Introductory Activities for Life Skills Action Charts

Cooperation is a life skill.

Gaining Control of Your Diet  – Gourmet’s Nightmare: (Age range: 5 – 17; Group size: 1 – 35; Materials needed: food)

Mahatma Gandhi said that self-control begins with the palate. Introduce this activity by sharing stories about people like him who have observed extended fasts or have gone on special diets. Then challenge the children to see how much control they have over their sense of taste. Prepare a “banquet” of typically unpalatable foods, such as cranberry juice, raw onion slices, lime sections, vinegar, ginger root pieces, and cayenne pepper. These suggestions are ranked in my order of offensiveness, but you can alter the arrangement and add other foods.

Divide the children into groups of four to eight. Have one group come up to the banquet at the front of the room, letting each person select a delicacy. When they all have their food, ask them to face the rest of the class and begin eating. The goal is for the children to calmly eat one or more of these foods without showing any signs of disgust. You may have to demonstrate that this task is indeed possible because, as with most character building, nothing can replace a good role model.

Living Truth – Story: Everything Turns Out for the Best

There once was a king who had an advisor known for his unwavering attitude that “Everything always turns out for the best.” One day while they were on a hunting trip, the king accidentally cut his thumb so badly that it had to be amputated. As they were returning to the castle, the advisor offered his usual comment that “Everything always turns out for the best.”  Outraged at the advisor’s apparent lack of sympathy, the king had him thrown in the dungeon.

When his wound had healed, the king returned to his favorite hunting grounds. This time, however, he wandered away from his party and fell into the hands of a group of vicious bandits. The bandits believed in making human sacrifices to their gods and were on the verge of making an offering of the king when they noticed his missing thumb. Believing that this deformity made the king impure, they released him and went on their way.

When the king made his way back to the castle, he immediately ran to the dungeon and released his advisor, saying, “Can you ever forgive me? I see now that your advice was correct. My injured thumb actually saved my life.” The advisor responded simply, “Yes, your majesty, as I always say, everything turns out for the best.” The king studied his advisor with deepened respect, but then asked, “It may be true that my accident was best for me, but for you it meant an uncomfortable stay in the dungeon. Isn’t it true that things turned out badly for you?” The advisor smiled and said, “But, your majesty, if you had not put me in the dungeon, I would have accompanied you on the hunting trip. When the bandits caught us, they would have released you because of your thumb. But as you see, I have no injury that would have kept me from becoming their sacrifice!”

Making Friends – Story: The Riddle of the Two Dogs

A dog was roaming the countryside in search of a new home. Coming upon a small village, he trotted up to a farmhouse to see what kind of a reception he would get. Because the front door was wide open, he walked up and cautiously poked his head in. He immediately jumped back in fright at the sight of many growling dogs that began barking furiously. The dog backed away and ran off, convinced that this was a most unfriendly place.

A few minutes later a second dog wandered down the road. He, too, was homeless and went up to the same house to investigate. When he poked his head in the front door, he was delighted to see several dogs, all happily wagging their tales in welcome. The dog knew he had found his next home.

Riddle: How can you explain the completely opposite experiences the two dogs had?

Answer: The house was very unusual in that it was filled with mirrors. The first dog, being suspicious, began to growl at the mirror images. When they growled back, he began to bark. When they barked, he ran off in fear. The second dog was friendlier. His first response to seeing all the dog images was to wag his tail. When they all wagged back, he was sure that he had found a place filled with friends.

The moral of the story: Our initial approach to people largely determines the kind of relationships we will have. Or, as others have phrased it, “To have a friend, first be a friend.”

Nurturing Even-Mindedness – Immovable Warrior (as a way of working with the flow of energy, rather than resisting it stiffly)

Divide the children into pairs. Each child then stands with feet together and palms upraised, facing his or her opponent at a distance of one to two feet. The objective is to cause the other child to lose balance by slapping palms against the opponent’s palms (no hanging on). Feinting is a good strategy, but touching any other part of the opponent’s body besides the palms is grounds for disqualification. The first child to move either foot even slightly loses. Surprisingly, size is not an advantage in this exercise. Often small children have been able to dislodge bigger ones.

Practicing Peace – Peace Pilgrim (Age range: 7 and up; Group size: 8 – 35)

The game focuses on the point that peace is first experienced inwardly. Ask the children if they have met anyone who helped them feel peaceful just by being around that person. Then talk about people whose lifework was to share peace. A woman who took the name of Peace Pilgrim is a good example. In the 1950s she took a vow to walk for peace. Selling all she owned, she began a journey that eventually covered more than 25,000 miles and nearly 30 years until her passing in 1981. Her message was a simple one: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”

Before the game starts, secretly designate someone as Peace Pilgrim. (If your group is 15 or more, designate two Peace Pilgrims, thereby quickening the pace of the activity.) Call the group together and explain that the game consists of everyone walking around the room and greeting one another by looking each child in the eyes, shaking hands, and saying, “Peace.” (You may want to demonstrate this procedure.) The only exception is that Peace Pilgrim will wink when she or he shakes someone’s hand. The person who has been winked at will then greet two more people in the usual way and then sit down in a calm position with closed eyes, exemplifying peace. As Peace Pilgrim completes the journey around the room, more and more people will be quietly seated, and the room will gradually manifest the quality of peace.

