Place an empty paper bag, standing upright and stiff, in front of your group.
Challenge one person at a time to attempt to lift the paper bag off the floor using their mouth only, with their feet only ever touching the ground.
Invite a small group of no more than 10 volunteers to start the first round of attempts.
To stay in the game, a participant must be standing fully upright with the bag in their teeth or between their lips.
An attempt is deemed unsuccessful if at any point a participant falls forward or uses their hands (or any other part of their anatomy) to brace themselves.
If a person does not successfully lift the bag after three consecutive attempts (at the same height) they are eliminated.
Once every person in the group has made an attempt, invite one of them to tear a portion off the top of the paper bag walls, ie to make it shorter for the next round.
When ready, commence the second round of attempts with the remaining successful participants.
Continue with successive rounds, gradually reducing the height of the paper bag walls and eliminating more participants.
Acknowledge the last person standing as the winner.
How To Play Narrative
Be careful with this exercise, and I don’t just mean in regards to its inherent physicality. Paper Bag Pick Up is totally intoxicating to play.
Find a moment when your group is just sitting around, pretty much idle. Pull out a paper bag – you know, the kind that supermarkets fill with groceries – and puff it open so that it sits upright and stiff on the floor in front of your group.
If you didn’t have it before, you will now have their full attention.
Announce that anyone may volunteer to pick up the paper bag. Yet, in order to ‘officially’ pick it up, explain that a person must use only their mouth to grab the bag, and they are not permitted to have anything other than their feet touch the ground during the process.
Furthermore, an official attempt is complete when the participant is standing fully upright with the bag in their teeth or between their lips.
Therefore, if at any point during an attempt someone should fall forward or use their hands (or any other part of their anatomy) to brace themselves, their attempt will be deemed unofficial – as governed by the Official Paper Bag Pick Up Commission, of course!
At this point, you normally get a few takers. Invite up to ten people to join in the first round of attempts.
Suggest that these folk form a circle, and invite one person at a time to step forward and attempt to pick up the bag. Continue around the circle to give everyone a go.
Then, comes the best part…
After each successful round (of the circle,) invite one of the contestants – who is still in the game – to tear a portion off the top of the paper bag walls to make it shorter for the next round.
So, if the bag ordinarily stands 40 cm tall (16”), this volunteer may choose to rip off the top 10 cm (4”) making the bag now stand only 30 cm (12”) off the ground. Oooooo…
Note, the volunteer who is completing the tearing process can rip off as much or as little as they choose. To this end, I suggest you invite one of the remaining eligible competitors to complete this task because they will have to live with the consequences.
So, the picking-up process continues to rotate around the circle. And with each lap, the bag gets a little harder to grab because the walls of the ever-diminishing paper bag get shorter and shorter.
The first couple of rounds are typically very fast because the bag is easy to pick up. The pace slows and the challenge gets exponentially greater with each successive round.
Ultimately, believe it or not, the bag is often reduced to its base – that’s right, the base of the bag lies completely flat on the floor, naked of its walls! I’ll leave you to imagine (or discover for yourself) how one can pick up the bag from this position.
By the way, using a paper bag is wise because it leaves wet spot warnings for all participants to work around (another reason why we rip off the top.)
For the record, official rules dictate that if a person does not successfully lift the bag after three consecutive attempts (at the same height) they are eliminated. However, if you prefer to be ruthless, feel free to make every attempt a ‘do or die’ round.
The game continues until the last person (with the remnants of a paper bag in their mouth) is standing.
Practical Leadership Tips
May I reiterate the need to ask each participant to locate a dry spot on the paper bag rim to make their attempt, lest you may be responsible for transmitting nasty germs.
If you have a very large group, divide first into smaller teams of no more than 10 people, and proceed as normal.
As you could imagine, some people are more flexible than others. Accordingly, I often suggest that all participants engage in some form of warm-up or stretch prior to and during their attempts. It never amazes me how far people can lean down towards the floor and not fall over.
Note, some contestants discover that their tongue has wonderful adhesive properties when pressed against the paper of the bag, which is clearly beneficial, and to some people, illegal. Typically, I do not allow this technique, but this is up to you.
One last warning: Paper Bag Pick Up contests often become so intense and contagious that some people stretch themselves a little too far. I’m speaking from experience, as much as on behalf of my physiotherapist.
You could integrate Paper Bag Pick Up as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviours effectively in different situations and to achieve goals.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
There is no specific health & wellness perspective to this activity other than promoting the benefits to one’s wellbeing of enjoying a good stretch.
In a small way, you could argue that the effort required to successfully lift the bag off the ground speaks to the benefits of developing adaptability and resilience skills (in advance) because this is not a task most people can just walk up to and complete. To this end, consider inviting your group to reflect on what it takes to be resilient and when is it okay to just walk away, eg when you feel that stretching too far will cause you harm.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which Paper Bag Pick Up could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Cardboard Box: As above, challenge your group to pick up a cardboard box. For heightened challenge as much as hygiene purposes, you will continue to reduce the height of the box walls (using scissors.)
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Useful Framing Ideas
As simple as this exercise may seem to you, I’m about to issue you with a challenge that most of you will easily fail…
I’m excited to announce that one of the new demonstration sports that will be exhibited at the next summer Olympics is the sport of Paper Bag Pick Up. What? You’ve never heard of this. Well, step back, please…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this physically challenging stunt:
How hard did this challenge seem when it was first described to you?
What was the greatest challenge for you?
Do you think you failed or succeeded?
What is the difference between success and failure?
What do you think was the purpose of this exercise? Why?
The inspiration for Paper Bag Pick Up, and many other fun large group activities, was sourced from the following publication: