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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.



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.

In the event that students have very varying comfort levels or are inconsiderate of others a Comfort Circle activity is a great tool.  The Comfort Circle is similar in concept to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development as well as the “A Great Wind Blows” activity.

Set Up/Explanation

Have students stand in a circle arms distance apart.  Draw a circle in the dirt at the student’s toes, and a circle around the outside of their heels behind them.  The innermost circle represents the Comfort Zone.  The Comfort Zone is where one feels the most at ease and comfortable.  No challenges are present and activities and interactions are easy to accomplish. The ring the students are standing in represents the Challenge Zone.  The Challenge Zone is where one feels nervous, unsure, or challenged in some way.  It is also an area where students are still capable of performing but benefit from assistance.  The beyond the Challenge Zone ring ring is their Panic Zone.  The Panic Zone is where one shuts down and is unable to continue.  Situations categorized in this zone evoke a mental or emotional shut down. 

Once the students understand the three zones explain to them that you will suggest a series of scenarios.  Ask students to physically stand in the zone/circle that particular scenario evokes for them.  Start off with scenarios mild in nature such as trying a strange new food, hiking in the woods, touching a banana slug.  Once the students all display a full understanding of the activity suggest some more challenging scenarios such as sleeping away from home, walking up the canopy tower, holding a snake.  Tailor your scenarios to your students and find out how they might react to situations that they may be expecting to experience.


Depending on how you want to use this activity the expectations can be different. 

As an assessment on what students are generally comfortable with there isn’t as much of a need for emotional safety scaffolding.  Students can react with silliness and when presented with certain scenarios run far beyond the circles and these acts may be used as assessment themselves. 

As a tool to evaluate emotional trust and safety it is important to establish expectations as such.  Students should understand that this is not a time for silliness and under no situation.  This can be an entirely silent activity to create a sense of comfort and remove the need to defend ones decision.  It can also be paused between each scenario to open dialogue about each person’s feelings given the situation.


The point of the activity is to tangibly show that sometimes we are all in the same circle and sometimes we end up being in a different circle depending on the scenario.  We have varying levels of comfort and have come together from very different experiences.  Just because something is comfortable for you does not mean it is comfortable for everyone and vice versa.  It can allow students to externally see other student’s feelings or challenges.

The activity can also create a discussion on personal growth.  Asking what would happen if someone were to stay in their Comfort Zone your entire life could create a dialogue about the necessity of challenge.  On the flipside if an individual were to be constantly placed in their Panic Zone there would not be very much opportunity for growth.  Most of the growth occurs in one’s Challenge Zone.  Express the importance of challenging ourselves and finding ways to support each other in our respective Challenge Zones.

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.