Recreation Therapy Activity Ideas: Drum Circles

On the surface, beating on a drum may seem like a simple activity without much value. Anyone spending time drumming would argue otherwise. There is something calming, primal, and cathartic about drumming.

Adding drum circles to your Recreation Therapy programming gives participants with all ability levels an opportunity for a social, expressive activity. Drum circles allow people to experience the joy and healing powers of drumming while connecting with others. This activity can open up new avenues of transformation for your participants.  

What is a Drum Circle?

The name says it all. A drum circle is a group of people sitting in a circle (or semicircle if you have fewer participants) playing a variety of drums and percussion instruments. Each person has the opportunity to express themselves with their instrument while connecting people through rhythm. Drum circles can be spontaneous or use structured activities depending the prescribed outcomes of the group.

If you ever played music in a band, orchestra, or with a few like-minded friends, you probably experienced the joyful, even euphoric, feeling when everyone playing just seemed to click. When all instruments worked together to create a beautiful piece of music. Drumming helps level the playing field. It doesn’t require the ability to read music or understand complicated instruments. Although drumming can be complex, it is also user-friendly enough that beginners can experience success.

What makes drum circles a great activity is the adaptability. You don’t need expensive drums or equipment if it is out of your budget. Simple percussion instruments are affordable or can be made with items you probably already have in your supply closet.

Activity Idea: Stir up some excitement for the drum circle by making percussive instruments during a craft group.

Not a musician? You don’t have to be. Even if your musical ability is lacking, by following activity plans and having a basic knowledge of rhythm (1-2-3-4) you can make your participants’ drum circles a success.

Drums are an Important Part of our History

image of a drummerDrums are one of the humanity’s oldest musical instruments. Our tribal ancestors integrated drumming into their cultures as far back as 5500 B.C using animal skins stretched over a hollowed wooden shell.

Drums appeared in just about every ancient culture including Asia, Africa, North America, Europe, India, and the Middle East. Drumming often played a big part in sacred rituals, such as shamans entering a trance state to connect with the spirit world, and Native Americans drumming during tribal ceremonies and spiritual festivals.

In Africa, drumming was part of everyday life and often used for all types of celebrations like harvest rituals, solstice gatherings, and marriages. The influence of African drumming and rhythms spread across the globe due to migration and the slave trading industries of the past several centuries–known as the African diaspora.

As long as there has been drumming, groups have gathered to create music together. Drum circles found new popularity in the United States during the 1960s counterculture movement. Informal gatherings or “jam sessions” often met at parks, festivals, and retreats to enjoy and improvise a “drum jam.”

Recently, drum circles are influencing health, wellness, and leadership groups. Research supporting the health benefits of recreational drumming are encouraging more and more people to start the practice. A simple Google search of drum circles shows many organizations ready to bring the experience to youth groups, corporate team building events, and seniors.

Music Therapists incorporate drum circles to help their clients identify and work through emotions. Unfortunately, many of our participants don’t have access to a Music Therapist. Though Recreation Therapists don’t have the same type of training, we could still use simpler drum circle activities to help our participants address their need areas.

Who Can Drumming help?

The power of music and drumming offers benefits to everyone. Just about anybody could benefit from drumming and drum circles including individuals with these conditions:

  • Autism and other developmental delays
  • War veterans and those with PTSD
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Mood disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Chronic Pain
  • Cancer
  • Trauma survivors
  • Emotional issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger control issues

Benefits of Drumming

Though this is not a comprehensive list of the benefits of drumming, here are some highlights:

  • Improving moods: When drumming, several things happen in the brain helping to improve moods. Drumming releases endorphins–the same chemicals released after vigorous exercise–that make you feel better. Drumming also increases Alpha brain waves which allow the body to relax, focus, be creative, and even feel euphoria.
  • Helping with chronic pain: The mood-improving endorphins are also the body’s natural response to ease pain. In addition, drumming gives the participant a chance to shift their concentration on something other than pain.   
  • Boosting the immune system: Drumming helps relieve stress that takes a toll on the body and immune system. When a person manages stress, their immune system has a better chance of fighting viruses, infections, and diseases. In addition, drumming has shown to increase T-cells–a type of white blood cell–helping the body find and destroy specific pathogens.
  • Releasing negative emotions: We’ve all had those moments where we felt like punching a wall. That ill-advised coping mechanism could be replaced with drumming. The physical stimulation of hitting drums helps release or manage negative feelings and emotions.
  • Increases mindfulness: Drumming puts you in the present moment. It is an active form of mindfulness helping a person focus on the present. While drumming, it is difficult for someone to be anxious about the future or depressed about the past.

