they wish for in the world. (i.e. if they could change one thing in the world by magic waving a wand, what would it be?)
Moment of Silence
Ask the group to silently think about a question for 20 seconds before inviting the group to discuss. This is especially helpful if you find that the same few people are always participating in the discussion and others stay quiet. Some people need some time to formulate their thoughts, so allowing this time makes it easier for these people to participate.
One Minute Life Stories
Give people in your group a few minutes to think about their ‘life story’ (you might provide them with paper and pen to write down what they wish to share; this is especially useful for some personality types). Optional alternative: ask people to think of 3 sentences to describe their life. Then have group members take turns recounting their life story to the group in 1 minute.
After each person has shared, lead into reflection with questions like:
- What parts of our stories are similar or different from each other?
- Which parts of our stories might be similar or different from the people we’re serving?
- How has your life story contributed to where you’ve ended up today?
- How do you or could you use these life experiences when you’re volunteering?
What quotation, saying, poem, song lyric, or words of wisdom have you heard in your lifetime that has stuck with you? Why is it meaningful to you? How does it relate to your service?
A Day in the Life
Ask participants to imagine living a day in the life of one of the service recipients. You could take a few minutes of silence for this and have people write down what they imagine the day would be like. Go around and have each person describe the day they imagined (with the option to pass if they wish).
- How do you feel in these shoes?
- How does this compare to a day in your life?
- What information are you missing about how this person might live?
- In what ways does this make you want to change anything about your service?
Task of the Day
On the way to the placement or before your volunteering, ask a “task” of your volunteers. For example, invite the volunteers to ask clients that they work with what their favourite food is, and then at the beginning of your reflection see if everyone remembered to complete the task and what their answers are. This is a fun way to encourage volunteers to get to know the people they are serving.
Questions from a Hat
Each person picks a question from a hat and gives their own response or ideas. Others can also add their thoughts before moving to the next question. Questions should challenge people to think about the issues that they are facing in their volunteering, such as why their service is needed and how our society could better address specific problems.
Emotional Flash Cards
Create flash cards that have different emotions on them. Have group members go through and pick out a few emotions they experienced that day and explain what caused that emotion.
Web of Dedication
Have participants form a large circle. Ask the group a question and give the first person to answer a ball of yarn. After they answer, they should hold the end of the yarn and throw the ball to someone else. After the next person answers, they hold on to a portion of the string and throw the ball. Everyone continues in this way and when the group is done they will be connected by a huge web. This is also a neat photo opportunity! And you can continue discussing how the issues you’ve been talking about are interconnected, like this visual network suggests. (adapted from A Guide to Leading Reflection in Alternative Break Programming by Sarah Seams)
Examples of questions include:
- What will you take home with you from this experience?
- What is your favourite memory from volunteering today?
- What would it look like to realize our interconnection with everyone we encountered today?
Each person shares one thing that they have learned about themselves while volunteering. This activity can be extended, after each person talks, by having other group members respond and tell them things they’ve learned about them as well (this part might take longer than typical reflections).
Have each person read part of the newsletter from the organization that you are serving with (for example, Community Volunteer Action publishes a semi-annual newsletter with stories and reflections by other volunteers who serve in our weekly groups).
- What do you connect with or identify with?
- What new ideas or insights does this prompt regarding your experiences?
Compile some statistics about the neighbourhood or people group that you are serving, or about social issues that are relevant to your placement. Have volunteers go around and take turns reading out loud (or cut up the stats and hand them out to be read one at a time).
Questions for Discussion:
- What stood out to you or surprised you?
- Where have you noticed these realities while volunteering?
- How do these issues affect the people that we volunteer with?
- How is the volunteer work that we’re doing helping to alleviate these social issues and needs?
- What could we do to address the root causes of these issues?
Additional Option: have your group members journal about the questions before discussing.
Divide the group in half by numbering off 1, 2, 1, 2, etc. Have one half of the group form a tight circle in the centre of the room facing out. The remaining people then face in and pair up with someone in the inner circle to form a larger outer circle. The facilitator then poses a question for each pair to discuss. After a few minutes, either the inner or outer circle is asked to rotate to the right or left. Another question is asked for the new pair to discuss.
Example questions include:
- What was one thing that stuck in your mind from today’s volunteering?
- What brings people to the service site (including volunteers)?
- What connections do you see between this experience and what you’ve learned in your university courses?
See Topics and Questions for Reflection for more examples of questions you could use with this activity.
Speed Reflection (a variation on Concentric Circles)
Have your group divide into two and have the two groups form straight lines facing each other; this ensures everyone has a partner. Give a question for each pairing to discuss for one or two minutes. Then one of the groups moves to the right and discusses the same question. Repeat a few times and then give another question.
