Fast Ball (detailed below) is an activity found in my Portable Teambuilding Activities book. It's one of those "mental model" activities where (more often than not) groups initially define (via Groupthink) a word (or a direction) in one way and to be successful they need to redefine the word (or direction) - one way to innovate is to redefine something your believe to be true.
After using this activity a few times, Jeremy, a fellow FUN Follower (and good friend) wrote me, asking:
I have a question for you about the game Fastball. I have facilitated this activity mostly with college and adult groups and it does tend to take a while 30 min – 1 hr for groups to complete. When the group finally gets it and is able to complete the challenge, there has been a common reaction of great let down and almost the look from participants like “You tricked us”. How have you led this activity so that it does not take so long that group members check out or become so frustrated by the end. It doesn’t bother me to frustrate a group or to raise the tension but I’ve found it hard to bring the processing back around and be productive because the group is just done with it.
Early on in my team building career, I struggled with this same issue when learning about and working with activities like Fast Ball. (Group Juggle to Warp Speed comes to mind - you create a tossing "order" standing in a circle, but you didn't say they couldn't move from where they created the tossing order?)
With activities like this, I tend to lead them with my adult groups (college age or older) in one of three ways:
1) When I have time, like Jeremy, I will let the activity play out until the shift is made. And, as Jeremy has found out, it can take up to an hour. I have experienced group reactions of success and powerful learnings, and frustration and projected blame on me, their facilitator. (Lots to talk about in both situations.)
There have been times during the later reaction where the group felt tricked and it was difficult to get them to focus back on any learnings that could be brought forward. These groups were not ready to see the learning(s) underneath the challenge. I'm sure I did my best, at the time, to move forward, but these (or any) reactions cannot be predicted. We do the best we can to program activities that will meet the objectives of our groups.
(Here is another interesting topic to explore at another time: What are some strategies to bring a groups "back" from a "negative" experience?)
2) Here is the way I lead Fast Ball most of the time (mostly because I don't have the time to let this play out). I frontload the activity with some information that might move the group to the shift in thinking quicker. I tell them:
"On the surface, this activity might seem relatively easy to accomplish. And, it might be - you might "get it" right away. However, I've seen a lot of groups struggle with this one for one reason or another - the activity is designed to make you think. Remember, when approaching a challenge or task, be mindful of the "problems" you encounter. Solve one problem at a time and keep moving. If you reach an impasse, see this as an opportunity be creative and innovative. I will hold you accountable to the rules and you are free to clarify my expectations about them at any time."
After this frontload I let them play. I usually will remind them of some of the points in the frontload when they seem to be "stuck" - but, for the most part, groups will make the shift and produce a fast time in under 30 minutes.
3) When I program experiences involving objectives around "mental models", "paradigms", "phantom rules" or simply "making assumptions", I will use Fast Ball as one experience, of many, to touch on the learning points. I will move into the "Teacher as Educator" role from time-to-time. I will ask more pointed questions like:
Now, depending on your experiential philosophy, asking these types of questions will not be your preference. As I've learned, there are lots of tools we can use, as educators, to reach our objectives (i.e., the objectives you have for the group or the objectives a group brings with them). Other than giving my group the "answer" (there is little learning here, but it could serve a purpose from time-to-time), I don't want to limit the tools at my disposal.
Again, if I choose to "point" the group in a direction with Fast Ball, I've planned to use more of these "shifty" activities with the hope that my groups will move to different ways of defining and thinking on their own - a skill or behavior I want them to pick up.
Jeremy, thanks for sending me the inquiry. I hope I've provided some insight.
Let me know what your'e thinking about this. Leave a Comment below.
All the best,
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
Activity Objective: Players are challenged to move a safe tossable object to each person in the group as quickly as possible.
Facilitated Objective: Cooperation, Communication, Brainstorming, Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Innovation, Goal Setting, Failing Forward (trial & error), Mental Models and Phantom Rules (false beliefs)
Needs & Numbers: One timing device and one safe tossable object is needed for a group of 8 to 24 players. If game spots (like rope rings or poly spots) are available, have one for each player. However, spots are not required.
Time: 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the level of paradigm shift thinking)
Circle up your group of players for directions (Note: A circle formation is not required for the activity, but don’t reveal this fact). Explain that everyone will stand on his or her spot. If physical game spots are not being used, simply tell everyone that “where you are standing when you catch the tossable object is your spot”—and say no more. (Note: This “spot” concept is an important factor for this activity.)
Once participants are standing on/in their spots, toss the object to someone in the group. Inform the group that this will be a timed activity. The time starts when the first toss is made and stops when everyone is standing in the spot of the player each participant tossed the object to (e.g., if you toss to Peter, you need to end up standing in the spot Peter was standing on when he caught the object).
This activity has turned out to be an interesting discovery. At first the solution seems to be quite straightforward. However, its simplicity “is an outward semblance that misrepresents” (disguises) the true nature of the activity.
The Rules (these should be simply stated):
Safety: I have not observed any physical safety issues during this activity as the solution does not require fast movements. However, I have seen some groups get rather frustrated. Be sure to monitor the communication so that you can step in if emotional safety is being compromised.
