Bonfire Therapy Activity

Sitting outside this evening, I couldn’t help but think that this is the perfect time of year for bonfires. It can also be a great therapeutic activity for your participants. In fact, this bonfire therapy activity was one of my favorites for years.

In my last blog post, I talked about late-summer activity ideas. I even alluded to the bonfire therapy activity we’ll be talking about today.  

For this blog post, I am going to give you the details on how to make a typical bonfire a therapeutic activity.

picture of an outdoor activity bonfireA Bonfire…Therapy?

If you have a chance to enjoy time around a bonfire with your participants, I certainly suggest it. Of course, you want to make sure you have a safe area and clear expectations (more on this in a bit) before getting your participants around a bonfire. 

A bonfire may not work for every population, but it can be an amazing experience when appropriate. 

Let me give you an example:

If you are familiar with the TRRT blog, you probably know I spent almost a decade working with at-risk inner city youth in a residential substance abuse/mental health facility. It’s located in a far suburb of Chicago. Many of the boys I served were transported there as part of their probation agreement. 

The facility’s property had some open space as well as a small wooded area. Many of the teens never ventured beyond their block–let alone got a chance to experience an open natural area. 

When the weather was right, our Friday recreation groups were centered around a bonfire therapy activity. During the day, I had a few teens gather wood, set up the bonfire pit, and get everything ready. Some of them pre-packaged ingredients for S’mores in plastic bags (it made things A LOT easier during the bonfire therapy activity). It was a new experience for them…they wanted to help out and learn.

Prior to the bonfire, I ran a leisure education group setting the framework for the bonfire therapy activity. 

Yes. Therapy. And actually a pretty powerful experience for those that were open and willing.

Making a Bonfire Therapeutic

Most of the teens I worked with held on to a lot of emotional baggage–regret, resentment, grief, trauma, and more. I used this bonfire therapy activity as a way to help the teens let go of at least a portion of this baggage. 

Before dinner, I ran a therapy group where we defined and discussed regrets or resentments. We talked about how holding on to these negative emotions can cause more pain and be self-defeating. 

Towards the end of the group, I instructed each teen to write a regret or resentment they were willing to let go of. I assured them anything they wrote was not going to be shared with anyone–unless they needed to talk about it. Once they finished their paper, I told them to keep it into their pockets the rest of the afternoon.

I mentioned this symbolized how they are holding onto the specific regret or resentment. How it may always be with them no matter what they do.

I also told them the bonfire therapy activity would involve burning that piece of paper as a way of letting go.

The cafeteria windows overlooked the area where we would soon have the bonfire. The teens’ excitement grew as the dinner ended.

The Bonfire

I had a couple teens help me start the bonfire. Depending on how dry the weather had been in the week or so prior, I used kindling or a starter log to get it started. That got things going pretty quickly.

Groups came out in shifts. Typically, especially with teen boys, I didn’t want the group to be more than 10 or 12. The other boys got to enjoy a free recreation period while waiting.

Before anything happened. We set clear expectations such as:

  • Nobody puts anything into the fire unless instructed
  • No horseplay near the fire
  • The first part of the bonfire is the therapy activity
  • And other basic bonfire safety expectations

Starting the Bonfire Therapy Activity

Each teen was instructed to stand around the fire. They took out their piece of paper, read it silently, and thought about why this resentment or regret was causing them so much pain.

Then, one by one, they stepped towards the fire, said something (silently or out loud), and threw the piece of paper in the fire. Then they watched the piece of paper burn. I asked them to take a mental snapshot of the burning paper so the memory can be useful in the future.

image of paper burning in a fireDoes Burning Paper Solve Their Problems?

Of course not. Burning a piece of paper is not going to take all the pain away. But…it creates an important talking point to take the first small step of letting go.

When someone thinks about a regret or resentment, it often triggers a habitual series of thoughts and emotions. Remembering the burning paper is meant to be a brief, mindful pause to help stop the habitual thoughts.

As all the papers were in the fire, I told the boys to remember the image. Next time they are troubled with regret or resentment, the image is a chance to start change. Instead of indulging in all the negative emotions associated with their pain, take a few deep breaths and remember the image of the paper burning. Then mentally say, “I let go of this so I can feel better.”

This is the CRUCIAL step for making this a therapeutic activity. That pause, while it may not always work, can be the difference in how the teen is coping with the discomfort. It’s a chance for empowerment and finally take control of something that’s been nagging away at them.

Consider giving the participant a reminder of the activity–a certificate, note card, or any other token that will help them use this bonfire therapy activity as a focal point for healing.

After the Bonfire Activity  

The latter part of the bonfire was all about celebration and having a good time. We handed out the prepackaged s’mores ingredients. Gave a primer on how to properly toast a marshmallow and create s’mores. We also talked, laughed, told stories, and maybe did a couple (pretty poor) freestyle raps about the day. 

During this time, I can’t tell you how many of the boys expressed their appreciation and gratitude for the bonfire and a chance to let go. Some shared memories of better times spent with family while others talked about how they never had an experience like this.

Sure, it didn’t change all their problems. It did, however, give them a lasting good memory when a lot of their lives were filled with adversity.  

Activities like this help to plant seeds. Let’s face it: these days, lengths of stays are shortened due to insurance and other regulations. We could only do our best to plant seeds that one day, hopefully, will help someone get through a hard time or make a brave step to push forward.

Bonfire Therapy Activity without a Bonfire? SURE!

Not every facility is going to have access to an area where they can make a bonfire. You could still make the important principles of this activity work.

Do your group on resentments and regrets. Have your participants carry the pieces of paper around for a day or two. Next time you get a chance, have your group rip up or shred the papers. Then do a guided meditation where they imagine papers burning. Have them picture the papers burning as vividly as possible using all of their senses–the smell of the bonfire, the crackle of wood, the heat of the fire on their faces…etc. 

And sure, you can do some improvised s’more and campfire activities wherever you have the room.

Like this Activity Idea?

Through the years, I really enjoyed this bonfire therapy activity. Two decades of RT also taught me a lot of other important lessons for creating and running groups. 

My new book, Therapy Games for Teens, comes out this month (September 2020). It has 150 activity ideas addressing issues like depression, anxiety, communication, and trauma. It’s affordable (probably less than a family-size pizza with your favorite toppings) and it may become the worn, go-to book you thumb through while looking for new activities for your participants.   

Check it out. My goal was to create a book I wished I had when starting out as a Recreational Therapist. 

We are a Community!

The Real Recreation Therapist LogoIf you found this article helpful, give some LOVE! Write a comment. Share it on your favorite social media. Or even drop me a line. I love hearing from you. 

We’re in a pretty strange time. It’s more important than ever for RTs to band together and share whatever resources we have to improve the lives of our participants. 

Don’t forget to like the Real Recreation Therapist Facebook page. If you use Pinterest, check out my Recreation Therapy board with pins from featured articles and other resources.

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Stay safe and well. Can’t wait to hear from you!

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