Friday Lesson: Intentional Spontaneity/Getting the Most Out of Your Activities

Courtesy of Laurie Frank |

This week I would like to offer suggestions about how to take an activity and use it in myriad ways. Seeing an activity and how it fits with your group and situation (e.g., stage in their process, developmental levels, content focus, environment) is the beginning of facilitator freedom. It changes one’s focus from following a recipe to using and melding what is at hand to suit your needs:

• Your bag-of-tricks isn’t handy? No problem, we’ll wad up pieces of paper for throwables.
• Working on goal setting? Simply try an activity, set goals for improvement (with the ensuing discussion about what constitutes “improvement”). Do it again to explore how it was done, if the goals were met, and what goal setting can do to support people in various parts of their lives.
• Is there an ongoing conflict stoked by teasing and put-downs? Grab an activity to illustrate support and caring, which can then open the door to talking about the elephant in the room.
• Your group of 5th graders are now joined by their kindergarten buddies. Let’s do the same activity in a different way to include their developmental level, address the same themes, and allow their 5th grade mentors to support them.
• Oops, the large room you reserved is no longer available and you really wanted to address some issues using the Moonball activity (involving hitting a beach ball). No worries, we’ll move the furniture in the classroom, move all the breakables to a safe place, and do the same activity in smaller groups while sitting down—or we can use balloons instead. It slows the pace down, but we can create a similar environment by introducing more than one balloon; or … (your idea here).

We are only bound by our creativity. The key, of course, is to be so intentional that spontaneity fits into the overall picture. It changes one’s perspective from unthinkingly reacting to circumstances to responding through the activity to fit the circumstances. Just as a slalom skier races the course in her or his head before physically attempting it, we can plan our facilitation experiences in our mind’s eye before working with our groups. We know where we’re going, but there are many turns along the way. Hopefully we will end up where we want to go and have lots of adventures during the journey.

Below you will find the classic group juggle activity along with several variations to illustrate how to use the activity with different age groups and focuses. Please share your suggestions and variations with us so that all of our bags-of-tricks continue to grow!

Basic Group Juggle

Focus: Dealing with frustration, working together
Materials: Soft, throwable items (stuffed animals, wadded up pieces of paper work fine)
For a group of 15, use about 12 SOFT throwable items.
Sequence: Ice Breaker/Deinhibitizer, Problem Solving

Suggested Procedure:

1. Clear the desks or tables away and stand in a circle.
2. Tell everyone they need to know the name of the person on their right. Give them time to see who that is.
3. Take one item and throw it around the circle to the right. Each person calls the name of the person to their right before throwing the object. Go around a couple of times.
4. Place the objects on the ground, and say “This is ‘A’ as in apple”. Have everyone line up in alphabetical order starting there, and re-forming the circle when done.
5. Check out if everyone is in order by having them call out their name.
6. Ask them to identify where that person who used to be on their right is now. They will continue to throw to that person.
7. Pick up one object and begin the pattern by calling the name and throwing to that person who used to be on your right. Make sure it goes to everyone and comes back to you.
8. Now tell them that, as a group, they will juggle all of the objects. Everyone always throws to the same person. Then throw the objects, one at a time and watch chaos reign….
9. As the items get back to you, put them on the ground.

Sample Processing Questions:
• What skills/qualities did you need in order to juggle all of the objects successfully?
• How did setting group goals affect the activity?
• What made the difference between the first and second attempts?
• What parts of this were you able to control? What was outside of your sphere of influence?
• In your life, what parts are you able to control? What parts are outside your sphere of influence?

Facilitation Notes:
This activity can get a bit crazy, with people throwing too hard or throwing at people, rather than to them. It’s common for people of any age to have this happen because it can get stressful and exciting with all of these things flying around. That’s why it is extremely important to use soft items.

By having the chaos, we can now come up with ideas for how to manage it so that it is not so chaotic. After doing a round where things might have gotten out of hand (you might even need to stop the action if it gets too spirited), talk about how that felt. Did it feel safe? Some may say yes, while others say no. Ask why or why not? Ask what can be done differently to make it more safe and more manageable? Brainstorm some strategies and then try it again. (Specific strategies might include: make sure the person is ready by making eye contact before throwing; focus on the person who throws to you; slow down; etc.)

For younger students, start with one item, have it go all the way around, then try two items. Once that has been successful, try three. Keep adding one more each round as they can handle it. You may only do one or two items one day, then come back another day to try three. Over the year you can continually get better at this through practice.