Facilitation: Some groups may have a few questions before they get started. Most can be answered by referring back to the directions. The answer to questions like, “Do we have to stay in a circle formation?” depend on the situation. I answer based on the amount of time I have for the activity—less restrictions to an activity tend to extend its time to completion.
When I throw the object in to start the game, it is sometimes a random choice; other times, I choose someone who might benefit from a leadership experience. However, this does not guarantee this person assumes the leadership role.
Spoiler Alert! (If you want to try this one first, do not read on.) You might be asking, “What’s the big deal? Seems like a pretty easy task.” Here’s the rub—if players choose to move to the spot of the players to which they have tossed immediately, the activity will not end; it becomes a perpetual loop. Think about it. No spot can be occupied by more than one player, so movement would have to be continuous. Now, look at rule three. It says, “After tossing…” but it does not specify precisely when. So, to complete the activity, following the rules (as far as I have determined to this point), all tosses should be made first AND THEN everyone moves to his or her designated spot and time stops! Hmm, interesting. Have a go. See what you think.
Variation: Hand everyone a spot. After the directions are given, have the group decide what configuration they want to make. A circle is still a possibility but not a requirement. I have seen two lines facing each other, which avoids possible complications of rule two as tosses are made across to the other line. A scattered formation is also interesting—no one is directly to the right or left if set up with this in mind.
Fastball can also be a good group goal-setting activity. There have been instances where I impose a goal of a very low time as a way to (hopefully) get the participants to make a shift in thinking.
One of Alfie Kohn's* latest blog posts (Transformation by Degrees) inspired me to put together a few thoughts I've been having about "participant-centered" team building. Now, as experiential educators, most of us know how important it is to build a trusting community of learners by first getting to know our learners (as the teacher discovered in Mr. Kohn's first story). After we get started how do we, as team builders, shift more (or all?) "control" of our learners' experience to them?
*Alfie Kohn is an educational thought leader advocating for less homework, less testing, and more "student-centered" educational practice. He is one of my heroes.
At this time I have more questions than answers about how to make team building more "participant-centered". In this post my intention is to light the fire. Let's see what we can come up with together. To get the wheels turning, let me share a couple of recent stories and then share some thoughts from Kohn's Transformation by Degrees.
One of the things I tried this Spring was to let go of the "harness demo" and have my groups figure out how to get them on - they were in charge of getting it done (and done correctly, meeting safety standards). Now, I did give them some information for safety reasons: The waist belt must be above the waist and, There should not be any twists in the webbing of the harness. It became a nice addition to the group's "team" building experience. It also helped, I'm sure, that there was at least one person in every group that had climbed before (having worn a harness). My groups ranged from 5th graders to adults. Yes, there did need to be fixes from time-to-time (that I pointed out), but they were in charge of getting it right.
On another note, here is a recent story from a fellow facilitator that highlights a factor of "control" (or management) with a group - time. Working with a new group (for a half-day program) my friend wanted to go around the room for (what she requested) "quick" introductions. The first few people shared their name, their role at the company and a little bit about themselves (one minute tops for each) - all was going "as planned." Then, the trend changed. The stories from each participant got longer. The planned (on paper) 10-minute intro activity turned into over 20 minutes of sharing.
So, how do we adjust "control" and still get in everything we've planned? Do we impose a time limit on things so we can get to other things on the list? Are our programs about quantity or quality? Can there be both? How much planning with participants can take place before a program? Do we (and they) have time to do this? Again, more questions than answers right now, for me.
Here are thoughts from Mr. Kohn (from Transformation by Degrees) about moving/ sharing control:
"...those of us who are trying to serve as change agents in education had better not count on teachers’ [facilitators] waking up one morning prepared to adopt radically different practices. In fact, we would do well to have some examples ready for how they can get from here to there step by step."
"It is possible to edge slowly away from traditionalism with respect to just about any specific practice."
"To learn something about the students was to transcend (or at least create the conditions for transcending) traditional pedagogy [team builders are pretty good at this part]. To invite the students to talk with, and then introduce, one another was to transcend an ideology of individualism — learning as an activity for a roomful of separate selves. To ask (rather than dictate) what the interview questions should be was to transcend the default model of top-down teacher control. In each case, what was challenged had simply been taken for granted."
"At each stage, one can move ahead only after confronting the unsettling truth that what looked like a destination turned out to be just a rest stop. There’s farther to go on this journey."
“My job,” a teacher in Ohio once commented, “is to be as democratic as I can stand.” Had she invited me to append a friendly amendment to her declaration, it might have been, “… and my other job is to push myself to be able to stand more democracy next year than I could this year.”
"Perhaps our motto should be: Change by degrees — but don’t underdo it."
What are the changes you are making (or have made) out there to be more participant-centered in your programs? We could put a "best practices" document together and share it with the world. What do you say? Add your ideas in the Comments below.
Keep me posted!
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
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Dr. Chris Cavert is an internationally known author, speaker, and trainer in the area of adventure-based activity programming and its relation to community and pro-social behavior development.
This blog is a space for hands-on programable fun - energetic activities and ideas that can be used as a means to bring people together; activities and ideas we as educators can add to our social development curriculums.