Much has been said so far about what an excellent tool these activities are for teaching and training. At this point, you might be asking, for teaching and training what exactly?
That’s an excellent question. If the activities are good, they don’t need to be used to teach anything at all. They can just be played for what they are: fun games. With any luck, the participants will each take away their own valuable lesson, buried deep in their subconscious. Every activity we present is a great time-filler for a rainy day.
On the other hand, that approach ignores some huge potential. Experiential Learning can be used to teach or reinforce almost any topic. Granted, using a game to demonstrate that the means of production are in the hands of the Proletariat might be tough to pull off, but a good facilitator could probably do it.1
In the interest of getting you started quickly, we have helpfully chosen some topic areas that are particularly well-suited to the format. Understanding these topics will make constructing a program and facilitating a group simpler, faster, and better. Conveniently, these are also the topic areas used to organize the Interactivities database.
Of course, this list of topic areas isn't exhaustive. These activities and games are immensely flexible, and you can evolve and adapt all sorts of others that you will encounter over time. To teach any topics not listed here, remember that small variations in rules or format dramatically change the interaction between your participants. Thus changing what participants will learn from it.2 You might plan to incorporate new and different topics from the beginning, or it might simply happen in the course of debriefing.
Youth (and especially young children) are famous for finding completely unexpected meaning in an activity. As a facilitator, remember that every group will learn something different from an activity, and that is part of the thrill for them and you. The better you know the activities, and especially the topic areas they are designed to teach, the better the process of integrating these new lessons will go.
Each section below contains an explanation of what concepts fall into each topic area, the advantages of learning in that topic area, and an example of an activity that reinforces those concepts.
Individuals are constantly asked to be different people in each group. All of us act differently with our family, than we do with our friends, and we act completely different at work. This topic makes people aware of the differences. Do they prefer to watch a conflict unfold, or to take an active role? Are they comfortable making suggestions, or do they prefer to ask others for them? How much authority are they capable of exercising, or tolerating? These are the kinds of questions that participants must answer before they can choose to take on a role in a group.3
Participants who know their strengths, choose their role, and perform it well benefit the group as a whole. “Spider Web” is one activity which teaches this concept.
“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts..."
Planning and Organization
When under a time pressure, it is difficult to take time out to plan, think, consider, and organize. It might seem easier to just jump in and solve a problem with sheer force, or through trial and error. Thinking before acting results in faster and more successful solutions.
The capability of categorizing and prioritizing information and action makes individuals more effective and more efficient. “River Crossing I: Teamwork” helps identify the importance of these skills.
“Whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in public and private life, have been the consequences of action without thought.”
When trying to reach a goal, people start with an assessment. They figure out what they’re trying to beat, look at the available tools, and build a solution. This is basic problem solving, and it sucks for getting really great solutions.
Once a group can move beyond observation and assessment, they can start to create new ideas, tools, and solutions (you might have heard this called thinking “outside the box”). Making a new solution, instead of reusing an old one, dramatically increases options for any situation. “Turn Over A New Leaf” requires creative thinking.
“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
Perception and Perspective
We define the world around us by two things: what we observe, and how we interpret it. Short of mighty magical powers or mind-altering drugs, we usually can’t change the world we see very much. If we change our interpretations, though, we change the nature of the problems, opening up new options, paths, and solutions.
Learning to see another person’s perspective, even for a moment, creates a bond of trust and understanding. These activities are a way to walk a mile in another man’s shoes (like when you go bowling). This helps the group function as a powerful and versatile unit. “Point Of View” helps participants see new perspectives.
“People are disturbed, not by things, but by the views they take of them.”
Blame and Responsibility
When a (perceived) failure occurs, the group begins pointing fingers, looking for a scapegoat. When a group meets a challenge, they must decide who is responsible for overcoming that challenge. These
activities force the group to figure out they hand blame and responsibility out. Can they be assigned to everyone, or to no one? Can they be shared by the group? Let’s find out.
A group who understands this works can refocus attention from the problems of the past to the potential for future effort.4 “Chopsticks” is an excellent activity for this topic.
“Don't find fault. Find a remedy.”
This is probably the topic we get asked to teach most often, and that makes it the topic that applies to the most activities. All you’re teaching is that a group working together can do things that individuals
(or even an unorganized group) can’t. By combining their skills, resources, and efforts, goals can be met and solutions can be found. These activities set up clear goals that are best reached (or can only be reached) when the participants work as a team. “Yurt Circle” is a good activity for this.
Teamwork games give you a great opportunity to find a group’s weak points. If one of these activities shows the group is having difficulty communicating, then your next activity should focus on Communication.
"None of us is as smart as all of us."
People cannot stop communicating; everything they say and do sends a message. On the other hand, the quality of communication varies dramatically depending on the person and the message. These activities will highlight the difference between good and bad communication.
