Animateurs, animation, learning and change

Animateurs, animation, learning and change. Animation means, literally, to breathe life into some thing. A transformation is involved, what was still now moves. But what place does animation have in stimulating learning and change? What do animateurs do? Where are animateurs to be found?

contents: introduction · some models for starters · animateurs in France · animateurs in Italy · looking deeper · animation, formation and education · animateurs, animation and learning and change in groups · Boal and animation · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this piece

In the English language animation is mostly associated with the work of film-makers. Illustrators create action from a series of images and we have the illusion of something living. In French and Italian especially, it takes on a further meaning. It is linked to the activities of animateurs – informal educators, community workers, arts workers and others. In this article we explore some central models of animation; the work of animateurs (and animatore) in France and Italy; and then turn to the work of Augusto Boal as an example of the animateur at work. Part of the problem we have here is that animation, like community education, social pedagogy or informal education, can be used in a variety of ways. In what follows we explore the emergence of the idea and some of the practices and theorizations associated with animateurs within different traditions of practice.

Some models for starters

Three main models of animation stand out in the literature: creative-expressive animation; socio-cultural animation; and leisure-time animation. We will look briefly at each in turn.

Creative-expressive animation

Within this model of animation animateurs encourage and help people to engage with music, theatre, dance and other art forms for the enjoyment participation brings; the self-expression it fosters; and for the learning that can flow from involvement. Common settings for this work are community and youth groups, schools and care centres. Animation has been increasingly used in some quarters to describe the work of arts education practitioner. For example, an animateur can be defined as:

a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind. (Animarts 2003: 9)

In this way, a number of orchestras in Britain employ musicians or composers as animateurs. Their task can be ‘seeing that audiences get a chance to connect to the orchestra and its music in new ways’ and helping players ‘to reach out to the communities where they reside’ (Cabaniss 2007).

Socio-cultural animation

Within socio-cultural animation animateurs work with people and groups so that they participate in and manage the communities in which they live. The following definition is taken from a Report of the European Cultural Foundation in 1973.

Animation is that stimulus to the mental, physical, and emotional life of people in a given area which moves them to undertake a wider range of experiences through which they find a higher degree of self-realization, self expression, and awareness of belonging to a community which they can influence. (quoted by Simpson 1989: 54)

In other words, this form of animation is wrapped up with notions of community development and community education and learning. Animateurs aim to help develop individual and group ability to to participate in and to manage the social and political reality in which they live’ (Pollo 1991: 12). Polo continues optimistically, ‘It is education as liberation which makes use of community action as well as of psycho-social methods to advance the expressive capacities of people’

Leisure-time animation

Leisure-time animation involves developingopportunities for pre-school and school-children such as adventure playgrounds, toy libraries, outdoor activity centres, and organized sports activities. In some ways it overlaps with traditions of playwork, and adventure and outdoor work that are familiar in the UK and USA. However, it also extends out to include the activities of workers co-ordinating and running leisure activities in commercial holiday villages and tourist locations (Studyrama undated).

Animateurs in France

Animation came to particular prominence within French adult educational thought during the late 1950s. ‘Adult educators’ began to be replaced by animateurs.

The animation fever of the 1960s received a surprising degree of acceptance. This desire to communicate and to create relationships manifested itself in the form of the group as an ideal which marked a separation from the popular education of yesteryear. The educator had been in a sort of dual relationship between the teacher and the taught. The animator, on the other hand, is in an intimate relationship with the group or gathering. (Poujol 1981 quoted in Toynbee 1985: 11)

This development was strengthened by the rise in local and movement-based initiatives following the social upheavals of 1968. Just as in the UK at the same time, a growing band of community workers were able to draw on the colonial experiences of attempting to foster development, so animateurs in France began to extend and deepen practice.

The new animateurs could also draw on the efforts of workers with youth groups. As Cannan et al (1992: 72-73) suggest, animateurs established themselves as a fairly distinctive professional grouping. In the early 1990s there were around 13000 animateur in France under the joint supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs and National Solidarity, and the Ministry of Free Time, Youth and Sport. Since the Second World War this group had been mainly concerned with young people’s leisure activities (e.g. in maisons de jeunes et de la culture – youth and culture centres). The size of this workforce had a lot to do with an expansion in centres sociaux (social centres) and maisons de quartier (community centres) (Cannan et al 1992: 72-73). However, after this point there was some evidence that they had taken the ‘pragmatic road of providing services to particular interests and interest groups often on a commercial basis’ (Lorenz 1994: 99; see also studyrama undated).

