Back to school: 5 team building activities to help break down boundaries

Anna Roslaniec
Anna Roslaniec
A group of children sat in a park high fiving each other

At the beginning of term adolescent learners are often shy, embarrassed and awkward. They are reluctant to speak English in front of their peers or show enthusiasm in class, often suffering from social pressure and lack of self-confidence. It can take weeks or months for students to get to know each other and form bonds. However, don’t despair if your teen learners are like this. There are plenty of team-building games and activities you can do to help students build relationships that will allow them to feel comfortable and relaxed in the classroom.

Team building activities to help break down boundaries

Why use team-building activities in the classroom?

Team building activities can help:

  • Break down boundaries
  • Teens get to know each other
  • Build trust and teamwork
  • Bring 21st-century skills - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills - to life

Team-building games can also be a lot of fun. They require students to work together to reach a common goal and sometimes include a competitive element, which can encourage teenage learners to get really involved.

There is a wealth of different team-building games and activities suitable for older children and teens, but here we have chosen five that we think your teenage learners will love.

1) Human knot

In this fun physical activity, teamwork is essential. Students form a human knot, which they have to work together to untangle. It will also give you an idea of which students show leadership qualities.

Materials needed: none

How to play:

  • Have students stand in a circle, making sure they are close together. If you have a large class, having students play in two or more groups may be better. The larger the group, the more complicated the puzzle will be.
  • Tell students to reach across the circle with each arm and hold the hands of two other students. They can't choose the people standing on either side of them. Make sure students hold a left hand with their left hand, and vice versa. Now the human knot is formed.
  • Tell students that they have to try to untangle the knot without dropping the hands they are holding. When they have successfully untangled the knot, students will be standing in a regular circle holding hands.
  • Students will need to bend, twist, and move under or step over other students' arms.

Tip: If one student is reluctant to play, give them the role of "director". This student can walk around the outside of the knot, giving instructions to help the group solve the problem.

If you are doing this in groups, have them race against each other. The team to solve the problem first - wins.

2) Magic carpet

In this game, teams stand on a "magic carpet" which they have to turn over while still standing on it. Teams must decide on a strategy together and carry it out — if they try to do it individually, someone will inevitably fall off.

Materials needed: rugs, towels, or large pieces of cardboard (one per team)

How to play:

  • Give each team their magic carpet and have them stand on it. Tell students they are on a magic flying carpet high in the sky, but there's a problem — the carpet is upside down. They need to turn the carpet over without anyone falling off.
  • They need to devise a strategy for turning the carpet over without anyone touching the floor.
  • Teams can work individually, or they can collaborate to help each other.
  • The activity can be set up as a race to see which team flips their carpet first.

Tip: Encourage students to rethink their strategy if it doesn't appear to be working. Evaluating your decisions and adapting your plan is a useful 21st-century skill that students can use throughout the school year.

3) Build it

Teenage students love a practical challenge; in this activity, the element of competition will undoubtedly get them involved. With just basic materials, students have to work together to build the tallest freestanding tower within a time limit.

Materials needed: balloons (one pack per team), sticky tape, a tape measure, balloon pumps (optional)

How to play:

  • Have students form teams of four and hand out the materials.
  • Tell students to build the tallest freestanding tower using just balloons and sticky tape in ten minutes. Explain that after ten minutes, you will check and measure the structures. If it falls over, that team is eliminated from the challenge.
  • Tell students how much time is left after five minutes and again two minutes before the time ends.
  • Have teams stand back from their towers. Inspect each tower, measure it, and record the results. You may wish to give the winning team a prize.

Tip: Increase the challenge by giving students mixed bags of different-shaped balloons, including modeling balloons.

4) My eyes, your eyes

Students will have lots of fun guiding each other or being guided through an obstacle course by their teammates. This activity tests communication skills and builds trust between pairs of students.

Materials needed: blindfolds or scarves (one per pair) and obstacles, e.g., chairs and boxes.

Preparation: Before the activity, set up the obstacle course by placing furniture and other items around the classroom. Decide where the route students take will begin and end, marking the finish line.

How to play:

  • Put students in pairs. If possible, have them work with a student they don't know very well. Have one student in each pair cover their eyes with a blindfold. This student is a blinded person and their partner will be their eyes.
  • The guide stands behind their blind partner and places their hands on their partner's shoulders. Their job is to quietly give instructions to guide their partner towards the finish line, navigating the obstacles.
  • The first pair to finish wins.
  • Have students swap roles. Move some of the obstacles. Then repeat the activity.

Tip: If possible, play the game in the playground or in the school gym. The larger the space, the more complex you can make the route.

5) Scavenger hunt

This is a longer activity that requires slightly more planning than the others. Teams will complete a set of tasks and challenges as a race. Choose a mixture of fun challenges and serious tasks to turn this activity into a fun diagnostic test to determine students' English levels.

Materials needed: Worksheet containing a list of tasks and challenges (one per team). Tasks can be both language-related and practical.

Download our Scavenger Hunt sample worksheet

How to play:

  • Put students into teams. This activity is ideal for students with different skills and abilities, so try to ensure teams are mixed-ability.
  • Tell students that they are going to race to complete a series of tasks that they will find on their worksheet. The fastest team to complete all tasks correctly wins. Some tasks can be completed by one student.
  • Explain that students don't need to complete the tasks in order. Point out that you will monitor them closely to ensure there is no cheating.
  • Remind students that they must use English at all times. You can choose to penalize students by having them repeat or do an extra task if they use L1.

Tip: If you think students might try to cheat, before you set the teams nominate students to be team monitors (one per team). They will have the worksheet and make sure that the team fulfills each task. Alternatively, if students have mobile phones or tablets, have them take pictures and videos of their team members completing the task.

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