24
Mon, Apr
0 New Articles

The Art of Team Building Using Levels of Challenge

Team Building

Team, here is your level 1 challenge! While holding hands with the person on either side of you, pass this hula-hoop around the circle—and be sure you don’t let go of your neighbors’ hands. Ready, go! 

I often start with this simple hula-hoop pass to build up team spirit among students. Since for this activity I do not give the students planning time before diving into this activity, I have an opportunity to assess the team on their cooperation skills under slight pressure. Do loud voices signal a scramble for leadership? Are most of the students offering ideas or encouragement? As the instructor, I let the team know that once they have accomplished this first level of cooperation, they are now ready to go on to the second level. A thumb-o-meter is a good gauge for whether students felt frustrated or that their ideas were heard.

If the team needs more challenge, try timing the group as they pass the hula-hoop, using two hula-hoops in the same direction, then in opposite directions. Even more challenging is to have students close their eyes or have every other person facing out.

As the above activity demonstrates, the purpose of this article is to explore how to use levels of challenge for team building. I find this approach worthwhile because it gives participants a sense of accomplishment with each level they complete, knowing that they are more skilled at working with their team as they go on to harder levels—even pushing themselves to a level they cannot fully accomplish. Most young people are acutely tuned into the levels of their favorite video game, so why not use that language outdoors to make team building more engaging!

Whatever props you have to work with, know that you can do team building using levels of challenge in any environment, with any age group and size group. At my outdoor education program, we have a designated “Team’s Course.” At other places I’ve been an educator, they’ve been called “Co-operative Courses,” “Low-Ropes Courses,” “Team Building Elements,” etc. Depending on the level of cooperation among students, these activites can be done with or without instruction first, also contributing to the level of challenge, as explained below.

Untying Levels of Challenge in the Human Knot

But what do you do if all you have is your backpack and a group of about 10 students? The human knot is a fun second or third level team challenge. (For a description of how to facilitate a human knot, see leadership.uoregon.edu/resources/exercises_tips/team_builders/human_knot.) For some this can be an especially challenging task—all team members connected, lots of moving bodies, and sometimes folks feel uncomfortable physically being so close to one another. The end goal is to get the team untangled and into a circle. More challenging modifications of the human knot include no voices or blindfolding a few participants.

My approach to easier level challenges is to use a limited introduction—just explain the task and the rules and let the team problem solve, without a lot of verbal overlay. I usually don’t make a plug here for positive language or that the point of this is teamwork. I hold off on discussing the mechanics of teamwork until the debriefing of a higher-level challenge. Students are then able to create their own understanding of what a productive team does and reflect based on their actual experiences during the challenges.

Some elements, on the other hand, need scaffolding, particularly when the materials and task are unfamiliar to students. Scaffolding can include covering what being respectful to teammates sounds like, giving each student the opportunity to share ideas, and time to make a plan for how to solve the task at hand.

Scaffolding the Mohawk Walk

An example of an element that needs scaffolding in the introduction is the Mohawk Walk. At the outdoor school, IslandWood, we use the Mohawk Walk to challenge each team member to balance on a wire as a about 8 inches off the ground (like a low tight rope), with the help of adjacent peers also on the wire. There are a total of four wires, all at the same height, with trees between each that students can hold on to for stabilization. In order to balance, students must maintain contact with a tree or a peer. The team has to problem-solve how to best balance each other, whether to grab on to hands, shoulders, or around the back.

There are ways to increase the level of challenge like taking away the ability to talk or having the whole team move from the first and second wire onto only the third wire. The ultimate challenge is to have the whole team move to the very last wire and each hi-five the last tree. If any one teammate falls off, they need the help of a few other peers to help them back to the third wire, since they cannot balance on their own.

Because Mohawk Walk uses materials that students aren’t as familiar with and a task that is totally new to them, they need time to come up with a plan. As an instructor, I am not a participant in the discussion, but I do pay attention to how students are communicating with each other and especially if there are some students dominating the conversation, or conversely silent during the planning stage. In order to set up students for success, I phrase the task of Mohawk Walk as “the team trying to get as many students up on the wire at one time as possible.” The team could succeed if they get three people up at once, or with all ten of them up.

The Challenge of Debriefing

The debrief is as important as the exercise itself and should be a planned part of any team challenge activity. Because students become vulnerable by trusting their teammates to support them both physically and mentally, these young people need the time to reflect on the experience. I often ask students: why do you think you were presented with this challenge? How will it help you work together later on in the week, back at school, or even at home?

I have hazy memories about my own outdoor school experience in rural Pennsylvania almost 15 years ago, but I remember with absolute clarity my Team’s Course experience with my peers. It involved a rope swing and a muddy pit below. As a quieter student, team challenges were an opportunity for me to shine as a leader. I firmly believe every team should be challenged, so that each student has the chance to become a leader and hone their cooperation and communication skills.

Team, here is your level 1 challenge! While holding hands with the person on either side of you, pass this hula-hoop around the circle—and be sure you don’t let go of your neighbors’ hands. Ready, go! 

