I do love questions! (Thanks for asking Aman.) I'm ready to dive in. Using the resources I have on hand, the books on my shelf (referencing some support), here's what I understand (and follow when programming) when it comes to ice-breakers, de-inhibitizers, and energizers.
The earliest source I have related to adventure-based programming is the Project Adventure book, Islands of Healing: A Guide to Adventure-Based Counseling (1988), by Schoel, Peouty & Radcliffe.
When Project Adventure started training educators (late 1970s early 80s) on the use of adventure-based activities they promoted the following categories, suggesting activities be done from these categories (in a progression) in this order:
As we can see, ice breakers and de-inhibitizers are on the list - energizers did not get a listing at that time. We can also see ice breakers and de-inhibitizers were done at the onset of a program/progression - done to bring the group together in a 'comfortable' (comfort zone) way and progress into simple challenges (e.g., being silly) and risks (e.g., talking to others) so they could eventually step out of their comfort zones in order to learn and grow. So, lets break down Aman's question. (The other categories we can explore in another post.)
From Islands of Healing, "[t]he objective of Ice Breakers/Acquaintance Activities [I position Name Games here as getting acquainted], is to provide opportunities for group members to get to know each other and begin feeling comfortable with each other through activities, Initiatives and games that are primarily fun, non-threatening and group-based." [Note: There are different kinds of ice breakers - e.g., initiatives - lead in an 'ice breaker' way.]
The key aspects in this objective, for me, are 'primarily fun' and 'non-threatening.' Mark Collard, in his book, Serious Fun tells us, "To truly 'break the ice' and, critically, create a platform upon which your group will thrive, an experience must reflect most, but hopefully all, of the following five criteria. It must be:
The Handshakes Memory Game is an Ice Breaker that can meet all five criteria. The handshakes are fun and often silly (using handshakes that are not embarrassing). Most people are okay with (touching) handshakes because of acceptable norms, so they are non-threatening. There is a lot of interaction when going back through the handshakes (and players are learning some names). The directions and demonstrations are quick and easy. And, most players can remember all of their handshake buddies in the end contributing to the overall feeling of success and comradery in the group.
Jennifer Stanfield also warns us about ice breakers. She states, "[m]any people have negative connotations with team building and ice breakers because they have been put in situations where choice and control were taken away. They were put on the spot too early [speaking in front of the whole group for example], embarrassed, asked to share intimate information, act silly, or perform in front of a group before they were comfortable doing so" (Tips & Tools for the Art of Experiential Group Facilitation, 2nd ed, 2016).
This warning tells us to consider the 'ice breakers' you plan to lead through the participants eyes - leaning to the side of super-safe at first, then progress from there. Make your best guess - if it doesn't work out, rebound with another activity to reengage your group. With time you'll get better at these choices as you see how thinks play out.
My (Chris') general rules for ice breakers: Little to no contact (Handshakes is my limit), participants are moving and mixing around talking with each other in pairs or small groups - usually sharing names, and people have a choice as to how much they share with others if they even choose to talk at all (they can mingle around, listen in and be a part of the group in this way).
Back in Islands of Healing, de-inhibitizers, "provide a setting wherein group participants are able to take some risks as well as make improvement in commitment and a willingness to appear [silly] in front of others." In Cowstails & Cobras II, Rohnke explains, "[d]e-inhibitizers get the group to let go, do something out of the ordinary, and act silly."
One example of a de-inhibitizer is Dog Shake (Silver Bullets, Rohnke, 1st edition). Participants are asked to position themselves on all fours, and literally, shake their entire bodies (especially the face) like a dog shaking off water - we've all seen a dog do this, now it's time for us to try (I think this can also be an energizer). Just something silly (if it's done at the right time, not right away).
Another example is Barn Yard (found in The Cooperative Sport & Games Book, by Terry Orlick, 1978). Every person is given (whispered) the name of a barnyard animal - about four or five animals are used. Then, everyone scatters out into the playing area. On GO! (eyes closed or open), participants make the sound (and movement if desired) of their given animals in order to find, and group with, the other animals that are like them.
And why would we challenge our participants to do these things? So they challenge themselves. To 'let go,' to be 'silly' and know it's okay to take some risks in order to grow together as a group. The idea that, 'we're all in this together, no matter what' is an objective of the de-inhibitizer.
De-inhibitizer, as an activity category, is not seen in any of the newer publications that I have. In the most recent activity book (on my shelf) from Project Adventure (The Hundredth Monkey by Nate Folan, 2012), the activities are not even categorized by type (ice breakers, de-inhibitizers and so on), they fall into 'Learning Themes' like Playing to Play, Building Trust, Relationships and Community, Self-Awareness and Self-Management and other Social Emotional Learning themes. The trend I'm seeing in activity books is focused on finding and sequencing activities that meet the needs and objectives of the group in a way that participants feel comfortable moving from the known to the unknow - learning and growing through the process. (It's now about, I theorize, subjective interpretation - more below - and the particular delivery of an activity that determines where it fits into a progression/program.)