There was also been a significant development in the integration of social policy around the prevention of exclusion and the the promotion of integration (insertion) (discussed by Cannan 1997). Animation became an element within this strategy – and there was a particular emphasis on the group.

Social action in contemporary France… is concerned above all with social integration and with working collectively with groups of local people, children, youth and adults, to promote that integration. It valorises and encourages group activities – holidays, outings, eating together – which centre on participation in the public sphere. It seeks to develop the neighbourhood as the new locus of solidarity now that the workplace cannot be so. (Cannan 1997: 100)

Animateurs in Italy

Animation in the Italian context has been associated with the work of Roman Catholic teaching orders such as the Salesians and Don Bosco in the late nineteenth century. However, it gained significant currency during the late 1960s. The early rhetoric (and some practice) reflected radical preoccupations – but like their French colleagues, animateurs (animatore) have bowed to the market. This can be seen in the strands of practice still current in Italian animation. Lorenz (1994: 101) details four key strands within Italian animation: the familiar ones of creative-expressive animation; socio-cultural animation and leisure time animation plus a further strand – cultural animation. This approach by animateurs (animatore) can be said to be characterized as ‘educational-didactive’ and is applicable to schools and after-school activities. It views education mainly as socialization. There are, again, obvious linkages into UK and north American practice here – but what is interesting (and as was the case with social pedagogy) is the extent to which the notion of animation allows practitioners to operate across very different organizational contexts. The contrast is all the stronger here because of the way in which they are engaged in commercial activities.

Looking deeper

Sometimes the term ‘animateur’ is translated as ‘facilitator’ or ‘moderator’ or ‘motivator’ but this rather understates its meaning. If we return to the Greek origins of the word ‘animation’ then we are likely to be drawn to Aristotle and his distinction between that which is alive – and that which is inanimate. The thing that marks the former off from the latter is psuche (from which ‘psychology’ is derived) and this can be variously translated as soul, breathe or life. At one level, thus, we can talk of animation as ‘making things move or happen’ – much as animators do of cartoon pictures. At another level there is something more – giving life to’. This idea runs quite closely to the concerns of experiential educators. For example, David Boud and Nod Miller in their 1997 book Working with experience. Animating learning use ‘animating’ because of its connotations: to give life to, to quicken, to vivify, to inspire. They see the functions of animators (animateurs) to be that of ‘acting with learners, or with others, in situations where learning is an aspect of what is occurring, to assist them to work with their experience’ (1997: 7).

In more self -consciously ‘radical’ terms, (and with a nod to Freire), animation is described by one Italian commentator as, ‘a form of social practice oriented towards the conscientization [presa di conscienza] and the development of the repressed, deprived or latent potential of individuals, small groups and communities’ (Contessa quoted in Maurizio 1991). This orientation has been influential in some of the approaches developed within popular education traditions in south American countries such as Nicaragua. It is associated with the thinking and practice of educators such as Paulo Freire and the director Augusto Boal (see below).

Animation, formation and education

To make sense of animation we need to look at the ways that thinking around education and training have developed in Europe. Animation can be contrasted with education and formation (after Aristotle):

  • education (from educere): to lead forth; or to rear or bring up children or animals.
  • formation (from formare): to mould, fashion by discipline or education.

Thus, in some European discussions (e.g. in Italy) animation can be linked to socio-cultural work, and work with associations; formation with training – vocational and professional; and education with the activities of schools and colleges. However, this misses a fundamental usage and distinction; one that can be seen in phrases such as ‘character-building’ and ‘character-forming’. Formation can be:

at once a mystical concern, steering the soul to its salvation, and a social programme as it aims at the transmission and the improvement of appropriate forms of social life. (Lorenz 1994: 88)

There are areas of considerable overlap in these notions, for example the way that they each could be seen to have a concern with ‘soul’ or being. However, they do bring out different dimensions. There are times when we seek to open up possibilities and look to encouraging people to become involved in some activity, experience or campaign. At other times we will seeking to create an environment in which people can develop specific skills (and hopefully, also to link them to some wider purpose and meaning). There will also be times when we encourage people to reflect on their feelings, experiences and ideas. In some respects animation, formation and education connect with another familiar threesome: knowledge (education), attitudes (animation) and skills (formation). I say ‘connect’ here – but I am not sure that I want to push this too far.