Sharpening the Mind – Attention Trays  (Age range: 4 – 17; Group size: 1 – 35; Level of use: Introductory; Materials needed: tray, cloth, assorted small objects: paperclips, nails, toothpicks, etc.)

Before you meet with the children, arrange several small objects on a tray and cover the tray with a cloth. Have the children gather around the tray so they all have an unobstructed view. Remove the cloth for a few seconds and then quickly replace it. Ask everyone to write down each object they saw.

Always begin with a challenge that gives everyone a chance to be successful, for example, five objects displayed 5-10 seconds. You can then build up to 15 objects for 15 seconds, or even beyond. With large groups, an overhead projector will be helpful.

Working with Others  – The Trust Circle  (Age range: 4 – 17; Group size: 1 – 35)

  • Divide the children into groups of six to eight.
  • Have each group stand, facing one another in a tight circle with one child in the center. For safety’s sake, do this activity on a carpet or other soft surface.
  • Ask the child in the center to close his or her eyes (blindfolds are another option) and stand perfectly straight, crossing the arms in front of the chest and locking all the joints except the ankles.
  • Instruct another child to gently push the center child on the back or arms.
  • The children on the opposite side of the circle catch the center child and gently send him or her back.

If the child in the center succeeds in locking the hips, knees, and shoulders, the feet will stay in one place while the rest of the body pivots around the circle, completely at the mercy of the other children. After a minute or so, have someone else take the center spot, continuing until everyone has had a turn.

Life Skills Charts Introductory Activities:
When introducing the Life Skills Charts, it helps to start with an activity that awakens enthusiasm. Suggested activities for each chart are available below. These activities are mainly drawn from the book For Goodness’ Sake: Supporting Children and Teens in Discovering Life’s Highest Values. Other games, songs, and stories can be used, as long as they have an element of fun in them. The time spent should be 5-10 minutes, ending with a short discussion on the overall theme of the chart.

The Awake and Ready Exercises

This activity can overcome lethargy and laziness by teaching children to use their will power to increase their level of energy. A helpful saying is: “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” You will find that these exercises work not only with children, but also are an ideal way to raise your energy level whenever you feel tired.

Begin by demonstrating that there are different levels of energy and will. Extend one forearm and tense the muscles, first at a low level, then at a medium level, and finally at a level so high that your arm vibrates with energy. Relax. Now ask everyone to stand and tense a forearm, holding the tension until you have had time to give each child feedback on his or her level of energy. Quickly move from child to child placing your fingers on the forearm and saying low, medium, high, or super-high in response to the level of energy you perceive. Challenge the children to see if there is a limit to the level of tension they can manifest.

Next, introduce the following set of exercises, pointing out that the more energy they put into the movements, the more benefit they will receive from them. All exercises should be done at a brisk, lively pace.

1) March in place (20-30 times) with arms swinging while repeating aloud, “I Am Awake and Ready! I Am Awake and Ready! . . .”

2) a) Start with the fists touching the chest, then stretch the arms out to the sides while
saying loudly, “I Am Positive!”

b) Quickly bring the fists back to the chest, then extend the arms forward while saying “Energetic!”

c) Again bring the fists back to the chest, stretch the arms high above the head, open the hands and rise up on the toes while saying, “Enthusiastic!”

Repeat three or more times.

3) Rub your arms, chest, abdomen, and legs with open hands while repeating several times, “Awake, Rejoice My Body Cells!”

4) Rap your knuckles briskly all over your skull while repeating, “Be Glad My Brain, Be Wise and Strong!”

5) With closed fists gently but energetically strike the arms, chest, abdomen, and legs repeating, “I Am Master of My Body, I Am Master of Myself!”

After you have introduced the exercises, wait until the children’s energy is a little low, but not so low that they are entrenched in negativity. Ask them to notice how they feel, then have them stand up and lead them through the exercises. Afterwards, ask if they can notice the difference in the level of energy. Once children have experienced the power of these exercises, you can use them whenever their energy starts to get low.

Building Will Power – Five Kinds of Will  (Age range: 7 and up; Group size: 5 – 35)

Will power is among the most important of the invisible muscles of character development. Because of its invisibility, however, it is hard for young children to grasp its value as well as the subtleties of its use. A helpful approach is to involve children in a role-playing activity that highlights the following five stages of will power:

Stage One: Physiological Will: An instinctive urge to satisfy basic physical needs such as hunger, thirst, and the avoidance of pain. Babies are the clearest example of this kind of will.

Stage Two: Unthinking Will: The passive acceptance of other people’s ideas or commands that young children often show toward their parents.

Stage Three: Blind Will: The careless exercise of newly awakened independence or rebellion that is common among older children when they act without concern for the consequences.

Stage Four: Thinking Will: The need to consider the probable effects of one’s actions and choose those actions that promise beneficial results. Usually develops out of the catastrophes of Stage Three.

