Play-based Problem Solving

By VOBS Staff from Voyageur Outward Bound Schools

An interactive problem solving activity that challenges students to work together and communicate to solve a group challenge.

Description: Before the activity begins each student is randomly assigned a unique symbol by the facilitator. The symbol gets attached to the student’s back, so the individual cannot see their symbol. The facilitator will create a line with each symbol on its individual piece of paper or note card. When the activity begins, each student will stand next to a symbol. The facilitator will inform the group that it is their task to organize themselves in front of the symbol that they have been assigned in as few tries as possible. The students will not receive clues from the instructor, but can ask a fellow student one yes/no question to learn about their shape; the group may tell the facilitator that they are ready for them to check to see how many symbol/student pairs they have correct. The facilitator will check and will say “You have ___ correct.” Students will use this information to continue to solve the puzzle. The activity is complete when each student is standing in front of their assigned symbol. The focus of this is to empower students to solve a common challenge through teamwork, communication and problem solving.

Try it on: Novice Do: Make sure you know the students names, this seems like an obvious point to make but if you do not know who the students are, this activity will be extremely difficult to make sure everyone is in the right spot. Encourage the students that they can complete this! This is a challenge, but it is not undoable. Encourage the voices that come out as thought leaders, and listen for students who may not be comfortable speaking loudly but have a great insight to share. If a student who is quieter has a great idea, help the group to quiet down and empower that student to share again. Have this be a moving activity; it is important the students are active and engaged! Have them standing and interacting with each other.

Don’t: Some younger student groups may not be able to handle the “pressure” of completing this activity in as few rounds as possible as the activity is complicated enough. This part of the challenge can be taken away to help focus on the problem solving aspect. If the group of younger students is more than 12 it is highly suggested that you split the group into two smaller groups. Anything over 12 becomes more complicated and the amount of time used to complete the activity can cause some of the group to lose interest.

Experienced Do: Hold the students accountable for the challenge! If they want to stop or do not think they can do it, they absolutely can, encourage them to break it down into bite size steps. This makes the overall task much less daunting. Make space for everyone’s voices, this is a great opportunity to highlight those who may not share as often as others; they are often the key to the success of the group. If it is too easy for the group, you can add a layer of challenge by taking some of the group’s voices away so that they are not able to lead the group to solving the puzzle.

Don’t: Let students leave this activity unfinished. Activities like this set the tone for students to push themselves to do something that is not always easy, and that is a key theme that the group can draw on going forward.

Assessing Impact: The goal is to have students see that they can work together as a team to solve the problem. That can be done through a guided conversation at the end of the activity. The activity may not have gone smoothly, or may not meet the facilitator’s idea of what an effectiveness looks like, but that is also a great opportunity for learning with the students. Discuss the ups and downs of the activities, and how you can use what you have learned going forward to better the group. Below are two options for a guided debriefs after the activity: Talking Debrief: Celebrate the success of the activity! Discuss with the students what worked well in this activity? What did not work well? How did you know it was not working? How do you think we work as a team? How can we use this going forward?

Silent Debrief: Ask the students to touch the shoulder of the person who they feel helped them be successful today? Have the students touch the shoulder of the person who was creative in this activity? Have the students touch the shoulder of the person who had a really great idea? Have the students touch the shoulder of a person that made them laugh during the activity. Have the student touch the shoulders of the students who they saw try really hard during this activity? The questions can be modified to fit the outcome and the specific group, but this is a great way for students to share their opinions in an unconventional way.

Further Reading


Advanced Team Building

From TPP Staff, The Possibility Project

Join the Discussion

How could you implement this in your program?

Learn more about the best practices for social and emotional learning.

Download the guide