Once they know the difference, the group can start sending and receiving their messages better. If the group struggles during debriefs, change things up to focus on this area early. “Noah’s Ark” is our favorite activity for demonstrating this topic.
"Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing."
The group won’t be able to work together well unless they have at least a little trust.5 They need to be willing to put their fate into someone else’s hands, sharing success and failure equally. Create an atmosphere where participants can take risks with less fear and they will make progress toward their goals. A program can be designed to increase the level of trust in a group, or to test it to its limits.
Once participants learn to give, receive, and identify trust they will be more comfortable and more productive. “Zipper Walk” is a trust-building activity, and “Balance Bridge” tests how much trust a group has developed.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
When people say they feel disempowered, what they usually mean is they lack choice. Control could have been taken from them, or they don’t even realize they can take it.
When participants grasp the importance of making choices, they can start taking advantage of opportunities as they come; they can make choices, rather than avoiding them. This is a good first step to positive growth. “Fox In The Henhouse” explores choice.
“Again and again, the impossible problem is solved when we see that the problem is only a tough decision waiting to be made.”
This area happens to be our specialty, and teaching it is how we got into the field in the first place. It applies to every single group you will ever work with, since forming a group and moving the group to a decision are the essence of conflict. Activities with this focus help groups see and evaluate how they usually resolve conflict. They are also a good place to develop and practice new, better skills.
The skills learned here can be applied anywhere: home, work, school, church, wherever. Keep in mind that while some conflict is good and generates the energy needed for problem solving, too much can get out of hand; find a balance between being bored and violent combat. “People To People” is one of our best activities.
“Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.”
This is the topic that can make people feel stupid (“Why didn’t I think of that?”). Here the group applies the basic processes of critical thinking, trial and error, and reasoning to meet a goal. The group is
given a task, and is expected to complete it. A bunch of the other categories, like Multiple Solutions and Creative Thinking, contribute skills that play well with this topic.
Participants experienced in problem solving have less trouble getting started on a task, and are less easily frustrated while trying to reach their goals. “Sticky Snake” is an activity that teaches this topic.
“Life is ‘trying things to see if they work’.”
Before a mob can become a group, they need to get to know each other a little. Before they can start learning, they need to relax and get ready to start taking risks. Icebreakers accomplish both tasks, letting the participants learn each other’s names while helping them feel just a little less self-conscious. Groups that have been through one or more icebreakers learn better, grow faster, and enjoy the process more. Every session should include at least one icebreaker; feel free to repeat the icebreaker from a previous day. “Group Juggle” is one of our most-used icebreakers.
You can also use many icebreakers to evaluate the functioning of your group. If they interact easily and well during the icebreaker, you can challenge them more and sooner. If they interact poorly or cannot complete the exercise, focus on areas like trust- and confidence-building until the group stops acting like schmucks.
“Know Thy Self.”
People tend to define themselves by what makes them different from everyone around them. If you only focus on the differences you start to feel isolated and mistrustful. The activities in this category show how much there is that is the same between any two people, and the group as a whole.
When common ground is identified, it gets easier to trust, to help, and to accept advice from each other. A program with this focus is great when a group contains people from different ethnic, cultural, or other backgrounds. Try “Have You Ever” to see this topic in action.
“I don't understand you. You don't understand me. What else do we have in common?”
Any time individuals begin forming a unit, there is a danger that they will fall victim to a “groupthink” phenomenon. Since they are part of a group, they start to believe that their thoughts and beliefs as an individual don’t matter. They stop putting forth effort in reaching their goals, assuming “the group” will take care of it for them. They forget that the group is useless without the effort of the people who make it up. No man is an island.
This topic area reinforces the idea that participants are not just one mindless mob; they are a collection of individuals working with a common purpose. With this in mind, they can combine their efforts and skills. We highly recommend “Frozen Flames” for this topic.
“‘I must do something’ always solves more problems than ‘Something must be done.’”
“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”
-Edwin Louis Cole
Resources and Tools
When a group can’t accomplish their goals, they often blame a lack of resources. Realizing that you may not have everything, but you still need to do something, is what many groups need most.
Participants with this knowledge can do more with less, accomplishing tasks that seem impossible. They begin to use old tools in new ways, and to appreciate the differences in the talents and equipment
that each person brings. “Passing Through” shows the value in resources often overlooked.
“When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.”
People are taught early that every problem has one solution. At some point, we learn that even if one solution works perfectly for you, another person might need something different. Accepting the first solution blocks progress toward more and better answers.
Learning to look for these multiple answers to every question helps people get out of a pattern of bad behavior and to see issues in a new way. “Make A Circle” is an activity that asks for a wide range of solutions to a single problem.
“The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”
Some lessons aren’t encountered frequently, but are important enough that we couldn’t ignore them. Those topics were grouped together here, to make them easier to find when you are looking for something different. “Dots” is one of these activities; it focuses on acceptance and cultural diversity.