By CommonAction - The youth engagement specialists  



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FireStarter Youth Empowerment Program

Following is the FireStarter Youth Empowerment Program facilitator's guide. It is specifically designed to assist youth and adult facilitators as they help young people develop a a deeper understanding of their roles in social change. This is developed for use in conjunction with the FireStarter Participant's Guide.




Table of Contents


Section 1: Notes on Facilitating FireStarter

  • Teaching versus Guiding

  • Six Points of Facilitating

  • Debriefing

  • Group Norms

  • Talking about Feelings

Section 2: Mental Challenges, Games, Twists, and Tricks

  • Going Camping

  • Silly Sally

  • Hiccups

  • Crossed or Uncrossed

  • Ancient Counting Sticks

Section 3: FireStarter Activities

  • Artistic Nametags

  • Toss-a-Name Game

  • Common Ground

  • Rainmaker

  • Human Knot

Section 4: Cooperative Games Bibliography

  • Books

Section 5: Experiential Education Resources

  • Organizations

Section 6: For more information...

  • The Freechild Project

Additional Facilitation Activities (opens in new pages)



NOTES on Facilitating FireStarter


Teaching versus Guiding

As a Firestarter facilitator, your job isn’t to teach participants – it is to guide them through a pre-determined process of self-education.  Participants should come away from Firestarter with a dedication towards solving the problems they face in the world around them.  By following the Firestarter Guidebook and using the facilitator’s packet, participants will discover, explore, build and commit themselves to becoming problem-solvers throughout their lives. 


Six points of facilitating FireStarter

After facilitating the FireStarter Youth Power Curriculum with hundreds of young people around Washington State and in Alberta, I found that there where six main things to remember. These are the six points:


1.   The goal is empowerment.  Involve participants in leading all games and activities.    Play the games and talk during discussions yourself – you aren’t above anyone; you’re here with participants. 


2.   Plan ahead.  Know your goals.  Make sure your facility is ready.  Always plan more than you’ll need.  Follow the prescribed sequence.


3.   Be safe.  Emotional and physical safety first are top priorities.  Firestarter engages participants in challenge by choice – if they don’t want to participate, don’t make them.  Make sure you have enough time.  Be clear with directions and expectations.  Stop dangerous behavior. 


4.   Be supportive and build trust.  Support individuals as well as the group.  Don’t exclude anyone – make roles for all to participate.  Know when to say when – there is always a time and a place for appropriate discussions and activities.


5.   Be prepared.  Start planning from what could go wrong, and go all the way to success.  Never do a workshop alone – always go with a ratio of two adults for every twelve youth.  You are the facilitator – not the superhero!  Have others there to support you.  And bring a first aid kit, just in case. 


6.   Have fun.  Maintain high energy and enjoy each activity – you set the tone!  Demonstrate everything as much as possible.  Mix ‘em up – don’t let participants stay in cliques or small groups too long.

Debriefing FireStarter

Although the activities listed here are fun, many of the benefits of Firestarter actually come during the debriefing.  This is the most difficult but powerful tool for any facilitator to master.  Not all activities need to be debriefed, but certain circumstances or outcomes to any event might make debriefing necessary.


There are a variety of debriefing techniques and styles, and each one is suitable for specific types of groups and activities.  With this in mind, the following is a list of various debriefing techniques.  Try to identify which would be most useful for a particular activity.


What? So What? Now What?

Begin by asking the group to talk its way through a re-creation of your previous activity.  “How did the group solve the problem in front of them?  Who contributed to that solution and how?”  Follow this with some interpretive discussion.  “Was there a better way to communicate the solution?  Was everybody’s opinion considered?  Was everybody part of the plan?  Was everybody part of the solution?”  Close by asking for lessons that this game taught that could be applied to your school’s service activities.  “What did we learn from this activity that would be useful in our school?  How could it help our service project, or our classroom?”