Benefits of a Drum Circle Group

Participating in a drumming circle offers additional social, emotional, and cognitive benefits including:

    • Creating a sense of connections: When the entire group has an opportunity to “sync” up and be something bigger than themselves during drum circles, it strengthens the connections and feelings of belonging with others in the group.
    • An inclusive atmosphere: Since just about anyone has the ability to drum or play an adaptive percussive instrument, drumming circles include everyone promoting self-confidence while decreasing isolation.
    • Increasing cooperation: Several drum circle activities require the group to work together to reach a common goal.
    • Improving communication: Drum circles often require a participant to use nonverbal skills like listening, gesturing, and mimicking.
    • New opportunities for self-expression: Drum circles give participants a chance to express themselves in a new way. This could be beneficial for more introverted participants who don’t like sharing in group settings. They can discover cooperation and positive interactions without the anxiety of talking in front of others.
    • Development of skills: Drumming encourages an appreciation of playing and listening to music. In addition, depending on the drums used, it encourages development of fine and gross motor skills.


Activity Ideas for Drum Circlesperson drumming

One of the greatest benefits of incorporating drum circles into your Recreational Therapy programming is how easy it is to cater to the needs of your participants. The activity could be simple or involved depending on your participants’ strengths and needs. In addition, drum circles don’t necessary need a bunch of expensive equipment. Simple percussive instruments or even the the body (hands clapping, snapping, or tapping the thighs) are just as effective.

Here are a few simple activity ideas for your drum circle:

Say My Name

Drumming can be a great ice breaker and a chance to teach cooperation. Choose one participant to start a drumming rhythm. Once the rhythm is established, have the participant say the name of another person in the group. That person starts drumming. Continue this process to include others in the group. Add a new dimension by having the participant tell one person to stop while selecting another to play. This can create endless variations on how your participants contribute.

Pieces of Eight

In the circle, invite players to mentally choose a number between 1 and 8 (or 1 to 4 to make it simpler). Tell them you will count from one to eight and each player hits their drum when you say the number they picked. Start counting slowly as each participant gets familiar with the activity. Once they get the hang of it, increase the tempo or change the order of the numbers. Gradually fade your voice and invite the group to play on their own.

Pass the Pattern

Start out by playing a simple beat. Have the group do their best to echo the beat. Then have each person play their solo version of the beat. Depending on your participants’ abilities, you could have sections of the group do different beats.

Emotion Drum

This is a good activity for higher functioning participants. Before drumming, have your participants write down a single word describing their mood then collect the papers. Give one of the “mood” papers to a participant and have them interpret the emotion on the drum. Let the others in group guess what emotion the person is trying to convey. Then have the group try to express the mood together. Repeat the process.

Drumming “Hot or Cold”

Remember the “hot or cold” game you played as a kid? Someone hid an object in the room. As you walked around, they would say you were getting warmer while getting close and colder if you were walking away from the object. Once you got really close, others in the group would exclaim “Hot!” or “Boiling!”

You could try a version of this game during your drum circle. Have a participant leave the room while the group decides where to hide an object like a stuffed animal. Once the person re-enters the room, the drum circle will play louder and/or faster as he or she gets closer to the object. The game has the potential for a lot of noise and laughs.

Tips for Facilitating Drumming Circles

Handing out drums and telling participants to play can be an excellent example of chaos and noise. Here are some tips for facilitating drum circles making them more therapeutic and rewarding for the participants.

  • Set clear expectations: Before the drumming circle starts, talk to your participants about the activity and what is expected. Set a clear signal for everyone to stop such as a specific word or gesture.
  • Talk about rhythm: Before handing out the drums, give a brief explanation about rhythm. Let you participants know drumming isn’t necessary about randomly hitting a drum, but following a pattern. Do a short exercise where everyone claps their hands on certain beats. For example, have everyone clap on the one and three as you slowly count to four.
  • Be mindful when handing out percussion instruments: Different drums and percussion instruments have different sounds and volumes. It’s a great idea to give more prominent sounding drums to those in your group having more self control and leadership abilities. Explain each drum has value and plays a role in the experience of a drum circle.
  • Allow spontaneity: As with most Recreational Therapy groups, improvisation plays a big role–some groups learn and grow organically. If the group is progressing therapeutically, but not according to your plans, let them. Make sure to debrief the session afterwards to discuss the group’s progress.
  • Evaluate your session: When starting a drum circle group, especially with individuals having a variety of strengths and ability levels, make sure you take note of what worked and what didn’t. Trying new activities with participants almost always involves a learning curve. Even if the session was a disaster, there are so many valuable lessons to learn for next time.


real recreation therapist logoTell the Real Recreation Therapist Community

While researching drum circles for this article, I realized just how valuable they could be for Recreation Therapists serving a variety of populations. This primer only scratches the surface of the potential for drum circles. I would love to explore it more in future articles. Hopefully it inspires you to incorporate it into your Recreation Therapy practice.

For those Activity Professionals who use drum circles regularly, we would love to hear from you! Comment below to tell us your ideas, suggestions, and triumphs while developing a drum circle group.

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