My general rules for de-inhibitizers (if I even do anything on purpose to be 'silly'): I sense my group will have fun with what I've going to do (try), very short in duration with a clear choice of opting out, and we talk (at least a little) about the idea of how we 'look' in front of others - what is our self-talk, where does it come from, and how does it serve us (or not serve us).
'Fun' ( an ice breaker) and 'silly' (a de-inhibitizer) are very subjective. Something fun for you might seem very silly to someone else. Something silly could be downright embarrassing. This is where easing into your program, getting a sense of the group and testing out their interactions together helps you to choose activities 'right' for the moment. In other words, you need a good number of activities to choose from (in your plan) as you move forward - being able to 'switch things up' when needed.
There are A LOT of people (facilitators, educators, trainers) who have contributed lists of activities on the internet as a way to provide resources for team builders (and as a way to guide people to their online presence). Many of these lists, in my opinion, misrepresent the types of activities shared. Especially the 'ice breaker' lists. The activities go way beyond what I would lead as an ice breaker (under my general rules).
For example, I've seen, on more than one list, Helium Stick listed as an ice breaker. I have yet to see this one led by anyone I know in a way that is purposefully fun, getting to know names or keeping people in their comfort zones. (If you don't know Helium Stick, you can find examples on the web.) The subjectivity lies, I'll assume, in the way people have been taught and understand programming and sequencing activities. I've shared what I, and others, believe about ice breakers and de-inhibitizers. It's now up to you to define what they mean to you.
Which leads us to the final consideration from Aman. Let's count, 1, 2, 3......15, 16, 17 books are piled around me right now. Most of them are activity books from various people (Rohnke, Butler, Folan & Cain). I could not find a reference to the activity category, 'energizer' in any of them. There are all sorts of links to these activities however, on the web. They are defined (very literally) as activities used to energize participants or groups. Pretty straight forward.
HERE's a pretty good list of energizers (from SchoolWeb) - most of them follow my 'general rules' (below). If you do a quick scan of the activities on this list (just reading the sorter descriptions), you'll see that some could be considered ice breakers and others de-inhibitizers (basing on my general rules). Some could even be turned into the other activity categories listed above (e.g., Communication or Problem-Solving Activities).
Using energizers for such a purpose (commonly known as 'Brain Breaks' in educational settings), is about moving the blood around the body, back into all the fingers and toes - shaking things out a bit. For me it's even about 'clearing out' what just took place, so we are ready to move on to the next task.
My general rules for energizers: Participants will be moving most, if not all, of their body parts, simple instructions, fairly short in duration (again, using these transitions from one team building task to another), they can be done individually or in small groups and they don't require any processing upon completion. And, if the energizer has the potential to be embarrassing (e.g., Barn Yard), moving people out of their comfort zones, use these when you believe your group is ready to de-inhibitize.
It is easy to see the grey between these three categories of activities. we all have our own narratives based on our experiences. Stay mindful and step back if needed. Use care, be caring and take care of your groups.
Wait! But what about Warm Ups? We'll save this one, and others, for another time.....
WOW! I had so much fun digging through my books I lost track of the word count! I hope this long road of information gave you some clarity or some comparative data or maybe even some disagreement. Considering your team building activity sequencing and programming, my best hope is that you are meeting the needs of your participants, pulling them into the experience and the learning (staying within the growth mindset) and not pushing them away (into a closed mindset).
Other thoughts to consider? Please leave us a Comment so we can talk about it.
Be well and keep us posted!!
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
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I recently received an email from a team builder that I think is worth sharing with you (permission was given to share). I've worked at, with and for a lot of different programs over the years and this topic surfaces with everyone - what do we 'call' what we're doing?
Here's the email:
Have you ever lived this concern or heard someone else voice it? Have you asked anyone for their answer to this concern? I have heard this response more than once: "We don't call it 'team building' any more, because the term has fallen out of favor with a lot of people, so we call our program......(pick any other related descriptor for what we do, it's been tried)."
I'd like to start with the term, team building. I've tried 'selling' other terms (e.g., community building, group development, and adventure learning to name a few), but let's face it - team building sums up what we do. It's a term people know. And, many of these people have had great team building experiences.
So, I'm sticking with it. I've been on a mission over the years to bring 'team building' back into a positive light. One way I'm doing this is to educate people (my students, clients and program participants) about the different kinds of 'team' programs that are possible. (Myself and others believe the term, 'team building' has fallen out of favor because some entities call any sort of team or group program, team building - and, in reality, no team building occurs.)
In a past OTB blog post, A Typology of Team Interaction, I advance the work of others about the difference between Team Bonding, Team Building and Team Development programs. If we are better able to fit one of these specific programs to our group's needs, the outcomes can be more aligned with participant expectations. And then of course, we must provide 'bonding,' 'building' and 'development' experiences that make an impact so people know why they gave up their time for your program. (If the 'why' isn't answered, it's likely people will walk away with a low-impact experience.)
