We started a new junior youth group in Lakewood last week, a group of 11- and 12-year-old girls. I’m really excited. Not only do they all live close by me, but they’re as funny, smart, and intensely creative as I could hope for. I can tell we’re going to have lots of fun.

Someone recently asked me to write down in detail what we did on our first day. Starting a new group, without established routines, can be pretty nerve-wracking if you’ve never done it before. So here’s what we did.

Introductions. We mentioned names, ages, and what street we lived on. I use age instead of grade deliberately. I don’t want to cause awkwardness by drawing attention to the fact that people of the same age might be at different grade levels. It can also be uncomfortable for homeschooled kids.

Introduction of the Program. I talked about three major goals of the program, while co-animator Nasim took notes on a chart:

  • Spiritual and Material Excellence. Material excellence encompasses knowledge, skills, physical abilities, and academics. Spiritual excellence in this context refers to virtues and character, as well as improving their connection to any faith they might happen to practice (if any). I showed the girls a copy of Breezes of Confirmation, which will be our workbook for the summer.
  • Service to the community. What would the world be like if nobody helped one another? It’s up to us not only to develop ourselves as individuals, but as a community and a culture.
  • Friendship and Fun. Friendship is an important part of both individual and community life. Let’s be good friends!

Brainstorming Possibilities. What do we hope to do, develop, or learn in the group? We put chart paper and magic markers on the floor, and everyone wrote or drew their ideas at the same time, while we discussed them freely. Some were specific (play soccer, read books together) and some where more general (music, service projects, go outside), but no idea was turned down. The main purpose of this activity was to get to know the girls better (their interests, communication styles, and thought processes), while a secondary goal was to gain experience in divergent thinking skills.

Naming the Group. Given what we now knew about each other, we were challenged to come up with a name that represented the group as a whole. The same brainstorming process was followed as before, only in list format instead of willy-nilly all over the page. This was the point at which I realized how WILDLY creative our group is. After reaching our goal of 10 possible names, the group practiced their convergent thinking skills to settle on one name. They called themselves “Empowered Souls.”

Images. The next challenge was to come up with an image that represented the group, so that we could make a sign. After consulting about possible ideas, each person got a piece of scrap paper and a pencil to sketch a concept. After around 10 minutes we reconvened, and each girl (and adult) showed and explained her design. Then we went around and talked about the aspects of each that we liked best.

  • A girl with her heart shining.
  • A heart with wings.
  • Flowing lines representing the breeze for Breezes of Confirmation, the first workbook we will study.
  • The planet earth.
  • A crowd of people cheering.
  • One girl’s beautiful handwriting.

After consultation, we came up with a concept that incorporated each of these. One girl who clearly had a gift for art was given each of the sketches to take home and come up with a rough draft of the final image, which we’d then transfer to the poster board to make our sign.

Paperwork. At this point, we gave each girl a letter to her parents/guardians explaining the nature of the group, as well as a permission slip.

Snacks and Playing Outside. We had water, cheese and crackers, and cupcakes that one of the girls had baked. Nasim and Ann (the other animators, who both have teen/tween daughters) talked with a parent while I socialized with the girls.

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Materials: Flip chart paper, box of 10 markers, scrap paper, pencils with erasers, letter to parents and permission slips, sample copy of Breezes of Confirmation, snacks.

There were a lot of things that didn’t happen at this first meeting. No workbooks. No study of quotations. No development of rules, guidelines, and responsibilities. No setting of specific schedules to be followed at weekly meetings. These are all good things, but there is plenty of time in which to accomplish them. My goal for the first meeting is to develop personal relationships with the junior youth and to create a strong sense of group identity.

Due to the pre-existing relationships between these girls (most knew each other from school or city programs, and all had mutual friends), I didn’t have to do much extra work to create a safe space for them to share. Otherwise, we would have consulted on guidelines for behavior instead of launching directly into a situation where they might be tempted to criticize one another’s ideas. It’s always important to have a plan A, B, and C.

Starting a new group?

  • Be flexible.
  • Be patient.
  • Bring too many materials.
  • Enjoy yourself.
  • Observe carefully and learn about the youth.
  • Be sincere.

If you have a junior youth group, what did you do on your first day? What are your tips for making it run smoothly?