What are great social work activities for students? I have sat through 3 years of undergraduate social work education in the UK. I have also gone for the Global Social Work conference in Dublin in 2018. Furthermore, I have gone for the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) social work conference in both 2018 and 2019. Additionally, I have gone for multiple personal development conferences, such as those by renowned sport psychiatrist Steve Peters. From those conferences, I have learnt how the best facilitators conduct their training to help everyone to learn. There are many ideas there that will be useful as social work activities.
I do not state this to boast. I state this to show that I’ve had experiences of what great social work activities look like. But I’ve also had poor experiences of how boring other activities can be.
One of the worst ones came during a cold winter afternoon. A facilitator came in, and told one of us to hold a long piece of yarn in our hand. She would then unravel some more. She would then ask another student, standing at another corner of the room, to hold another. The process was repeated until the entire room was filled with criss-crosses of thread. She was trying to teach us that systems were linked. That was a long (forgive the pun!) way of teaching something.
Let’s begin with examples of the best social work activities for students. I also add the items needed. The activities start with the activities that do not need many props, to the ones that do. I hope it helps you to make your lessons more fun and interesting!
1. Why social work?
During a lesson on a cool autumn morning, our social work professor stunned us. She told us to stand, one after another, and explain why we had chosen to do social work. This activity is memorable for how it forced all of us to think about why we did social work. But it also created much excitement in class as each of us heard about our motivations for social work.
This activity is simple to do, with only clear instruction needed. No props are needed.
Once, we were split into teams. Then, we were given a controversial topic. ‘Should social workers use social media to monitor their service users?’
When you do something like that, you immediately get the whole class involved. You get the whole class to research their arguments, and ensure that their arguments are cogent and coherent. It’s a great way to discuss divisive topics.
- Debate topic
I remember my therapist leading a group session on mindfulness meditation, encouraging all of us to simply sit, and observe our breathing. It was deeply relaxing, and very enjoyable. In a role like social work, it can often be difficult to remain in our own chairs, and avoid being pulled into the client’s chair. It is difficult to remain present with our own emotions, without being worried about what is going to happen with our clients. Mindfulness meditation offers a training for us to learn how to be present in the current moment, rather than being pulled into the past and future.
Meditation track, such as from Headspace
4. A letter to celebrate myself!
Too little of social work courses cover self-care, even though it is deeply important in preventing a social worker from burning out. This exercise was taught to me by my therapist, who encouraged me to do it to affirm my qualities. It’s also been recommended by the likes of Guy Winch, in his book, ‘Emotional First Aid’. In this letter, you write out the qualities that you admire about yourself. Then you state the examples where you have demonstrated those qualities.
5. Write an encouragement letter to yourself.
Placements can be very difficult for any social work student. In addition to their academic workload, they are still expected to do a full-time job. Therefore, it’s vital that we, as educators, provide them with regular encouragement along the way. Some of that can come in the form of a letter to oneself.
Passing students a postcard, tell students to write an encouragement letter to themselves on placement. Ask:
- Firstly, what would they want to say to themselves?
- Secondly, what would they do to encourage themselves?
- Lastly, what would they advise themselves?
Then, tell them to write their addresses on the card. Collect them, and then mail it out to them in a month’s time. I’m sure that many of them will be encouraged by the card, even though they wrote it themselves.
One of my most memorable lessons came when a survivor of sexual abuse came to share her story. The class was in tears following that story. Following that, she asked all of us to draw, on a big mah-jong paper, what we thought were the protective factors for people suffering sexual abuse. We drew things like a bridge to represent the security needed for someone to step across the bridge and share about the abuse. We drew things like love, to show the unconditional acceptance a survivor needed following the disclosure.
Not all social workers are textual learners. Some of them might be visual. This means that they do better when they draw out their thoughts.
- Mah-jong papers
7. Listening exercise
During a leadership conference, all of us were encouraged to take five minutes to listen to the other party. We weren’t supposed to say anything to advise them. We were only allowed to nod, and encourage them to go on through ‘yes, go on, ummm…’
It was an instructive lesson on the art of listening. Too often, as social workers, we listen with the intention of replying, rather than the intention of being there with the client. When we make this mistake, we end up hearing, but not listening. Clients hope to be understood, and the first step is to listen. This makes us more productive social workers.
8. Show and tell
In this activity, students are encouraged to bring an item that best represents what they think social workers are. For example, this can be a sponge. A sponge would symbolise how social workers are able to absorb the sufferings of others, and still squeeze it out of their system.
Such an activity encourages social work students to visualise the kind of social worker they want to be. It also allows you to look at plausible errors in the social work student’s idea of social work. One of them might be looking at social workers as heroes. We are not heroes.
Firstly, we can’t do everything. Secondly, we can’t save everybody.
Knowing this is crucial to bringing us to more realistic social work.
- Student’s prop
I remember sitting in Steve Peters’ conference, trying to figure out what was happening. We were being asked to build a Lego structure without being able to speak about what it looked like to the other. Then, we were each supposed to go up in turns to look at the structure hidden behind a board for 30 seconds. We were then supposed to communicate what the structure looked like to our team without using our mouths.
That was difficult. But it taught us how to work better in teams.
Much of social work involves teamwork. It involves working with external partners, parents, and the government to deliver a holistic service for the service user. Sometimes, we might not even be able to speak to them! We can only communicate through emails. Therefore, it’s vital that we learn how to work in teams.
This is a useful activity to encourage students to start thinking about how they can work better with teams. Without teamwork, social work will inevitably fail.
I hope these social work activities for students can help you to think more about what you can do in class. It’s time to move forward from the traditional role-plays and presentations. Try these social work activities for your students today!