Friday Lesson: Play With Purpose

Courtesy of Laurie Frank |

Have you ever gone to a conference, a meeting, or a staff gathering only to find that the first thing you’re asked to do is make animal noises while blindfolded in order to find other people making the same noises? I have. When encountered with this forced icebreaker scenario, all I wanted to do was run out of the room. Instead I played the good sport (along with everyone else) and did what was asked, then quickly tried to forget the whole experience. In the process I soured on even the idea of participating in icebreakers, and it took me a long time to learn that there really is a time, a place, and a purpose for using activities as tools for interaction.

One of the greatest hurdles we, as facilitators of human interaction, encounter are participants’ past experiences with the inappropriate use of activity. An icebreaker for icebreaking sake is but one example. In my case above, the facilitators knew that getting people together was desirable. What they failed to take into account was that just doing something does not necessarily accomplish that goal. They chose an activity that may have worked better later in the group’s life, that may have been more useful with younger children, or that may have accomplished an outcome other than the one they were trying to achieve. In the end, we felt more isolated than when we came in because we stewed in our own discomfiture and awkwardness. Doing nothing would have been better, and choosing an activity that was developmentally appropriate, both for the group and the individuals, would have been ideal.

Activities can be a wonderful means to meeting desired ends. They can be engaging, energizing, educational, and fun. They can help us move forward. It is not, however, the activity that does this. It is how the activity is done. As facilitators, we must take into account a variety of variables when choosing how to present an activity. There are now a plethora of models from which to start; among them the generally accepted concept of sequencing (e.g. icebreakers, deinhibitizers, trust, and problem solving) Project Adventure’s GRABBSS checklist, and the model I present in Journey Toward the Caring Classroom (click on Figure 3.1).CBfigure

Beyond the science of choosing activities, the art of presentation is equally important. This is the flow. There are no hard and fast rules about establishing a flow with any group. It is an art, after all. Art develops from experience, and is grounded in empathy, observation, and knowledge of the science. An artist begins with the tools and, knowing the customary usage of those tools, can spontaneously adapt the situation to create something new. Each group experience has the potential to be something unique. It is the facilitation that offers that opportunity.

Following are some rather random thoughts that I consider when facilitating a group experience. I welcome any and all thoughts, questions, and additions:

KNOW MY MISSION: Both personally and professionally.
Personally: What do I value and what do I believe? In essence—who am I? It is necessary to constantly reflect upon this, because my mission changes over time. As I gain in experience, my understanding of my mission grows. Professionally: Who are the people in this group? Do they come with a common mission? When I’m working as a representative of an organization, what is their mission? Is my personal mission compatible with theirs?

This is the idea of seeing the big picture. I must be aware of group development, of at least attempting to offer the right activities at the right time. I need to educate myself on established theories and models of facilitation and learning. I must be attentive to the needs of the members of the group at any given time, and try to meet them there. As Tom Smith says, “We must remember that sequencing is the most important thing we do. Then we must remember that there is no sequence.” I believe he is talking about the difference between sequence and flow. Sequence being the outline you write on a piece of paper, and the flow being the reality – meeting the needs of the people in that group at that moment in time, place, and situation.

See the activities for what they are—tools. Know the magic of them, and know their limitations. Continually add to my toolbox so that I increase the opportunity to choose the right tool with the right group at the right time. I don’t believe there is such a thing as experiential activities. They are activities. It’s what we do with them that makes them experiential. Rather than trying to fit your group to the activities, make the activities fit with your group and their needs.

Be wary of seeing only one way to do things. Constantly look for, and be open to, new ideas. Narrowness of focus can lead me down a destructive path as easily as a beneficial one. Remember the maxim, “If you see the world as a hammer, then everything is a nail.” Continuously seek ways to add to the toolbox.

It is when I get too serious that I lose track of what I’m doing. I can become manipulative and egocentric, believing that I hold some magic keys to the one correct way of being. Remember that the people we work with create meaning according to their frames-of-reference. The activities we do, and the subsequent processing, must honor their experiences, not mine. As a facilitator, I have the opportunity to bring in an outside perspective, and experience with the medium. Every individual brings their life experiences up to that point in time with them.

Why am I choosing one activity over another? Why am I choosing to present it and process it in this particular way? This speaks to sequencing (the science) and flow (the art) of using activities in an experiential process. As I become more intentional, then I can be more spontaneous, and “intentional spontaneity” is the result. When working from this mindset there are appropriate times to do something simply for the fun of it, and to be spontaneous. Other times, it is important to be focused on outcomes and goals.

For me, the fun of facilitation is when I can connect what I have learned with what we do. Every book, every workshop, every co-facilitation, and every article has given me ideas about how to be a better facilitator. It is my responsibility to take these ideas and put them into action on the canvas of human interaction. What we do is not magic, but can most certainly be magical.

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.

2 Responses to “Friday Lesson: Play With Purpose”

  1. I know the animal making sound game explicitly – and I HATE IT.
    I recall working being hired to lead some contract work and co-facilitating with a person whom i had not worked with before. We were discussing our plan and he said “I have the greatest activity to have people get in small teams” i thought, great i love learning new things. He led the animal call eyes closed activity and it was painful.

    Although for some reason he was absolutely ignorant of the choice. This is why the reflection after the program is necessary. For a facilitator to improve the feedback comes from outside and from inside.

    The model you illustrated for sequencing is great!

  2. Laurie Frank says:


    Thank you for your thoughts. I know that most of my learning with the practice of facilitation comes mainly from two forms: 1 – Going home thinking “Wow, that didn’t go well, I wonder what I could have done differently,” and 2 – others pointing out the areas that were invisible to me. I agree whole-heartedly that we need that, and I also know how difficult it is to remain open to it. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in that way really can help us grow and develop as facilitators.


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