Variation: Low Drop Juggle

1. Do a Basic Group Juggle. After setting the pattern (but before going through the first round with all the items), tell the participants that each person must count his or her own misses.
2. Demonstrate what a miss looks like: Throw your item toward your catching partner, but deliberately throw it on the floor. Even if it is your fault, the catcher must count it as a miss. Then throw it to some one who is not your catcher. Your catching partner must count it as a miss because she didn’t catch it—someone else did.
3. All misses will be counted and added up for a group total of misses.
4. Try the activity with everyone throwing to their original catching partners. Make sure to throw the items quickly, one after the other. Remember, we want some chaos here.
5. If someone finds an item on the floor nearby, he or she must pick it up and throw it to his or her catching partner.
6. Either the items will all return to you or they won’t, and you will have to stop the action. Go around and ask each person for her or his total misses. Add them up. This number is generally quite high.
7. After announcing the total, ask the class how they can reduce the number of misses without moving from where they are already standing and using the same number of items to throw. Get specific strategies.
8. Try the activity again to see if the class can put their strategies into action.

Sample Processing Questions:
• What was the difference between the first attempt and second attempt?
• Was it okay to make a mistake? Why or why not?
• What happens when someone makes a mistake? How do you treat yourself? How do others treat you?
• When is the making of mistakes productive in the learning process?
• When is the making of mistakes not productive in the learning process?
• How do we encourage the making of (and learning from) productive mistakes in our class?

Facilitation Notes:
The results of this activity are generally quite impressive. All it takes is adding a group goal, thus changing from an individual point-of-view to a group orientation. Ask older participants what kind of a goal they would like to set for themselves rather than stating the goal for them. This could be anything from fewer misses, to a fixed number of misses, to a goal unrelated to the number of misses. Help them settle on one goal, then ask them for strategies to achieve it.

Variation: Juggling for Our Lives

1. Do the basic Group Juggle through step 7.
2. Divide your throwable objects into two piles—one to go through the pattern forward, the other to go through the pattern backward. Put all the stuffed animals in one pile (for example) and all the fleece balls in another pile.
3. In addition to the two piles, have two wadded up pieces of paper and a cup of water handy.
4. Start with one pile. Tell students that these objects represent their lives—what they do every day, their roles, their responsibilities. Ask them to call out some of the things they do every day (e.g., homework, sports teams, baby-sitting).
5. Take a few items and go through the pattern with everyone still throwing to the same person.
6. Next, take the other pile. Tell students that these objects represent all those curve balls in our lives—the unexpected (e.g., illness, car accidents).
7. Try sending a few of these items through the pattern backwards. With these, everyone throws to the person who was just throwing to them.
8. Take out the two wadded up pieces of paper. Tell them that these are rumors, which can go anywhere. When in play, students can throw these to whomever they wish.
9. Finally, take out the cup of water. Tell students that this represents their school responsibilities. You will be passing it around the circle, hand-to-hand.
10. Then start the Juggle—sending items out in all the various directions. Either they will all come back to you, or you will need to stop the action. Be prepared for confusion and a bit of chaos (hence the need for soft objects).
11. Ask students how they felt about this round. Generally, you will get answers like “crazy,” “overwhelmed,” “excited.”
12. Now ask them for strategies to bring their “life” into a semblance of order. The two uncontrollables are needing to use the same items and needing to stand in the same place. What can they control?
13. After eliciting strategies—like slowing down, communicating better by making eye contact, or waiting until someone is ready before loading on more objects—try it again. The results can be impressive.

Facilitation Notes:
This variation works well for high-school students. The metaphor resonates with many of them, creating an avenue to issues about leadership, decision making and goal setting in their lives. It is also a way to focus on the behaviors in life that can be controlled, as opposed to pointing fingers at others who are outside one’s sphere of influence. It is truly amazing how much people can affect change if the focus is strong enough. By the way, see what happens if people choose not to pass on the rumors…

Variation: Progressive and Systemic Juggling

Focus: Working together
Materials: Have 3 soft throwables (stuffed animals, wadded up pieces of paper work fine) for each group of five or more.
Sequence: Problem Solving

Suggested Procedure: Basic Small Group Juggle
1. Divide the large group up into smaller groups of at least five people. The groups do not all need to be the same size, so if there are natural groups who do similar work or are in the same department, try to keep them together.
2. Have each group stand together in a circle and ask them to count off so that each person has a number. If there are 8 people in the group, they would start with #1 and go to #8.
3. Once everyone has counted off, they then mix up (stay in their small group!), so that they are not standing next to the people they were standing next to before.
4. Person #1 then picks up a soft item and throws it to #2, who throws it to #3, etc. When the last person gets the item, she or he throws it back to #1. In this way, the group has created a pattern and they always throw to the same person.
5. Give the small groups a chance to practice this, and add in the other two items.