Self-Rating or Self-Grading

List each of the goals of Firestarter (motivate, raise awareness, and build skills, including teamwork, communication, trust and problem-solving) and ask participants how they would rate themselves and their group on the previous activity, using a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest, 10 the highest.  Let them discuss the different ratings from different group members until there seems to be a consensus.  Do not wait for total agreement, as it rarely occurs.


Group Norms

Early in Firestarter, have the group develop an agreement of how they will behave and what the repercussions will be, without facilitator interjection.  After all participants sign to signify that they value the contract fully, tape it to a neighboring wall.  Mention the group norms throughout the course.  Debrief an activity by asking the group if it adhered to the norms during the activity.  For example, “Were we safe at all times during the game?  Did anyone have a method for communicating that was ignored?”


Talking About Feelings

Tell the group you will now be debriefing the previous activity.   Ask simply “How did the previous problem make you feel?”  Expect minimal discussion or even silence.   After a few minutes of this, if the silence becomes uncomfortable, end the debriefing.  Note: Talking about feelings is difficult, especially for adolescents, so let them progress at their own pace, as they are comfortable.


Things to remember:

  • Give participants enough time to answer questions. 

  • Good facilitators find comfort in the silence. 

  • Relate activities to students’ experiences in the classroom or with the service project. 

  • These are not stand-alone activities- they must be revisited and reminded for the lessons to be fully significant. 

  • End each day with a full day’s debrief. 

  • Include all activities and encourage everyone to speak. 

  • Say thank-you’s.


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Mental Challenges, Games, Twists, and Tricks

Keep the pace up beat and energetic with these challenging mind games!




Use only what’s lying around, or nothing at all!



All of these activities are fun, although they can be a bit frustrating at times for participants.  They are meant to be fillers, perhaps before you start, break times, or after you end.  They are challenging activities, but anyone can do them. 


There’s only one rule – you can’t tell the answers!  Remember: Knowledge is earned – not given!  Try to memorize your favorite mind twist, and go without the notes.


Going Camping

Start by saying, “We’re going camping this weekend!  The thing is though that we can only bring along particular items. It’s kind of a crazy camping trip!”  Then, say one thing at a time, letting people think about each one. “We can bring a dog, but not its dog food… an elephant, but not a canary… an end table, not a lamp. . .” you add more. Answer: Things with four legs can go camping; anything else can’t.


Silly Sally

Begin with, “I’ve got this crazy friend named Silly Sally. You see, she only likes certain things, very particular things. Let me tell you about her.”  Then slowly start listing off what Silly Sally likes… “She likes apples, but not bananas… spaghetti, but not the sauce… Seattle, not Olympia… troops, not packs… Jeeps, not Fords… Bill, not Tom… the roof, but not the ceiling… the floor, but not the carpet…”  Answer: Silly Sally likes things with double letters!



Begin with, “A man walks into a restaurant and asks for a glass of water. The waitress pulls out a handgun and shoots it over his head. The man walks out with a smile on his face. What has happened here?”  Then, people can ask twenty yes/no questions.  Make sure they work as a group to find the answer, and say the challenge to them repeatedly.  Answer: The man had the hiccups. The water didn’t work, but the BANG from the handgun did. The man was cured and happily left.


Crossed or Uncrossed

Holding up two sticks, announce that you want the group to guess “Are these crossed or uncrossed?” As they guess you confirm or deny that they are crossed or uncrossed. You pass the sticks to the next guy, and he asks “Crossed, or uncrossed?” Go around the entire circle until everyone says “Oh, yeah, now I get it!”  I like to say, “Remember, the answer isn’t always in the most obvious solution.”  Answer: The answer isn’t in the sticks, but the legs of the person asking “Crossed, or uncrossed?” Are they sitting with their legs crossed or uncrossed?


