Hesperian Health Guides

Activities for Learning and Mobilizing

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 2: Understanding and Mobilizing for Community Health > Activities for Learning and Mobilizing

Group activities can help people understand root causes of health problems and make plans for change. Which activities you use will depend on what you need to know, what you hope to do, and what resources are available. Activities can:

  • Bring people together to identify common problems.
  • Find out what people feel they need most.
  • Gather information about what is causing a health problem.
  • Analyze problems to discover their immediate causes and their root causes.
  • Gather all points of view in the community. A project will not be successful if some groups or opinions are left out. People will not want to help if their opinions are ignored!

Environmental health is always a community issue, and requires people working together to make improvements. Whether the goal is to reduce the risk of an epidemic, to plant a community garden, to improve the health and safety of people living near a factory or working in a mine, or to address some other environmental health issue, the more people have a shared understanding of the problem and a shared commitment to solving it, the more successful they will be.

Women need a voice

In some communities, women and girls are more likely to participate in organized activities if they are in a group separate from men. The women's group then presents their ideas to the larger group. This way, women and girls have a chance to speak in a strong united voice before the whole community. By strengthening the voice of women and girls, and building their leadership skills, the whole community is made stronger.

 illustration of the below: 5 women gather for a group discussion next to a sign reading, "Toilets too far from my house. Safer to go in the bush. No way to wash."
The toilets are not safe for children.
During monthly bleeding we are not permitted to use the toilets.
If you want to solve a problem, work with the people affected by the problem.

Guided discussion

To have a shared understanding of health problems, people need to talk to each other. A guided discussion is a way for a group of people to talk to each other and to ask and answer specific questions. The “But why…?” activity (see “Finding the root cause of the problem,” “Work to understand root causes,” “Why did the disaster happen?”, “Understanding why Timothy died,” and “What could have prevented Sangu’s death?”) is one kind of guided discussion. Drawings for Discussion (see “How do toxic chemicals get in the water?” and “How do pesticides enter the body?”) and Body mapping are also kinds of guided discussions.

The person who guides the discussion is sometimes called a facilitator or animator. Most of the activities in this book require a facilitator to make sure each person participates to the best of his or her ability, and to help make sure the discussion or activity leads to action.

Community mapping

 A group of men and women bend over to make a map.
Make maps with pens or paint on paper, or on the ground with rocks, sticks, and anything else available.

Community mapping is an activity in which people make a map together based on what they see and know about their community. By making a community health map, you can learn:

  • where health problems are.
  • who these problems affect.
  • how these health problems may happen because of conditions in the environment.

Making a map can help people see patterns in health problems, begin to identify root causes of these problems, and see how conditions in the community have changed over time. A map can also help people identify important community resources and strengths they may not have been aware of. And mapping can be used as a step in protecting important traditional or sacred places. (See examples of mapping sources of water contamination, watersheds, and health care waste.)

Finding out what a community needs

People often have different opinions about what the problems are in their community and how best to fix them. Making everyone aware of the range of problems that exists and the various causes of the problems, and helping people decide which ones to work on in the short and long term is sometimes called a "needs assessment." (For examples of needs assessment activities, see “2 circles,” “Removing barriers to toilets for women,” and “10 seeds.”) A good needs assessment process can help make sure everyone's needs and abilities are considered in planning.

Men, women and children walk together through a village of thatched huts.

Health walks

During a health walk, people take a closer look at their community. They try to find things that may be causing health problems, such as an unsafe water source, a polluting business, or a lack of firewood. When a health walk is done as a group, people share with each other the different things they know about problems. Then they can work together on possible solutions. The more people involved, the better. (For examples of health walks, see “A Community Trash Walk” and health center walk.)

Change over time

Another way to understand problems and needs in a community is to compare conditions now to how it was in the past. Then think about how you would like it to be in the future. One way to do this is to gather stories from elders in your community.

Encouraging young people in the community to lead these activities helps build respect and understanding between the generations. It also helps preserve those community traditions that everyone wants to keep.

A community timeline can help people understand how changes have occurred from generation to generation, and take into account significant events such as a road being paved, a factory opening, a dam being built, and so on. Mapping environmental changes is another way to share knowledge of community history through pictures or maps of changes over time in fields, farms, forests, settlements, rivers and lakes. (For an example, see "Planning a community watershed project.")

Drawing activities

Making and looking at drawings can help us see solutions to problems that we might not see otherwise. Drawings can be used to start guided discussions, and drawing can be a way for people who cannot read or write well to express themselves and to participate in group leadership. (For examples of drawing activities, see “How diarrhea diseases spread” and “Drawing pesticide solutions.”)

Men and women make drawings.

Some communities work together to paint pictures on the walls of buildings (murals) that express their problems and hopes for a better, healthier future. (For ideas on making and using drawings in community education, see Hesperian's book, Helping Health Workers Learn.)

Community surveys

Community surveys are an organized way to gather information. They can be used to find out what health issues people have, to consider similarities and differences in what people think or believe, or to measure the support for different plans or actions in the community.

A female survey worker visits at the doorway of a home and listens to a woman as two other women watch.

In a survey, the same questions are asked in the same way to all of the people participating. Surveys can be done in homes, workplaces, schools, places of worship, other gathering places, or even over the telephone or by post.

Surveys allow people to share their thoughts privately, without having to come to meetings or other public events. They can be a way for people who might be afraid, or who are not allowed to participate in the community decision making process, to have their concerns and ideas considered. Often people are more willing to talk when women give the surveys. (For an example of a community health survey, see “Communities affected by oil organize a health study.”)


Theater is a way to explore problems and propose solutions while entertaining and having fun. People can act out their own experiences and imagine the experiences of others. Some issues and conflicts may be easier to consider if they are portrayed in another time and place.


A sociodrama allows people to act out a problem and demonstrate some of its causes and effects. See an example of how sociodrama is used to talk about a forest resource conflict.

Any story can be turned into a sociodrama as long as it has characters and a problem to be worked out.
illustration of the above: People watch as 2 men and a woman act out a drama.

Sociodramas can bring up lots of emotions. Some community organizers like to end by having people sing a song together or do some other 'cooperation' activity.

Interactive theater is a kind of sociodrama in which everyone both watches and participates. Any person in the audience can tell the actors to stop, and then can take the place of an actor and act out a different solution to the problem. This is especially helpful in situations where people take turns playing the role of the person who has little or no power.

Role play

A role play does not require as much preparation as a sociodrama, and can help explain different points of view or resolve conflicts. People act out different roles in real-life situations to show what they would do. You can discuss and repeat a role play to understand why people behave a certain way.

Changing the way people in power act is easy on the stage, but very difficult in real life. Using a drama to practice how we interact with people who have power over us helps people prepare different ways to respond to power in real life.

A child behind a table on its side performs a puppet show for 2 other children.

Puppet show

A puppet show uses puppets instead of people to act out the story of a community conflict. They make people laugh, and can help them see things in ways they are not used to. Some people find it easier to talk through puppets than to act on a stage.