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Taking Chances: The Challenge Zone

Team Building

Here at IslandWood, a residential environmental education center near Seattle, some instructors use the phrase “step up, step back” to remind students about their participation level in group conversations: If you find yourself continually raising your hand to answer a question, maybe let someone else in the group answer the question first. Conversely, if you prefer to stay quiet during group discussion, challenge yourself to step up and participate more.

This phrase can also be applied in a somewhat different context: facilitating team building. Effective facilitators know the fine balance between when to step up and when to step back. There are moments when it is clear that the facilitator needs to intervene, namely when there are immediate risks to physical or emotional safety. On the other hand, an integral aspect of team building is the ability for participants problems together, without direct guidance from the facilitator.

jensen1In order to examine this, it is useful to think about the spectrum of challenge level. One tool used to frame this is comfort zone, challenge zone and panic zone. The most salient learning happens in the challenge zone, where students are pushed to try something new, to rely on others, to face their fears. The panic zone is where learning stops. This is where step up/step back comes into play. As the facilitator, it is your role to pay close attention to the dynamic of the group, as well as to give your group full transparency beforehand. By taking a few minutes to review the meaning of physical and emotional safety and empowering your students to call “safety freeze!” (all participants stop moving and the facilitator intervenes), you give yourself additional eyes out in the field.

The concept of the challenge zone derives from educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, who described it as the Zone of Proximal Development. Briefly, this idea is that students learn best when guided by adults toward new knowledge that they could not know on their own. The teacher seeks to find the sweet spot between challenge and competence through the use of scaffolding. In team building, students learn valuable lessons about working with others through careful facilitation by an adult.

jensen2

 

A few common scenarios arise when working with a group who has a diverse set of experiences.

  • Some students are clearly in the challenge zone, while others remain in the comfort zone. Those who feel comfortable begin to take on the role of director. In this scenario, a few simple tools can even the playing field. Keep a blindfold or bandana in your backpack to take away a student’s “sight.” Alternatively, take away the “voice” of vocal students. Make sure to let these students know that this is not a punishment for participation, but rather a way to challenge themselves to work in a different way.

  • Students complete the team building activity quickly. Be sure to plan in one or two ways you can facilitate the same activity differently. Examples include: changing the size of the playing field, completing the activity in full silence, using non-dominant hands, rearranging the group and trying again, or using a similar, but different tool to complete the challenge (e.g. a larger/smaller hula hoop, a different sized ball, etc).

  • One student is clearly in the panic zone, while others remain in the challenge or comfort zone. If you see a student who is experiencing panic, call a safety freeze to reevaluate. All students should stop moving and look to you for direction. You may follow up with something along the lines of “It seems like not everyone is on the same page” and encourage students to have a strategy meeting to come up with a new plan. This is a great opportunity for the panicking student to have a moment to breathe or for you to check in one-on-one. Listen closely to the student-led strategy meeting to discern whether all needs in the group are being met; use discretion at the end of the meeting to decide whether or not to be explicit about what is making certain members of the team feel panicked.


Most team building exercises can be done with very few supplies. Check out zen counting or helium hoop as examples of team building that can be done with participants of any age. Intentionality is key when facilitating, but with some simple scaffolding your group can be set up for success in whatever challenge you choose.

Here at IslandWood, a residential environmental education center near Seattle, some instructors use the phrase “step up, step back” to remind students about their participation level in group conversations: If you find yourself continually raising your hand to answer a question, maybe let someone else in the group answer the question first. Conversely, if you prefer to stay quiet during group discussion, challenge yourself to step up and participate more.

This phrase can also be applied in a somewhat different context: facilitating team building. Effective facilitators know the fine balance between when to step up and when to step back. There are moments when it is clear that the facilitator needs to intervene, namely when there are immediate risks to physical or emotional safety. On the other hand, an integral aspect of team building is the ability for participants problems together, without direct guidance from the facilitator.

jensen1In order to examine this, it is useful to think about the spectrum of challenge level. One tool used to frame this is comfort zone, challenge zone and panic zone. The most salient learning happens in the challenge zone, where students are pushed to try something new, to rely on others, to face their fears. The panic zone is where learning stops. This is where step up/step back comes into play. As the facilitator, it is your role to pay close attention to the dynamic of the group, as well as to give your group full transparency beforehand. By taking a few minutes to review the meaning of physical and emotional safety and empowering your students to call “safety freeze!” (all participants stop moving and the facilitator intervenes), you give yourself additional eyes out in the field.

The concept of the challenge zone derives from educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, who described it as the Zone of Proximal Development. Briefly, this idea is that students learn best when guided by adults toward new knowledge that they could not know on their own. The teacher seeks to find the sweet spot between challenge and competence through the use of scaffolding. In team building, students learn valuable lessons about working with others through careful facilitation by an adult.

jensen2

 

A few common scenarios arise when working with a group who has a diverse set of experiences.

  • Some students are clearly in the challenge zone, while others remain in the comfort zone. Those who feel comfortable begin to take on the role of director. In this scenario, a few simple tools can even the playing field. Keep a blindfold or bandana in your backpack to take away a student’s “sight.” Alternatively, take away the “voice” of vocal students. Make sure to let these students know that this is not a punishment for participation, but rather a way to challenge themselves to work in a different way.

  • Students complete the team building activity quickly. Be sure to plan in one or two ways you can facilitate the same activity differently. Examples include: changing the size of the playing field, completing the activity in full silence, using non-dominant hands, rearranging the group and trying again, or using a similar, but different tool to complete the challenge (e.g. a larger/smaller hula hoop, a different sized ball, etc).

  • One student is clearly in the panic zone, while others remain in the challenge or comfort zone. If you see a student who is experiencing panic, call a safety freeze to reevaluate. All students should stop moving and look to you for direction. You may follow up with something along the lines of “It seems like not everyone is on the same page” and encourage students to have a strategy meeting to come up with a new plan. This is a great opportunity for the panicking student to have a moment to breathe or for you to check in one-on-one. Listen closely to the student-led strategy meeting to discern whether all needs in the group are being met; use discretion at the end of the meeting to decide whether or not to be explicit about what is making certain members of the team feel panicked.


Most team building exercises can be done with very few supplies. Check out zen counting or helium hoop as examples of team building that can be done with participants of any age. Intentionality is key when facilitating, but with some simple scaffolding your group can be set up for success in whatever challenge you choose.

About the Author
Catherine Jensen

Catherine Jensen is an educator living in the Pacific Northwest with a passion for broadening access to environmental and experiential education. Her relevant work experience includes working as a field instructor in the backcountry for Camp Manito-Wish and BOLD/GOLD YMCA, as well as an instructor and graduate student at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island, WA.