Stage Five: Dynamic Will: A highly refined development of the will that is best demonstrated by the lives of people like Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. This stage reaches for a goal that seems impossible to most people, and then succeeds because the person is able to draw on seemingly superhuman sources of energy.

After describing these levels, divide the children into groups of five. Tell them to decide among their group who will portray each of the five levels. When the casting is complete, ask each group to choose a dramatic setting, for example, climbing a mountain, rowing a boat, making dinner, or other group endeavor. If there are difficulties in choosing parts or selecting plots, provide help as needed. Give the groups 5-10 minutes to practice their skits, then call all the children together. Tell them that as each group performs, the job of the audience is to decide which character is portraying which level of will power. Make sure the audience lets each group play out its skit without interruption. Children can raise their hands when they think they have figured out the characters, but must wait for your signal before voicing their ideas. If the acting seems vague, ask for volunteers from the audience to demonstrate how the different levels of will might be portrayed.

Choosing Happiness – Fortunately/Unfortunately (for young children you can use Yeah/Boo): Age range: 7 and up; Group size: 6 – 12

Everyone sits in a circle. The leader (probably you) starts a simple story beginning with the word fortunately. For example, “Fortunately, this morning my father gave me some money so I could buy some ice cream.” The next person in the circle continues the story, but begins with the word unfortunately and turns the story in a disappointing direction. “Unfortunately, the ice cream store was closed today.” The next person reverses the tide again and might say, “But fortunately, there was a family sitting outside the store making homemade ice cream.” The fourth person could add, “Unfortunately, the flavor was licorice.”  The story continues around the circle, alternating positive and negative twists until it gets back to the leader. You can end the story or send it around again, depending on the group’s interest and energy level.

Cultivating Courage – Cooperate or Die!! (Age range: 5 and up; Group size: 4 – 35)

Find a log (a raised board or even a curb will do) that is long enough to support all of your children and ask them to stand on it. To set the scene, tell them that the log is actually a suspension bridge spanning a canyon that is at least a thousand feet deep. To fall off the log is to meet certain death on the jagged rocks below. Now tell them that secret orders have just arrived from headquarters stating that they have lined up the wrong way and that it is imperative they rearrange themselves in a different order (for example, by height or age). Their job is to help one another find their new places without falling into the canyon. Resurrect those who do fall and have them stand next to you to cheer on the others.

Developing Concentration – Stretch Your Mind (Age range: 9 – 17; Group size: 1 – 35)

To expand your children’s appreciation for the potential of the human mind, try this activity. Verbally give them a simple three- to five-step mental math problem (e.g. 5 + 1 x 3 – 4). (Mathematical purists should momentarily forget about the order of operations rule.) Do something simple enough so everyone can get the correct answer. Next, ask the group to count mentally as you clap your hands rhythmically a few times. Again, everyone should be able to get the right answer. Now, repeat the two kinds of problems, except do them simultaneously. (You may need an assistant to perform one of the tasks.) At first the children will tell you it’s impossible to get both answers, but by deepening their concentration, they will succeed.

There is no end to the degree of challenge you can present. Other examples include the following:
Listen to a poem and repeat it verbatim.
Listen to a set of directions for creating a geometric pattern and then produce a sample.
Listen to a conversation and list the topics discussed in their exact order.
Count the revolutions of a wheel that is spinning.

I read about a school that trained its students to do all six activities simultaneously!

Expanding Sensitivity – Mirroring  (Age range: 5 and up; Group size: 2 – 34)

In the basic mirroring technique two children face each other with the follower trying to exactly mimic the movements of the leader. Divide the group into pairs, using yourself as the extra person if there is an odd number of children. Let the pairs go off by themselves for a few minutes to decide who will be the follower and who the leader and to practice their roles. Call everyone back and ask each pair to perform in front of the others. Allow about 30 seconds per “act” and then ask the audience to vote on the identities of the leader and the follower. If time and interest allow, repeat the activity by assigning new pairs. This activity also encourages creativity because there are many styles of movement. In fact, after doing this exercise a few times, you can host a talent contest with rewards for most beautiful, unusual, and funny movements.

Exploring Flexibility – Changing Perspectives
Select a series of competitive board games like Monopoly, Parcheesi, Clue, Risk, and Scrabble. Divide the class into groups of 3 – 6 students and assign each group to a particular game. Explain that you will ring a bell every 5 minutes or so. At the sound of the bell the players will rotate to a new position on the board leaving behind whatever money, position, cards, etc. they have collected for the person who takes their place. Change the rotation patterns with each ring of the bell so that students will not know which position they will be switching into. Give students a chance to express their feelings about switching places.

Forming Healthy Habits – Goal Setting

Help the students learn the art of setting realistic goals. Point out that if a goal is too easy it won’t motivate us to grow. Conversely if it’s too difficult is will also weaken our will. Ask the members of the group to hold their breath for 5 seconds – too easy, and then 90 seconds – too challenging for most people. Let them try setting an intermediate goal that would motivate them to improve.