Part of the confusion comes from the way the words are used in practice. Each (after Freire and others) could be said to have an active and a passive side. The passive side is the provision of services in all three. This is often associated with treating people like objects. We breathe life into them, we try to shape them. We act on them. An ‘active’ orientation views people as subjects, as active agents. In this orientation workers are concerned with the environment and interaction. They look to people as participants. They join with them in their struggles to make sense of themselves and the world – and to act.

Animateurs, animation and learning and change in groups

Some animateurs are less keen on an emphasis on stimulation, motivation and inspiration as it can lead to doing things to people, rather than working with them i.e. assuming a passive orientation on the part of participants. ‘Active’ animateurs look to breathe life into situations rather than people. Like informal educators, they help to build environments and relationships in which people can grow and have a care for each other. In this there is also a close parallel with the orientation and activities of social groupworkers. Animateurs seek to work with people, situations and relationships. They direct their energies in a particular way. This is based in an understanding that people are not machines or objects that can be worked on like motor cars (Jeffs and Smith 2005: 70). Animateurs are spending time in the company of others. They have allowed them into their lives – and there is a social, emotional and moral relationship between those involved. As such, ‘working with’ is a special form of ‘being with’.

To engage with another’s thoughts and feelings, and to attend to our own, we have to be in a certain frame of mind. We have to be open to what is being said, to listen for meaning. To work with others is, in essence, to engage in a conversation with them. We should not seek to act on the other person but join with them in a search for understanding and possibility. (Smith and Smith 2008: 20)

Not surprisingly all this, when combined with the sorts of questions and issues that we have to engage with, the process of working with another can often be ‘a confusing, complex and demanding experience, both mentally and emotionally’ (Crosby 2001: 60).

Such practice can emphasize ‘action and influence as well as reaction and adaption’ (Brown 1992: 8). Like groupwork it can provide a context in which:

individuals help each other; it is a method of helping groups as well as helping individuals; and it can enable individuals and groups to influence and change personal, group, organizational and community problems. (Brown 1992: 8. Emphasis in the original)

This particular way of conceptualizing groupwork (and animation) is helpful in that it looks to strengthen the group as what Lawrence Shulman (1979: 109; 1999) described as a ‘mutual aid system’.

For this to happen animateurs need to be able to cultivate certain qualities in settings; to foster forms of group and local life that allow people to flourish, to learn and to make changes. One of the best explorations of what this might involve comes from the work of Parker Palmer. He argues that educators (animateurs) and participants work to clear away the clutter – whether that is meaningless words, pressure to get on with the daily round, obstructive feelings, whatever. However, that clearing away needs boundaries otherwise confusion and chaos can occur.

Exhibit 1: spaces for learning

Parker J. Palmer talks about six tensions or paradoxes that need to be built into learning spaces.

The space should be bounded and open. Without limits it is difficult to see how learning can occur. Explorations need a focus. However, spaces need to be open as well – open to the many paths down which discovery may take us. ‘If boundaries remind us that our journey has a destination, openness reminds us that there are many ways to reach that end’. More than that, openness allows us to find other destinations.

The space should be hospitable and “charged”. We may find the experience of space strange and fear that we may get lost. Learning spaces need to be hospitable – ‘inviting as well as open, safe and trustworthy as well as free’. When exploring we need places to rest and find nourishment. But if we feel too safe, then we may stay on the surface of things. Space needs to be charged so that we may know the risks involved in looking at the deeper things of life.

The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. Learning spaces should invite people to speak truly and honestly. People need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. This involves building environments both so that individuals can speak and where groups can gather and give voice to their concerns and passions.

The space should honour the “little” stories of those involved and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition. Learning spaces should honour people’s experiences, give room to stories about everyday life. At the same time, we need to connect these stories with the larger picture. We need to be able to explore how our personal experiences fit in with those of others; and how they may relate to more general ‘stories’ and understandings about life.

The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. Learning demands both solitude and community. People need time alone to reflect and absorb. Their experiences and struggles need to be respected. At the same time, they need to be able to call upon and be with others. We need conversations in which our ideas are tested and biases challenged.