Ropes or Challenge Course (The Noun)
Let's move to the "what are we calling it" trend (the noun). Today, two of the most (dare I say) generic names for the 'facilities-based adventure education' (Prouty, Adventure Education: Theory and Applications) tools we work with are a, 'Challenge Course' and a 'Ropes Course' (a lot of the course signage you see, like in the picture above, will say, Ropes Course based on traditional language used in the field). These courses can be lows only, highs only or a combination of both.
I have chosen to go with the 'challenge course' label, based on my alignment with The Association for Challenge Course Technology and the use of the term in their current ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 Challenge Course and Canopy/Zip Line Tours Standards. If you align with PRCA, the Professional Ropes Course Association, then you might be a 'Ropes Course' person. The name (the noun) for the tool, in my opinion, is not as important as what (the verb) the tool can do for an individual, a team or a group.
Naming What We're Doing (The Verb)
Reading (into) R.s email, there is:
Let's flip these perspectives, and start with the marketing - getting people interested in your program. I am in the Seth Godin camp (author of, This is Marketing). Here is some content from the book that can give us Godin's initial perspective:
Marketing is the act of making change happen...You haven't made an impact until you've changed someone. [We certainly can agree we are after this outcome in our 'building' and 'development' programs.]
Effective marketing now relies on empathy and service...[it] is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem. It's a chance to serve.
Marketing...involves creating honest stories - stories that resonate and spread. Marketers offer solutions, opportunities for humans to solve their problems and move forward.
Godin's 'new' marketing is about building trust by providing products/services that solve problems (not by first creating a product and then trying to sell it - as in traditional marketing practices). We know, as challenge/ropes course practitioners we are in the business of helping solve problems - helping others learn and grown (in the growth types of programs). The questions is, do we have the skills and abilities to first uncover the 'problems' and then actually help 'solve' them. These questions can be answered by the organization and the team builder.
Where does the organization fit in? This could be a very long answer, but let's summarize with some considerations. First-and-foremost, who 'is' the organization and who ultimately makes the decisions? Who are the stakeholders? Do these stakeholders adhere to (recognize, even know about) the Standards within the challenge/ropes course industry? For example, are these stakeholders considering:
B.1.2. The organization shall represent itself, and market its products and services, accurately to the public, and
B.1.4. The organization and its staff shall operate within the bounds of their organizational and individual competencies. (ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 Standards)
Organizations want to thrive and keep the doors open, this is a given. Economic stability is important. Are the stakeholders making decisions based on economics or common practices in the field (that guide us towards offering exceptional programs that will not fall out of favor with participants). Is the organization, 'operating within their competencies?' I'm for running exceptional programs within my competencies so every group I work with will spread the word that team building can be an amazing life-changing experience.
Finally, there is the team builder designing and running the programs. Back to the ANSI/ACCT Standards:
C.1.2. Staff shall operate within the limits of their technical and interpersonal/program management skill level, and
C.2.1.3. Staff shall conduct activities according to the organization's guiding policies, procedures and practices. (Just two Standards examples.)
The way I see it, whatever you are going to call your program, it is (very) important to have people (staff) who can 'solve the problem(s)' the client is bringing so trust can be forged (and return business and positive word of mouth can grow). If a client is interested in having some adventurous team bonding fun, are there competent staff to design and deliver such a program? (How do you know?) If a client wants to find out some of the blind spots in her organization, are there staff who can design and deliver an experience (team building) that will bring out and test functional (or dysfunctional) group behaviors and be able to process some transfer of learning to the organization's growth or next action steps? (How do you know you have the staff?) If a client wants to practice the behaviors that lead to being more productive (team development), are there staff that can do this? (How do you know?)
For me, when 'naming' a service (or product), it comes down to what the staff (the ones in front of the clients) can deliver - can promise and deliver. It took me a while to solidify my own platform - what I can promise and deliver. I train team builders. Are you, and/or your staff, team builders? Yes. What skills and abilities do you and/or your staff bring in confidently to a team building program? Awesome! What can you and/or your staff do a little bit better on when it comes to planning, leading and processing a team building program? Let me tell you how we can work together to increase your skills and abilities in these areas. I have to know my limits (skills and abilities) so I can, "offer solutions, opportunities for [my clients] to solve there problems and move forward."
This is what brings people back to us, keeps the doors open, and gives team building a better reputation. Name it and then deliver what you promise!!
R., maybe not as "few" words as you were after, but I hope there are some things that can help you move forward. I have yet to find anyone with 'the' answer to this query, we've got to keep doing the good work no matter what we (at times, have to) call it.
We'd love to read your thinking on this one - leave us a Comment.
Be well!! Keep me posted.
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
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Dr. Chris Cavert is an educator, author and trainer. His passion is helping team builders learn and grow.