Ancient Counting Sticks

Hold up three sticks in the air, and announce that they are the ancient counting sticks of Zoogoobawgooland. “These three sticks will be conformed in such a way that will represent a number.”  Then lay the three sticks on the ground in a unique way.  Answer: Show the number you wish to represent with your fingers. Put your hand someplace not too obvious… Keep having the participants guess, and keep changing the number and stick layout. Use both hands, making numbers up to 10. As you progress, keep making gestures more obvious as you go along.


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FireStarter Activities


Artistic Nametags

Asking participants to make their own nametags starts Firestarter off on a creative note.



Good creative materials – colored construction paper, felt, sparkle glue, markers, crayons, glitter, regular glue, pipe cleaners, string, and other random materials. 



As people arrive, ask them to make a nametag.  Encourage them to express themselves, and embellish as much as they want.  The more fantastic and far-out the better!  To attach the nametags you can use string or straight pins.


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Toss-A-Name Game

This game provides an action-packed way for participants and facilitators to remember each other’s names.



Crazy balls or other soft throwing items (i.e. rubber chickens, hacky-sacks, etc.)



Have the group stand in an informal circle (no hand holding necessary).  The facilitator introduces the game by saying their name, and then tosses the ball (or whatever) to a person across the circle from them.  When they throw the ball, they should introduce the person who threw it to them and themselves.  This continues throughout the circle.  Have the ball get to each person one time, and end with the facilitator.  After the ball goes around once, and ends with the facilitator, start again, including names.  After the first three people, throw in an additional ball, following the exact same route as the original.  After that, add another ball.  The objective is to have fun, learn each other’s names, and get three balls around the circle, without dropping one or overlapping each other.


Debrief notes

How did you get the ball around the circle without dropping it?  (Communication, throwing straight, eye contact.) 

What worked best?  (When I talked to Jimmy and asked him to…) 

Have we had any problems like this in our project? 

How can we solve those problems?


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Common Ground

Have fun!  Get people moving and learn a little about your neighbor.  Depending on how it’s used, this activity can get at some of the diversity, issues and interests of the group.



Enough chairs for all participants, minus one.



Group sits in a circle of chairs with one person standing in the middle (no empty chairs).  The person in the middle says “I seek common ground with… people who were born east of the Mississippi!”  Anyone who was, including the person asking the question, must get up and run across the circle to find a new seat.  You can’t take the seat of the person next to you!  There will be one person left in the middle who must ask the next question.  Possibilities include: people who… wear glasses!  Likes vanilla ice cream better than chocolate!  You can also guide the questions a little deeper… “I seek common ground with people who’ve… worked with the homeless.”  The facilitator may choose to ask the first few questions to get the game going and set the tone.


Debrief notes

Did you learn anything new about your classmates? 

Name one thing new you learned. 

Why don’t we get to know more people in our class and around the school better? 

Can we work together with new people to find success?


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A fun, active and powerful closing activity that is an instant treat for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners!


Materials – None.


Description –


1. Have the entire group sit in chairs, or on the floor, with their hands free from stuff and the feet firmly planted on the floor. 

2. I introduce the activity with the following: “Phew! (Have them repeat) It’s been a looonnnggg, hot day, and I could sure use some water!  Now that you have been learning about how to make change, do you think we could change this hot, barren desert by bringing a rainstorm?!?  (Egg it on)” 

3. Then instruct the group to do the action you do, but only when you look at them to do it, and to keep doing that action until another comes.  Slowly look around the entire circle.  The group should continue doing the movement until you look at them with a new one. 

4. Start by rubbing your palms together, and slowly show that to the entire group.  Do each motion for as long as it takes to get around the group, and 5 seconds more as a whole group. 

5. Then snap your fingers sporadically. 

6. Then clap your hands way out-of-rhythm. 

7. Then slap the tops of your legs. 

8. Then stomp your feet. 

9. Then slap the tops of your legs. 

10. Then clap your hands way out-of-rhythm. 

11. Then snap your fingers sporadically. 

12. Then rub your palms together. 

13. Then hold your hands. 

14. I like to end with the statement “You know how to make a rainstorm.  Now go and make positive change in the world!” and send the group off.


