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
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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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    Ways to express admiration in English

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    February is commonly associated with Valentine's Day, which is a day to express love and affection to your significant other. However, it's also important to express admiration for others in a platonic, non-romantic way.

    Language serves as the gateway to genuine communication, and one of the most delightful methods of connection is through expressions of admiration. As you practice and immerse yourself in the depths of the English language, you'll likely want to learn ways to convey heartfelt praise, elevating your ability to articulate and forge meaningful connections.

    In today's post, we explore a range of examples to enhance your language proficiency and elevate your conversational English.

    What is the definition of admiration?

    Originating from the Latin word admirari (meaning 'to wonder at'), admiration is the act of expressing sincere approval or deep appreciation towards someone or something, typically as a heartfelt form of praise or recognition for their achievements, qualities, or contributions. It is a sentiment that stems from feeling a genuine admiration for the impact and inspiration someone or something brings to our lives.

    Admiration is an emotion everyone can relate to, and the English language offers a beautiful range of words and expressions to convey it in the most subtle and nuanced ways.

    Whether you're dealing with a complex business transaction or simply enjoying a personal moment of connection, the richness of your words can reflect the depth of your feelings and make them even more meaningful.

    Examples of English compliments

    Let's look at some English phrases you can use to express admiration. There are different types for varying situations and people.

    Straightforward compliments

    To truly convey admiration in English, it's crucial to practice and become familiar with positive affirmations. The following phrases not only highlight the specific reason for your awe but also reflect a deeper, personal connection:

    • Your hard work is truly inspiring.
    • I'm in awe of your creativity.
    • You have an uncanny ability to make things happen.
    • Your perseverance is admirable.
    • Your kindness never goes unnoticed.

    Each of these phrases praises the character traits of the person you are addressing. They showcase attention to detail, appreciation for special skills, and the more intangible qualities, such as character and kindness, that are just as noteworthy.

    Tailored and specific accolades

    A compliment can carry more weight when it is clearly tailored to the individual. Phrases that are specific to a person's achievements and skills add a layer of thoughtfulness that is hard to ignore. Consider these examples of more personalized compliments:

    • The way you handled that difficult situation was masterful.
    • Your presentation was not only informative but also deeply insightful.
    • Your dedication to this project is truly top-notch.
    • I love how you always find a unique perspective.
    • Your attention to detail really sets you apart.

    These phrases go beyond generic niceties and serve to validate specific moments or attributes that set the person apart in a distinctive way.

    Building rapport with positive language

    Admiration doesn't always have to be solely based on achievements or success; it can also be directed toward someone's personality and interests.

    Sometimes, an outward expression of approval, high praise or agreement can forge a sense of commonality and mutual respect. Here are phrases that can help you beam with appreciation:

    • Your choice in music is impeccable.
    • I absolutely adore your sense of style.
    • The way you talk about your family is truly heartwarming.
    • Your passion for this topic is evident and contagious.
    • Your love of life is refreshing and infectious.

    Using these statements, you can create a warm and complimentary atmosphere, helping foster positive connections with others.

    Affectionate expressions for familiar friends

    When it comes to speaking (or writing) to someone you're close with, phrases of praise and admiration can touch on personal attributes and speak of shared experiences, creating an even stronger bond. These expressions should carry the warmth and familiarity that come with a close relationship:

    • Your sense of humor always lifts my spirits.
    • The wisdom you've shared has shaped and helped my own life so much.
    • You approach life's challenges with such grace; it's a privilege to know you.
    • The comfort and joy you bring as a friend cannot be overstated.
    • Your insights always provide a refreshing new angle, revealing things I had not thought about.

    These phrases are centered on intimate understanding and personal connections, deeply resonating with a shared history and mutual appreciation. They carry a more emotive meaning and weight, often used to reinforce the closeness and appreciation that develops through years of friendship or kinship. Therefore, you should use them with care and thought.

    The appropriateness of compliments

    The art of complimenting is nuanced; learning and gauging the appropriateness of a compliment is essential. Certain contexts or relationships might warrant a more conservative or formal approach. Professional settings, for example, often require focusing on achievements and abilities as opposed to personal compliments, which may be mistaken for overfamiliarity or unprofessional behavior.

    Consider culture and personal preferences

    Similarly, cultural sensitivities must be considered; a warm expression of admiration in one culture may be perceived as too forward or personal in another.

    Always ensure that compliments and praises are given in a manner that resonates with respect for the individual's privacy and comfort levels. By being mindful of your surroundings and the nature of your relationship with the person, your words of praise and admiration can be both fitting and heartfelt.

    Play it safe

    Usually, a good overall rule of thumb is the less you know someone, the less personal your compliments should be; if you're unsure, play it safe, or don't use one until you've gauged the situation appropriately.