I often start with this simple hula-hoop pass to build up team spirit among students. Since for this activity I do not give the students planning time before diving into this activity, I have an opportunity to assess the team on their cooperation skills under slight pressure. Do loud voices signal a scramble for leadership? Are most of the students offering ideas or encouragement? As the instructor, I let the team know that once they have accomplished this first level of cooperation, they are now ready to go on to the second level. A thumb-o-meter is a good gauge for whether students felt frustrated or that their ideas were heard.

If the team needs more challenge, try timing the group as they pass the hula-hoop, using two hula-hoops in the same direction, then in opposite directions. Even more challenging is to have students close their eyes or have every other person facing out.

As the above activity demonstrates, the purpose of this article is to explore how to use levels of challenge for team building. I find this approach worthwhile because it gives participants a sense of accomplishment with each level they complete, knowing that they are more skilled at working with their team as they go on to harder levels—even pushing themselves to a level they cannot fully accomplish. Most young people are acutely tuned into the levels of their favorite video game, so why not use that language outdoors to make team building more engaging!

Whatever props you have to work with, know that you can do team building using levels of challenge in any environment, with any age group and size group. At my outdoor education program, we have a designated “Team’s Course.” At other places I’ve been an educator, they’ve been called “Co-operative Courses,” “Low-Ropes Courses,” “Team Building Elements,” etc. Depending on the level of cooperation among students, these activites can be done with or without instruction first, also contributing to the level of challenge, as explained below.

Untying Levels of Challenge in the Human Knot

But what do you do if all you have is your backpack and a group of about 10 students? The human knot is a fun second or third level team challenge. (For a description of how to facilitate a human knot, see leadership.uoregon.edu/resources/exercises_tips/team_builders/human_knot.) For some this can be an especially challenging task—all team members connected, lots of moving bodies, and sometimes folks feel uncomfortable physically being so close to one another. The end goal is to get the team untangled and into a circle. More challenging modifications of the human knot include no voices or blindfolding a few participants.

My approach to easier level challenges is to use a limited introduction—just explain the task and the rules and let the team problem solve, without a lot of verbal overlay. I usually don’t make a plug here for positive language or that the point of this is teamwork. I hold off on discussing the mechanics of teamwork until the debriefing of a higher-level challenge. Students are then able to create their own understanding of what a productive team does and reflect based on their actual experiences during the challenges.

Some elements, on the other hand, need scaffolding, particularly when the materials and task are unfamiliar to students. Scaffolding can include covering what being respectful to teammates sounds like, giving each student the opportunity to share ideas, and time to make a plan for how to solve the task at hand.

Scaffolding the Mohawk Walk

An example of an element that needs scaffolding in the introduction is the Mohawk Walk. At the outdoor school, IslandWood, we use the Mohawk Walk to challenge each team member to balance on a wire as a about 8 inches off the ground (like a low tight rope), with the help of adjacent peers also on the wire. There are a total of four wires, all at the same height, with trees between each that students can hold on to for stabilization. In order to balance, students must maintain contact with a tree or a peer. The team has to problem-solve how to best balance each other, whether to grab on to hands, shoulders, or around the back.

There are ways to increase the level of challenge like taking away the ability to talk or having the whole team move from the first and second wire onto only the third wire. The ultimate challenge is to have the whole team move to the very last wire and each hi-five the last tree. If any one teammate falls off, they need the help of a few other peers to help them back to the third wire, since they cannot balance on their own.

Because Mohawk Walk uses materials that students aren’t as familiar with and a task that is totally new to them, they need time to come up with a plan. As an instructor, I am not a participant in the discussion, but I do pay attention to how students are communicating with each other and especially if there are some students dominating the conversation, or conversely silent during the planning stage. In order to set up students for success, I phrase the task of Mohawk Walk as “the team trying to get as many students up on the wire at one time as possible.” The team could succeed if they get three people up at once, or with all ten of them up.

The Challenge of Debriefing

The debrief is as important as the exercise itself and should be a planned part of any team challenge activity. Because students become vulnerable by trusting their teammates to support them both physically and mentally, these young people need the time to reflect on the experience. I often ask students: why do you think you were presented with this challenge? How will it help you work together later on in the week, back at school, or even at home?

I have hazy memories about my own outdoor school experience in rural Pennsylvania almost 15 years ago, but I remember with absolute clarity my Team’s Course experience with my peers. It involved a rope swing and a muddy pit below. As a quieter student, team challenges were an opportunity for me to shine as a leader. I firmly believe every team should be challenged, so that each student has the chance to become a leader and hone their cooperation and communication skills.

About the Author
Fin Hardy
Author: Fin Hardy
Fin is a graduate student at IslandWood, working toward her Master’s in Education through the University of Washington. She is passionate about building authentic relationships among her students in nature and challenging students to grow as competent and caring individuals. Fin was formally trained as a behavioral ecologist and studied monkey behavior in western Kenya. While children and monkeys have a lot in common, she wouldn’t trade her work as an outdoor educator for anything else!