“Reading” your Experience
- Tell the group that we are going to take a minute of silence. Ask each person to reflect on their experience of volunteering today and notice a word or phrase that stands out to them or catches their attention from their service experience. Go around and each person shares their word or phrase without comment, passing if they like. You can also use this activity with other questions or a short reading as the focal point for the minute of silence. For example: What surprised / encouraged / disturbed you about our city and its needs? See Topics and Questions for Reflection for more examples of questions you could use with this activity.
- During another minute (or two) of silence, each person notices if there is a story, experience, image, feeling, or further explanation that relates to their word or phrase. Do another go-around where each person shares their story, experience, or image (passing if they wish). Let the group know that we’re not going to respond to or discuss other peoples experiences at this time, just listen as each person shares.
- During another couple minutes of silence, each person notices something they would like to give attention to or an action they would like to commit to that connects with what they’ve noticed. Follow with another go-around where each person shares their action commitment or what they wish to give attention (passing if they wish).
Have all volunteers sit in a circle with lit candles. The facilitator shares a dark part (or feeling) about the volunteer experience and blows out their candle. The next person shares and so on until the room is dark. The facilitator lights their candle and shares a happy moment of the experience or something that they would like to improve over a period of time. Then you light the candle of the person sitting next to you with your candle. Slowly the room becomes light. This is an intense sharing experience—lots of analogies can be made with dark and light. Note: for very large groups you may want to check whether the fire alarm system can be triggered by the smoke from the candles.
Dark/Light Moments (adapted for year-end holiday season)
Explain that at this time of year when so many holiday celebrations (Diwali, second Eid, Hannukak, Christmas, etc.) recognize the longing for the return of light, we will reflect on our own longing for light in the situations we encounter in volunteering as well as where we have noticed light. Someone starts by sharing something from their volunteer experience which is an area where they long for light in the darkness. They light their candle from the previous person’s in hopes of illuminating this darkness. Go around a second time and each person shares where they have noticed light in their volunteer experience.
Using the question: “How was your volunteer experience today?” designate one wall of the room as a scale where one end represents “Really Good” and the other end represents “Not So Good.” Have participants stand on the scale in the spot that best describes their experience that day. After they have placed themselves on the scale, ask if anyone would like to share about why they chose the spot that they did. Repeat with other questions if time allows. See Topics and Questions for Reflection for more examples of questions you could use with this activity.
Rose and Thorn
Have participants think about their volunteering experience and share a high point (rose) and a low point (thorn). Use further questions to explore the reasons for the high points and low points. This is part of “So What?” on the Experiential Learning Cycle. For example, if someone shares about a child having behavioural difficulties in a certain activity, you could ask:
- Why do you think this child responded the way s/he did to this activity?
- What might they have been feeling or thinking?
- What could they have been afraid of?
- Also use “Now What?” questions such as, What might help to prevent this behaviour the next time we do this activity?
Ask participants to brainstorm ideas about how their service relates to broader social issues:
- How does this service project relate to issues we hear in the news?
- What does this agency do to change the social situation?
- What more can be done to address this issue?
- What are the societal issues that influence this problem?
Take a Card, Any Card
Take a pile of index cards and write a different question on each card. Give one card to each group member. Whenever the facilitator calls out “front to front” each person finds a partner and begins discussing the question on their cards. When the facilitator calls out “back to back” the duo exchanges cards, turns around and stands back to back with each other (talking usually ceases when they aren’t facing each other). When the facilitator calls out “front to front,” each person finds a new partner and begins discussing the questions on their new cards. After a few exchanges, bring the group back together and ask for volunteers to share some of their discussions. Questions can be related to what happened in volunteering that day, to challenges or issues that you encounter as a group, or simply getting to know other volunteers.
Imagining the Future
Ask volunteers to imagine that the year is 10 years into the future, and the participants in the group have rejoined for a reunion. As a group, reflect on all of the changes that have happened because of the service you’ve completed and the difference that work has made on your life.
Additional Option: Have participants draw their responses to the question before discussing.
Give each volunteer a piece of paper to write down a problem or concern they face with volunteering in general or at that specific placement. Shuffle the papers with the problems / questions that people wrote down and hand a problem to each person. Have one person read a question / problem. The next person in the circle suggests a solution. Each subsequent person then builds on this solution until it seems that the group has run out of solutions. When the group is done building solutions for the first question, the next person in the circle reads another question / problem and the process continues, until you have addressed all the problems. The facilitator can also pose further questions such as:
- If these solutions exist, why have they not been implemented?
