The Value of No/Low-Prop Initiative Games

By Gwendolyn Soule and Jeff Dick
Photo Courtesy of Ohio State University Extension

The benefits of team-building activities such as high-ropes courses have been well-documented. Youth gain valuable skills from being mentally and physically challenged, but what you do when a camp cannot afford to build a course, maintain it, and incur increased insurance premiums? A number of cooperative and initiative games can accomplish many of the same goals with little or no investment.

What Are Low/No-Prop Initiative Games?
nitiative games are highly active team challenges that require individual members to work together to solve a problem. “Low-” or “no-” prop games consist of activities that do not require a large number of supplies, costly facilities, or equipment.

These games start with a facilitator posing a problem or challenge to the group, and supplying a set of rules or parameters for the activity. Effective initiative game “problems” require not only a physical, but also a mental challenge, resulting in the eventual formation of a strategy. For example, team members may be challenged to cross an imaginary raging river using only three stepping stones and a wooden plank, which is shorter than the river is wide.

As teams work to solve the problem, they will likely fail before succeeding. During each attempt, additional parameters can be added to increase or decrease the difficulty of the game. For example, after a failure to complete the challenge, the facilitator may impose a “penalty” on a team. Common penalties include muting the most talkative member of the group, blindfolding the most active participant, or preventing participants from using a particular arm or leg. Implementing these penalties encourages the group to carefully plot its strategy before merely attempting the challenge. During this time, team members build critical communication and listening skills. Sometimes the facilitator may provide hints to encourage success. The most commonly used hint is simply to repeat the rules of the game or ask the team questions about those rules, such as, “Did I say you all had to do this at one time?” However, it is important to allow the members to discover the solution themselves in order to feel successful. Therefore, the best hints are formatted as questions, which don’t give away the solution, but instead encourage the group to think about the problem differently.

Successful completion of the challenge does not mark the end of the experience. A “processing” session follows in which the facilitator asks questions to engage discussion within the group, thus allowing participants to evaluate their actions during the game as well as the outcomes of those actions. Some open-ended questions follow:

  • What worked well?
  • What did not work well?
  • How did your team decide what to do?
  • What was your role in the challenge? How did this compare to the roles of others?
  • Was there one person who seemed to be the leader of your group? What did he or she do that made that person the leader?
  • How did it affect the group when you were given a “penalty” (blind or mute participants, losing the use of a limb, etc.)?
  • What got the team moving in the right direction?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can you apply this in “real-life” at camp, school, or home?

Why Offer Initiative Games?
Youth desire fun, active-based learning which initiative games provide. Parents want their children to build positive life skills while at camp, and these games provide that. Below is a list of commonly identified objectives for initiative and cooperative games:

  • Building relationships—helping kids get to know other kids at camp
  • Developing communication skills
  • Building self-confidence
  • Teaching teamwork
  • Developing decision-making skills
  • Acquiring planning and strategy-building techniques
  • Teaching youth how to handle both success and failure
  • Providing camp staff the opportunity to observe and evaluate camper strengths/weaknesses, group dynamics, etc.

Team-building challenges are a fun, effective way to encourage personal growth for campers, including communication and problem-solving skills. If your camp facility has the space and financial resources to provide a permanent challenge course, it can be an important programming and marketing tool. However, camps are facing the same economic challenges as many businesses and families, which is forcing camps to become more creative with quality programming on a small budget. For those camps lacking the necessary funds or space for a large, dedicated team-challenge course, low/no-prop initiative games offer an opportunity to utilize the same concepts to deliver high-impact programming with a significantly lower investment.

The best way to learn how to facilitate initiative games is to participate in formal training or a team-challenge session led by experienced facilitators. As participants, you will have the opportunity to observe the facilitators during the activity, and experience first-hand how their actions affect the overall experience. For those who are unable to locate a facilitator to train staff or lead the members through sample activities, potential facilitators can practice by leading staff members through the initiative games several times before campers arrive. Potential issues can be worked through, and staff members can practice facilitating skills.

Low/no-prop initiative games and instructions can be found online or in books. Here are a few suggestions for locating these resources:

“Find Something To Do!” by Jim Cain; ISBN#978-0988204607

“Team Challenges: 170+ Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication and Creativity” by Kris Bordessa; ISBN#978-1569762011

Gwendolyn Soule currently works as a County Extension Educator for Ohio State University Extension in Sandusky County. She has 10 years of experience leading and directing youth programs, and specializes in youth development through camping. Reach her at .

Jeff Dick has 21 years of experience with Ohio State University Extension and has served as the Interim 4-H Camp Palmer Executive Director. He has extensive experience leading 4-H camp programming and teen leadership opportunities. Reach him at .