The space should welcome both silence and speech. Silence gives us the chance to reflect on things. It can be a sort of speech ‘emerging from the deepest part of ourselves, of others, of the world’. At the same time we need to be able to put things into words so that we gain a greater understanding and to make concrete what we may share in silence.

Taken from Parker J. Palmer (1998) The Courage to Teach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pages 73 – 77.

From this we can see that the practice of animateurs has to be pretty sophisticated if it is not to tip over into seeking to impose learning and change on others.

Animation and the work of Augusto Boal

When considering issues such as this it is helpful to consider developments in socio-cultural animation and popular education practice in South America. The community arts movement in the UK (akin to creative-expressive animation in Italy and France) has looked to, for example, Nicuraguan arts and cultural practice. Animateurs have also looked to the discourse that has grown up around the Theatre of the Oppressed or Forum Theatre. Here the key figure is that of the Brazilian theatre director and writer, Augusto Boal (-2009).

The picture of Augusto Boal is by Jonathan McIntosh © 2008 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Augusto Boal at Riverside Church in New York City 2008. Picture by Jonathan McIntosh

In Augusto Boal’s work around forum theatre, invisible theatre and the theatre of the oppressed we see some fascinating expressions of socio-cultural animation. He writes of theatre as the art of looking at ourselves:

The Theatre of the Oppressed is theatre in this most archaic application of the word. In this usage, all human beings are Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!). They are Spect-Actors…. Everything that actors do, we do throughout our lives, always and everywhere. Actors talk, move, dress to suit the setting, express ideas, reveal passions – just as we do in our everyday lives. The only difference is that actors are conscious that they are using the language of theatre, and are thus better able to turn it to their advantage, whereas the woman and man in the street do not know that they are speaking theatre. (Boal 1992: xxx).

In these words we can see some immediate connections to the activities of informal and community educators, and animateurs.

What Augusto Boal did was to work in workshops – perhaps with workers from a particular factory (Forum Theatre) or to take performance to the street (Invisible Theatre) where people are confronted with what at first sight appear to be events – but are revealed as theatre. He begins by seeking to integrate the group and to explore political and economic questions (2 days). In this there is an emphasis on exercise – ‘actors must work on their bodies to get to know them better and to make them more expressive’ (ibid.: 1). The group would then work for a couple of days on preparing ‘scenes’ (through exercises, games etc.). On the fifth day they may take the scenes to the street (Invisible Theatre) and then on sixth make a presentation to an audience (Forum Theatre).

What we can see in this is a fairly straightforward process that carries within in many of the concerns and a significant amount of the analysis that runs through Freire’s work. For example on dialogue: ‘I believe it is more important to achieve a good debate than a good solution’ (ibid. 230). However, two of the fascinating elements of this approach concern the animating force of performance; and the focus on emotion. In the case of the former, engaging in performance can bring forward questions, experiences and issues that are difficult to express in initially in words. It can reveal elements for the group to work on.

Second, Augusto Boal has picked up on the concerns of Stanislavski and the need to move beyond the mechanisation of the actor’s body into allowing emotion to shape the final form of the actor’s interpretation of a role. However, he is also at some concerns to explore that emotion. ‘The important thing about emotion is what it signifies. We cannot talk about emotion without reason or, conversely, about reason without emotion; the former is chaos, the latter pure abstraction’. (ibid.: 48).

I have focused here on Augusto Boal so that we can get a little of the flavour of socio-cultural animation. The links with Freire are there – we have a Theatre of the Oppressed as against a Pedagogy. But what we have been talking about here is essentially a short-run exercise. It may form part of a more long term strategy – one which also entails an active appreciation of ourselves as animateurs, educators and agents of formation.


The concept of animation and the sets of orientations and practices that can be grouped around the role of the animateur (see, for example, Animarts 2003) repay study and reflection. As the Animarts report concludes the role of the animateur is multi-faceted and requires ‘a wide variety of inter-connected teaching and learning strategies and skills. It draws on different components of knowledge and intelligences simultaneously’ (2003: 39). When animation is understood and felt as something more than facilitation, and understood in its full social, human and political sense then it can become a very powerful idea.