Progressive Variation:
6. Decide who, in the large group, has the next birthday. The small group that contains this person is designated as group A.
7. Have everyone put down their items except #1 in group A.
8. Group A goes through their sequence. When the item gets to the last person in group A, he or she throws it to the #1 person in the next group (group B).
9. Group B goes through their sequence, and passes it off to the next group (Group C), and so on, until the item returns to #1 in group A.
10. Another level is to have each group pick up their 3 items, and start their juggle at the same time, passing the items off to the next group. When their items are returned, they hold on to them.
11. Try asking people to set a goal to see how long they think it will take them to accomplish this task.

Sample Processing Questions:
• What was the difference between doing the juggle in the small group and doing the same juggle in the large group?
• How did you communicate with your group members in the small and large group? Did it change?
• Did you find yourself interfering with others’ juggles, or others interfering with yours? What do you think caused that to occur?
• When you are doing your job, how does it fit into the big picture at your workplace? How does your small group relate to each other and to the other small groups that make up your workplace?
• Do you have systems in place to facilitate communication, sharing, conflict, etc.? If so, what are they? If not, what could they be?
• What strategies did you use during the progressive juggle?

Facilitation Notes:
This activity is all about what it means to work in a team, and to work in the context of a larger system. Generally the dynamics in the small group are very different from the large group. People get comfortable with their roles of throwing to the same person and it actually is easy because people are standing close together. Many times verbal communication isn’t even necessary to get things moving from one person to the other.

When the large group convenes, though, getting the job done takes more effort, more focus, and a different style of communication. Items collide in midair (and can be labeled as conflict, or conflicting goals). There are many more distractions (“The administrator asked me to do a special project…” or there’s a crisis to attend to…) so that people either have to raise their voices to get their co-worker’s attention, or their co-workers must be very focused to ignore the distractions (“Where did all those emails go that you sent me? I guess I haven’t checked my email all day…”).

The metaphors are endless. Allow people to make the connections from their own work experience. Simply raise the questions.

Variation: Assessment Juggle

* Thanks to Carla Hacker for introducing me to this variation

Level: Grades 2-3, Ages 6 – 9
Sequence: Problem Solving
Focus: Organization, Working together, Goal setting
Materials: A soft throwable object for each group of four students

Sample Framing Questions:
• When you play a game with a friend do you want to have fun?
• A goal is something that you try to do, like having fun when you play with a friend. What is a goal you have when you are doing math (or writing words)?
• When we walk through the halls, we have some goals – to get where we want to go and to be quiet so we don’t disturb other classes. What are some other goals we have in school?

Activity Lead-In:
It is easier to get something done if you organize a way to do it. In small groups, you are going to work as a team to make a goal. Once you learn this activity we will agree on the goal together for our teams, and then you can organize how you want to do it.

Suggested Procedure:
1. You will need a large space for this activity – like the lunchroom, the gym or outside.
2. Randomly divide the large group into small groups of four or five. (remind them to welcome everyone into their group).
3. Have them circle up in their foursomes and count off so that each group has someone who is 1, 2, 3 and 4 (and 5).
4. Ask each 1 to switch places with 2 in their group (for groups of 5, also have 4 and 5 switch places) This mixes them up just a bit.
5. Give a throwable item to each 1. They are to throw the item to 2, who throws it to 3 who then throws it to 4 (and the 5).
6. 4 (or 5) then returns the item to 1 and the pattern is complete.
7. Allow some practice for a bit.
8. Now tell them that they are going to see how far away they can get from each other, and throw the item through the whole pattern without dropping it.
9. They are to start very close. Each time they make it through the whole pattern without a drop, they take a step back and go through the pattern again. If an item is dropped during a pattern, they take a step forward.
10. Allow some practice time.
11. Help the entire group set a goal for the small groups — how many steps back do we think we can make without a drop? Every team will try to achieve the goal. (If they are not ready to discuss goal setting, then offer a goal for them — Lets see if every team can go through the pattern three times without a drop — three steps back….)

Sample Processing Questions:
• What did you do as a team to organize and make the goal?
• How did you help each other make good throws and good catches?
• Did you give put ups while you were doing this? Give me some examples. Did they help? How?
• Did you hear or see any put-downs during this? Examples. Did they help? How?

Connections and Extensions:
• Bring in stories of famous athletes or teams (like the women’s Olympic softball team from 2000) — their goals, struggles and accomplishments.
• Ask other teachers to use the vocabulary of goal setting and teamwork, and encourage simple goal setting with the students during class.
• Ask other teachers to share their own stories, or stories about famous people they know who had specific goals, and how they organized to accomplish those goals (e.g. Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King and the bus boycott).

All activity descriptions ©2009 Laurie Frank

This lesson is compliments of Laurie Frank. To find more information and to contact the author, please visit:

Thanks for joining us in December for Friday Lessons with Laurie Frank. Laurie is the author/coauthor of several books, including Journey Toward the Caring Classroom, Games for Teachers, and Leading Together.

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