Bucket Brigade

3, 4, 5

Students will recognize the value of volunteerism in accomplishing worthy goals.

Lesson Rating 
PrintTwo to Three Thirty-Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • analyze the value of group volunteer action in getting important things done.
  • Pictures about fires (optional)
  • Two buckets
  • Four-five paper cups


  1. Anticipatory Set: Have some pictures of fires set up in the room. (If pictures are not available: Ask students to close their eyes and picture a fire-causing destruction of some kind.) Ask the students to brainstorm any ideas on what could be done to help put out the fires.

  2. Looking at the problem of fires, discuss the following questions. Use the activity to demonstrate the need to have fire companies of some sort.

  3. What is needed?

  4. Who has the need?

  5. Who is in the community?

  6. Who fills the need?

  7. What talent or treasure is given or shared?

  8. What good does the community experience from that giving or sharing?

  9. What is the reward for the ones who shared?

  10. What would happen if the need was not met?

  11. This lesson is based on Benjamin Franklin's idea of a Bucket Brigade. Explain that in colonial times, as new cities and towns grew, the threat of fire was always present. Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736. It was made up of thirty volunteers equipped with bags and buckets. Discuss how a volunteer fire department benefits a community.

  12. After this discussion, focus on the aspect of volunteering for the community. In the colonial times in Philadelphia there was a great need for philanthropic behavior in the early fire companies. (Even today most of the men and women who fight fires are volunteers.) What alternative does a small town with few resources have to a permanent standing fire department other than the use of volunteers? Students need to understand that these people are volunteering not only time and talent, but also are taking a huge risk of their own lives to help the common cause.

  13. The lesson can also allow students time to reflect on other activities that use volunteers.

  14. It is also important to emphasize that it takes more than thought to volunteer. It takes action to accomplish a task at hand. To prove that it takes more than a thought to be an active participant in a community, play the bucket brigade game. (This activity is best done outside the classroom!)

    Bucket Brigade Game: Place an empty bucket twenty-five feet from the "well." This is the "fire." A full pail of water (well) is at the other end. Prepare a command card for each student in the class. Examples of commands are:

    • Call out, "Fire, fire." (one person)
    • Say, "I'm too busy." (4 or 5 people)
    • Call out, "Hurry, get a bucket and help me." (one person)
    • Answer, "I'll help." (4 or 5 people)
    • Just stand and watch. (Give half of your students this command.)

    Each student should receive a card. Tell the students that they are to only do what their card tells them to do. Tell students that the fire will burn the structure down in three minutes. In order to fill the need of putting out the fire, they must fill the "fire pail" before the three minutes are up. The object of this game is to have only a few students actually take water to the bucket! The rest of the students have other things to do that are "more important" than to volunteer to put out the fire. After three minutes, discuss the problems that arise when only a few people pitch in to help the common good.

    Now explain to the students that they are all going to volunteer their time and talent to help put out the fire. Divide students into two groups with the same set-up as before, having a well on one end and a fire on the other for both groups. Tell students that the fire will burn the structure down in three minutes. In order to fill the need of putting out the fire, they must fill the "fire pail" before the three minutes are up. Allow students to solve the dilemma at hand. The ultimate goal would be for students to use the bucket brigade technique and pass the full cups down a line to be emptied into the other bucket. This activity will reinforce some cooperative behavior among the students, and the idea that it takes more than a thought to be a volunteer. It takes action.


A simple assessment for this activity is to have the students compare/contrast the two episodes of "putting out the fire" in paragraph form. They should use the eight philanthropic questions in analyzing how the two different methods demonstrated philanthropy. The students should realize the first method was not very successful because not many people were acting in a philanthropic manner. The second bucket brigade style was successful because everyone worked for the common good.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 04. Operational Characteristics of Nonprofit Organizations
      1. Benchmark E.1 Describe how citizens organize in response to a need.