Further reading and references

Animarts (2003) The art of the animateur. An investigation in the skills and insights required of artists to work effectively in schools and communities. London: Animarts/Guildhall School of Music and Drama/London International Festival of Theatre. Interesting report into developing roles of animateurs in complementing the work of teachers in schools and other settings. []

Boal, A. (1988) Theatre of the Oppressed, London: Pluto. 216 pages. Boal shows theatre to be a weapon, not only of bourgeois control but of revolution. He examines the ways in which theatre has come to reflect ruling-class control and how the process can be reversed in Brechtian/Marxist poetics. He does this while looking to his experience of revolutionary theatre in Latin America, and gives examples of exercises and games used in the People’s Theatre of Peru. He points to the revolutionary potential of transforming the spectator into the actor.

Cannan, C., Berry, L. and Lyons, K. (1992) Social Work and Europe, London: Macmillan. 181 + xii pages. Includes some discussion of social pedagogy, animation etc. Has chapters on social Europe; social policies and social trends in Europe; social workers, organizations and the state; branches and themes of social work (concentrates on Germany and France); French social work; participation; and social action.

Cannan, C. and Warren, C. (eds.) (1997) Social Action with Children and Families. A community development approach to child and family welfare, London: Routledge. 225 + xiv pages. This book looks beyond the usual narrow confines of British social work texts – looking at more community oriented forms of engagement (especially family centres) and drawing on traditions of practice from the UK, Germany and France. There is some recognition of the potential of more educative approaches and a concern with local networks and institutions.

Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe, London: Routledge. 206 + xii pages. Excellent discussion of social work in Europe this century – especially strong on animation and social pedagogy. Chapters on social work within different welfare regimes; ideological positions; social work Fascism and democratic reconstruction; social work and social movements; social work , multiculturalism and anti-racist practice; and emerging issues.

Toynbee, W. S. (1985) Adult Education and the Voluntary Associations in France, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. 44 + vi pages. Brief but very helpful discussion of adult education associations with material on animation, education populaire and la vie associative.


Aluffi-Pentini, A. and Lorenz, W. (eds.) Anti-Racist Work with Young People. European experiences and approaches, Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Berrigan, F. (1974) ‘Animation’ Projects in the UK. Aspects of socio-cultural community development, Leicester: National Youth Bureau.

Boal, A. (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors, London: Routledge.

Brown, Alan (1992) Groupwork. London: Heinemann.

Cabaniss, T. (2007) ‘An animateur’s journey: A report from the field’, [].

Cannan, C., Berry, L. and Lyons, K. (1992) Social Work and Europe, London: Macmillan.

Cannan, C. (1997) ‘Social development with children and families in France’ in C. Cannan and C. Warren (eds.) Social Action with Children and Families. A community development approach to child and family welfare, London: Routledge.

Crosby, Mary (2001) ‘Working with people as an informal educator’ in L. D. Richardson and M. Wolfe (eds.) (2001) Principles and Practice of Informal Education. Learning through life. London: RoutledgeFalmer

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gadotti, M. (1996) Pedagogy of Praxis. A dialectical philosophy of education, New York: SUNY Press.

Hamilton, E. and Cunningham, P. M. (1989) ‘Community-based adult education’ in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jeffs, Tony and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning 3e. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Palmer, Parker. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pollo, M. (1991) Educazione come animazione, Turin: Libreria Dottrina Cristiana.

Schulman, L. (1979) The Skills of Helping Individuals and Groups. Itasca, Ill.:Peacock.

Schulman, L. (1999) The Skills of Helping Individuals and Groups. 2e. Itasca, Ill.:Peacock.

Smith, Heather and Mark K Smith (2008) The Art of Helping Others. London: Jessica Kingsley. (undated) L’animateur. [ Accessed March 12, 2009].

Sunker, H. and Otto, H-U. (eds.) (1997) Education and Fascism. Political identity and social education in Nazi Germany, London: Taylor and Francis.

Thompson, J (2002) Bread and Roses. Arts, culture and lifelong learning. Leicester: NIACE.

Toynbee, W. S. (1985) Adult Education and the Voluntary Associations in France, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education.

Walters, S. and Manicom, L. (eds.) (1996) Gender in Popular Education, London: Zed Books.

Acknowledgement: The picture ukook is by Zabara Alexander and be found on flickr – reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. []

The picture of Augusto Boal is by Jonathan McIntosh 2008 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (1999, 2009) ‘Animateurs, animation and fostering learning and change’, the encylopaedia of informal education. []

©  Mark K. Smith 1999, 2009