    A note on delivery

    While these expressions are powerful in their own right, the delivery is key to ensuring the recipient truly feels your admiration. Context, tone of voice, and body language play a significant role in how your words are received. Be genuine, and let your admiration flow naturally. Avoid overuse of flattery, which can come across as insincere.

    Conclusion

    Whether you're networking, meeting with friends/loved ones, or simply conversing with a colleague, mastering the use of admiration and praise in the English language can open doors to deeper relationships and shared connections.

    Integrating these phrases into your lexicon can not only make your expressions more vibrant but can also help you cultivate a spirit of positivity, confidence and appreciation in your daily interactions. So make sure to incorporate examples like these into your own vocabulary; you never know whose day you might make with your compliments.

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    Why learning a language is better than using machine translation

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    As technology and AI translation tools continue to advance, it's becoming increasingly tempting to rely on them for language-related tasks. However, this can potentially undermine motivation to learn a new language when technology seems to offer a shortcut. While machine translation can be helpful, it also has its limitations. 

    Learning a language goes beyond just communication; it opens the door to different cultures, mindsets, and perspectives of the world. Machine translation, despite its efficiency, cannot replicate the cultural immersion that comes with learning a language. Spoken language nuances, idiomatic expressions, cultural references, and implicit rules that are second nature to native speakers are often lost in translation. Let's delve deeper into why learning a language is better than solely relying on machine translation.

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    Overcoming language learning plateaus: Strategies and solutions

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    Are you stumped by stubborn language learning barriers or plateaus? Everyone has those moments when it feels like they're not making any progress or are completely stuck in their studies. Let's dive into some of these challenges and explore ways to overcome them.

    Common language learning hurdles

    Plateaus in language learning often occur after initial periods of rapid progress and can be attributed to various reasons. For one, learners may have reached a comfort zone where basic communication is possible, reducing the urgency to improve further. Additionally, the complexity of advanced language structures can be overwhelming, leading to a stagnation in learning.

    The lack of measurable progress can also be demotivating, causing learners to lose interest and reduce their efforts. Moreover, insufficient exposure to the language in a natural setting can limit the ability to practice and reinforce new skills. To overcome these plateaus, it's crucial to set new goals, seek out challenging and immersive experiences, and employ diverse language learning resources and strategies that keep the language learning process engaging and dynamic.

    How can I overcome my language learning slump?

    Hitting a language learning plateau is like running into an invisible wall — your progress seems to halt and the motivation to push forward begins to wane. Here are some ways to overcome this common obstacle and get back on the road to fluency:

    • Reassess your goals: Take a step back and reassess your language learning objectives. Are they still relevant and challenging enough? Setting new, clear and achievable goals can provide a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
    • Change your routine: If your current study routine feels monotonous, shake things up. Try new learning materials, switch to a different language learning app, or alter the time of day you study. A fresh approach can reignite your interest.
    • Incorporate the language into daily life: Find ways to make the language a natural part of your day. Label objects around your home, think or speak to yourself in the language, or change the language settings on your phone and social media.
    • Seek out real conversations: Engaging in conversations with native speakers can provide a reality check on your progress and expose you to the natural flow of the language.

    Techniques to help motivate your language learning

    One effective technique to break through a language learning plateau is the use of Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS). We've spoken about SRS before in our blog post' language learning techniques for beginners,' but be assured it is an incredibly useful technique that can't be recommended enough, especially for keeping out of a slump. This cognitive science technique involves reviewing information at increasing intervals to exploit the psychological spacing effect. As you learn new vocabulary, words or grammar rules, an SRS schedules these items for review at optimal times before you're likely to forget them.

    Here's how you can implement SRS into your language learning vocabulary practice routine:

    • Start with a flashcard app: Use an app like Anki, which is designed with SRS algorithms to help you review vocabulary and phrases at strategic intervals.

    • Create personalized content: Make your own flashcards with sentences and vocabulary that are relevant to your life. This personal connection can make the material more memorable.

    • Gradual difficulty increase: As you become more familiar with the content, increase the complexity of your flashcards. Add phrases or idioms instead of single words to challenge your comprehension.

    • Regular reviews: Be consistent with your reviews, even if it's just a few minutes each day. This regular exposure reinforces your memory and helps solidify the language in your mind.

    • Adjust according to performance: If you find certain items difficult to remember, adjust the intervals to review them more frequently. Conversely, items that you find easy can be reviewed less often.

    By incorporating SRS into your study routine, you can ensure a steady progression in your language learning journey, even when you hit a plateau. This method not only helps in retaining information but also in moving from passive recognition and pronunciation to active recall, a key step in achieving fluency.