- Do you think that the people affected by this problem would agree with these solutions?
- Who might not agree? etc.
Six Thinking Hats
The Six Thinking Hats method by Edward de Bono is a framework that helps a group to view a problem or question from a variety of perspectives. The problem or concern to focus on can be suggested by the facilitator or decided by the group. Divide into groups of six (if the group size doesn’t evenly divide into six then have an extra person or two in some of the groups). Assign each group member one of the thinking hats. The group is to brainstorm on solutions for a problem while the each member deliberately adopts the perspective of their thinking hat.
The six thinking hats are:
- White (observing facts) – presents the facts of the issue
- Green (creative) – generates ideas on how the issue can be handled
- Yellow (logical positive) – evaluates the merits of the ideas, lists the benefits
- Black (logical negative) – lists the drawbacks of the ideas
- Red (emotions) – gets everyone’s gut feelings about the alternatives
- Blue (observing process) – summarizes information
The best facilitators are those who do not consider themselves to possess the “expertise” but work cooperatively with the expertise and experiences of the participants. A Free Association is a simple technique that quickly draws on, and captures, the true expertise of the group. This method of facilitating simply asks the participants to freely associate answers to certain questions.
Example: “Generate twenty solutions to apathy on campus;” “List/brainstorm what is empowerment;” and “what do we know about Marxism?” All of these questions used in a Free Association will enable the facilitator to quickly chart responses from the group and gain a sense of the levels of sophistication and the “teachers” hidden with the group. (from STACS Manual, Pennsylvania Campus Compact)
Critical Life Messages
Share the following Critical Life Messages for children of ALL ages with your group. I believe in you. I trust you. I know you can handle this. You are listened to. You are cared for. You are very important to me. (Critical Life Messages are from Barbara Coloroso, Kids Are Worth It!).
Questions for Discussion:
- Who in your life taught or showed you this?
- How did they do this?
- How have we been showing these messages to the people we work with?
- What are some other ways in which we could do this?
- What other messages would you add to the list?
Additional Option: Before discussing, set aside five minutes for everyone to journal in response to the critical life messages and some of the questions. Let people know that there will be an opportunity to share their insights, but that they can choose at that time how much of their reflections they wish to share.
The facilitator or participant starts to tell the story of the day. When the speaker omits a detail, someone else in the group says “gotcha” and continues. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, rather it is a way to promote sharing of details and feelings, and to point out differences in experiences and interpretations. (from Chesborough & Hill)
Additional Option: A participant starts the story of the day with one sentence. The next person in the circle adds the next sentence and you continue around the circle with each person’s addition.
Stories that Shape Us
Ask volunteers to think (or journal) about: What stories have formed or shaped you as a person? What story or ideas did you grow up with that contribute to your values and why you volunteer? Go-around and have each person share a story that has formed them into the person they are and how the values they gained from it relate to the volunteer work you are doing (stories could be anything from childhood stories such as Dr. Suess to stories from various religious faiths).
Begin with the following quote: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Karl Menninger
Have volunteers pair up with another person. Each person takes 2 minutes to talk about how they feel their volunteer experience has been going (or perhaps a highlight from your group reflections). The person who is listening and not speaking can use only non-verbal communication such as eye contact, nodding, or body language. When one person has spoken for 2 minutes, switch roles.
Discuss the following questions with your group members:
- How was your experience as the talker? As the listener? What was easy or challenging?
- What helps you feel listened to?
- What is important to active listening?
- What challenges do you find to listening deeply?
- Why is it important be deeply listened to?
Stand and Declare
The facilitator makes a statement to the group, to which members can strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. Groups form around each of the four responses to the statement, showing the group’s “differences.” Members from each opinion group are asked to explain their stance, fleshing out the many facets of the issue. People need to listen carefully, and can change positions if they change perspectives. This activity helps everyone learn to disagree without being disagreeable, but must be carefully facilitated. Questions are intentionally stated to allow for personal interpretation and to limit responses to one of the four categories. Several group members will want to take some sort of an intermediate stance, but should be encouraged to choose the stance about which they feel the strongest, or which is their instinctive response. Part of processing this activity can then be discussion of how it felt to be so limited and categorized. (by David Sawyer)
Questions should proceed from lower risk statements to higher risk, more controversial statements. Sample statements include:
- “Service” isn’t really “service” if people are getting paid.
- Direct service is mostly charity work and does little to promote social justice.
- Public education does a good job of preparing young people for the future.
- The goal of volunteering is the transformation of the community.
- Service makes a lasting impact on the participants / community.