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Human Knot

A familiar challenge for even the most experienced groups!






Have the group put their hands into the center of a whole-group circle and grab at the right hand across from them in the circle.  With the other hand, grab a different person’s hand.  Have the group untangle themselves without letting go of each other’s hands.


Debrief notes

What skills did you use to get out of the knot? (Communication, teamwork, etc.)

Have you ever had a problem like this one?  Describe it. 

How can you use (communication, team work) to solve your problems as a group? 

Have we faced problems like this with our project? 

What can we do to resolve them better?


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The Lava Pit

Going through this activity will bring together their day’s work and show participants results of their time together.



20 paper plates, scotch tape.



Make up a story that the group is being chased and they need to get across a field of hot lava.  Give each group paper plates explaining that when they step on these plates they will not sink into the lava.  (Give each team about 1/3 the number of plates as people.)  The group must figure out how to get the entire group from point A to point B (both marked by scotch tape on the floor), from one side of the Hot Lava Pit to the other. 


-Only one person can be on a plate at a time, and the plates may be picked up and moved.

-The key to the game is that only part of the team will be able to cross the field at a time and one person will need to work their way back across the field to help the rest of the team across. 

-A time limit can also be placed on this game.


Debrief notes

Encourage the group to debrief this on their own.  Offer suggestions or ideas as they start, but sit back as they progress.


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Blinded Partner Walk

By trusting each other we can see where we’ll go as a group and how we’ll get there using teamwork!



Blindfolds (handkerchiefs or other non-see through fabric) for half of the group.



This can be done many different ways.  Either the whole group can be blindfolded with a seeing leader or half the group or only a few can be blindfolded.  The group must rely on each other to make it through the obstacle course or along the walk.  Other situations can also be added.  Members of the groups can be without the use of legs, arms, or speech.


Debrief notes

Encourage participants to fully lead the debrief, focusing on applying learning from the activity to their classroom, school or service learning project.


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Cooperative Games Bibliography


  • Karl Rohnke, Silver Bullets: A Guide to Initiative Problems, Adventure Games, Stunts and Trust Activities, Kendall/Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1984.

  • Karl Rohnke, Cowstails and Cobras II: A Guide to Games, Initiatives, Ropes Courses, & Adventure Curriculum., Kendall/Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1989.

  • Bag of Tricks: Adventure Notes from Karl Rohnke. A periodic newsletter with many creative and fun activities.
    Published by Karl Rohnke, P. O. Box 77, Hamilton, MA 01936.

  • Adam Fletcher, So You Wanna Be a Playa: Cooperative Games for Social Change. The Freechild Project, Olympia, WA, 2003.

  • Andrew Fluegelman, editor, More New Games!, Doubleday, New York, 1981

  • Edward Scannell and John Newstrom, Games Trainers Play: Experiential Learning Exercises, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1980.

  • Edward Scannell and John Newstrom, More Games Trainers Play: Experiential Learning Exercises, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1983.

  • Edward Scannell and John Newstrom, Still More Games Trainers Play: Experiential Learning Exercises, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1991.

  • Games that have been associated with/incorporated into service-learning projects - The National Service Learning Clearinghouse



Experiential Education Resources


  • Project Adventure - A major source of information about adventure education. Home of Karl Rohnke, leading author of materials on initiatives and cooperative games, ropes courses and challenges.

  • Association for Experiential Education - The professional society for outdoor and experiential education. This site is primarily for educators and teaching professionals.

  • NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School - NOLS is a wilderness-based, non-profit school focusing on leadership and skills.

  • Outward Bound - Outward Bound USA is a system of five wilderness schools and several urban centers in the United States. We are part of a global network that includes 40 Outward Bound Schools and centers in 20 countries. Since 1961, over 300,000 people have participated in our programs.


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Additional Facilitation Activities (opens in new window)


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The Freechild Project offers training and technical assistance on the FireStarter Youth Empowerment Program. For more information contact us.


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