    Boosting confidence and motivation in language learning

    Mastering vocabulary and grammar is crucial, yet overcoming the inevitable learning slumps and plateaus is equally vital to your language learning process. Motivation is a critical factor that can drive you past these plateaus, enhancing your learning journey and helping you reach your language learning aspirations. Regular speaking practice not only maintains motivation but also improves overall speaking and listening skills. These are often the first to suffer during a slump, thereby contributing to a resurgence in language skills.

    A strong correlation exists between self-confidence, motivation and language learning. Here are some key points to consider:

    • Self-confidence has been found to be associated with English achievement, speaking ability and self-efficacy.

    • High motivation in self-confident language learners also leads to purposefulness in language learning.

    • This purposefulness can result in better communication with native speakers.

    Embracing mistakes as learning opportunities

    Do you fear making mistakes when you're learning a new language? Sometimes, the fear can be its own obstacle to your learning. By embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can enhance your language skills by identifying areas that need improvement and boost your confidence through developing resilience against the fear of making errors. 

    Overcome the worry of language errors, avoid the trap of measuring yourself against others and engage in positive self-dialogue in the language you're learning to make slip-ups feel like a normal part of the learning curve. Tackling this apprehension is a pivotal stride on the path to language mastery.

    Recognizing when to take a break from language learning

    Sometimes, despite our best intentions, life throws us curveballs that can disrupt our study routines and make it hard to concentrate on language learning. Whether it's a demanding job, family responsibilities, health issues, or simply the need for a mental break, it's important to recognize when to step back and recharge.

    Taking a break can be beneficial for your language learning process. It allows your brain to rest and process the information it has absorbed. This can lead to better retention and a refreshed perspective when you return to your studies. It's crucial to listen to your body and mind and not to view breaks as setbacks but as a necessary part of a sustainable learning journey.

    Remember, it's about balance. While consistency is key to language acquisition, overworking yourself can lead to burnout. A well-timed break can reignite your passion for the language and enhance your ability to focus. So, when life gets in the way, don't be too hard on yourself. Embrace the pause, take care of what's important and know that the language will be there when you're ready to return.

    How can I keep my concentration while studying a language?

    Quite often, when you meet obstacles, you might get frustrated and your concentration suffers. Maintaining concentration while studying a foreign language can be challenging but is critical for effective learning. Here are some strategies to help you stay focused:

    • Create a distraction-free environment: Find a quiet space where interruptions are minimal. Turn off notifications on your devices and consider using apps that block distracting websites during your study time.

    • Set specific study times: Schedule dedicated time slots for language study. Having a routine can help your mind get into the habit of focusing during these periods.

    • Break down study sessions: Instead of long, drawn-out study sessions, break your learning into shorter, more manageable segments. This technique, known as the Pomodoro Technique, involves studying for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break.

    • Stay hydrated and well-rested: Drink plenty of water and ensure you're well-rested. Your cognitive functions, including concentration, are significantly better when you're hydrated and have had enough sleep.

    How can I fit studying a language into my very busy routine?

    Fitting language study into a hectic schedule can seem daunting, but it's entirely possible with some clever time management and the right strategies. Here are some tips to help you weave language learning into your busy life:

    • Utilize microlearning: Break your study into bite-sized chunks. Even 5 to 10 minutes of focused study can be effective, especially when done consistently.

    • Use technology: Use language learning apps that allow you to study on the go, like during your commute or while waiting in line.

    • Combine activities: Listen to language podcasts or audio lessons while exercising or doing household chores.

    • Stay organized: Plan your week in advance and identify pockets of time that can be dedicated to language learning.

    • Prioritize learning: Make language study a non-negotiable part of your day, similar to how you would prioritize eating or sleeping.

    • Seek out passive learning opportunities: Surround yourself with the language by changing the language settings on your devices or watching shows in the target language with subtitles.

    Remember, consistency is more important than the length of your study sessions. Integrating language learning into your daily routine allows you to progress without overwhelming your schedule.

    Summary

    Overcoming plateaus is crucial for progressing in fluency and keeping motivation high. Re-evaluating goals, diversifying study routines, integrating the language into everyday life, and engaging in conversations with native speakers are all effective strategies for pushing past these stagnant periods. Employing techniques like Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) can greatly enhance vocabulary retention and be an aid in overcoming learning obstacles.

    Building confidence and staying motivated are pivotal for success in language learning, with self-confidence having a strong correlation to language proficiency. Viewing mistakes as chances for growth fosters continuous improvement and builds resilience. It's also important to acknowledge when a break is needed, as it can actually improve retention and provide a fresh outlook when studies resume. A balanced approach to language learning that includes regular practice and the ability to adjust to life's interruptions is advocated for sustained achievement and pleasure in learning a new language.

    For more tips and guidance, check out our blog where we cover a variety of topics, including posts that offer language hints and tips.