Roll all three dice onto a surface so the results can be viewed by all.
Announce that there is X number of polar bears and X number of ice holes present.
Secret key: the centre dot on the top side of any one or more of the dice is an ice hole (found on 1, 3 and 5 only) and all other dots (on top) are polar bears, eg a 5 features 1 ice hole and 4 polar bears.
Roll all three dice for multiple rounds and continue to report on the changing number of polar bears and ice holes that appear.
Challenge your group to accurately count the number of polar bears and ice holes in each round.
Gradually provide more obvious clues with each successive roll until everyone can ‘see’ the polar bears and ice holes represented by the dice.
How To Play Narrative
If you or your group love a fun, lateral thinking puzzle, this game will be an instant hit.
Grab a set of three dice or die (both are grammatically correct expressions,) gather your group in front of you and roll the dice on a flat surface such as a table or even the floor.
Staring at the random result, exclaim that you can see X number of ice holes and X number of polar bears.
At this point, it is highly likely that your group will be staring at you with bemused looks. They’ll think you’re crazy and will now be seeking an explanation. Fair enough, too.
Explain that with each roll of the dice, there will appear a certain number of polar bears and a certain number of ice holes, as defined by the fall of the dice. That is to say, there is a secret key to interpreting the lie of the die to work out what’s going on.
The primary aim of the game is for each person to accurately report the number of polar bears and ice holes that they can see before them.
Now, of course, you (and only you) know the key. Pssst…. the centre dot on the top side of any one or more of the dice is an ice hole (found on 1, 3 and 5 only) and all other dots are polar bears.
For example, if 5 appears, this represents 1 ice hole and 4 polar bears. Or, if you throw a 2, there are no ice holes and 2 polar bears. Get it?
Over the course of a minute or two, roll the dice and report on the results you see every time. If a lot of people in the group are struggling, I then start to introduce a series of clues to hint at what the key might be.
Here are four examples of clues you could introduce:
Describe 6 as representing a “group of polar bears standing in quasi-military formation;” or
Describe 1 as representing an ice hole with no polar bears nearby; or
Roll one dice at a time and describe what you see with each dice; or
Deliberately show 1 and 2, 4 or a 6 and describe the horrible predicament the polar bears are facing, ie there are no ice holes anywhere near the polar bears.
In case it’s not obvious, the polar bears are most happy when they are situated around the presence of an ice hole, which is why a 2, 4 or 6 is so dire. I often describe the presence of a 3 as “two very well-fed polar bears” because they have the ice hole to themselves.
My advice in your efforts to preserve the adventure is to never point to a particular dice to describe what you see, but describe the results collectively, eg “there are 2 ice holes and 8 polar bears and 2 of them are very hungry.”
Roll after roll, invite more and more group members to report on the results they see and celebrate those who have unlocked the secret key. Of course, encourage those that have not unlocked the secret yet, reminding them that everyone will know the answer very soon.
Continue until everyone has got it.
Be sure to read my sage advice in the Leadership Tips tab for how I recommend you present lateral thinking activities.
Practical Leadership Tips
The bigger the dice, the easier the results will be to see. This is not only more fun but it will also assist you in engaging your group for longer.
As with all lateral-thinking puzzles/exercises, use sparingly and always, always, with care. In my experience, many people have been scarred in the past from one or more tortuous experiences with ‘lateral thinkers,’ often because the solution didn’t come quickly, and/or one after another, they were always the last one to get the solution. Therefore, only use one or two at a time, and always ensure that you solve the puzzle within a short time frame.
This is one of those exercises that I often start quietly in the corner with just a couple of people, and then slowly, more and more people gravitate toward us. Within minutes, I’ve got everyone’s attention.
You could integrate Polar Bears and Ice Holes as part of a well-designed SEL program to promote and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse people.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Having A Growth Mindset
Controlling One’s Emotions
Demonstrating Self-Discipline & Self-Motivation
Taking Other’s Perspectives
Demonstrating Empathy & Compassion
Demonstrating Curiosity & Open-Mindedness
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 of thinking creatively and working with others to solve a problem.
In a small way, you could argue that the focus required to successfully crack the code speaks to the benefits of being mindful. You could also invite your group to explore issues of resilience because, for many people, this will be a very frustrating exercise that they may want to quickly give up on. In this latter case, focus on what it took to remain engaged and focused on the problem rather than the mechanics of the actual solution to help your group acknowledge and practice certain useful coping strategies.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which Polar Bears and Ice Holes could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
More Dice: Much the same as above, but with the potential for more polar bears and ice holes. Use no more than six dice to keep the exercise manageable.
Flowers: View the dots on the dice as the bud (pistil or centre) and the petals of a flower. Same game, different name.
Just Add Ice: Add two or three small chunks of foam when you roll your dice. Lying there next to your dice, these pieces of foam will challenge your group even more because they will think they are somehow related to the solution, ie they’re not, they are red herrings.
Take a look at Birthday Numbers to enjoy another wonderful lateral thinking exercise that is so simple, but not easy.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Direct your group to one of the many online or virtual dice rolling apps, such as this one. Press the button to ‘roll’ the dice, and proceed as above.
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Useful Framing Ideas
We have all seen those harrowing images of a lonely polar bear seemingly stranded on a floating block of ice, with no mates anywhere to be seen. Sometimes, they appear to be looking for food peering longingly into an empty ice hole. Well, I’d like you to keep these images in your mind as we move on to a new activity that is all about arctic friends…
Some people will love this next activity, and yet, there will be others of you who will immediately be turned off because I’ll use the words ‘lateral-thinker.’ [pause for groans] However, my commitment to you is this – every one of you will know the solution to this fun little game within the next four to five minutes. So, hang in there, and know that this won’t take too long. Indeed, you may even surprise yourself, so be open to possibility…
Truth is always obvious to those who know it. And while the truth – or the solution – in this exercise is obvious, it is subtle. Right now, you probably cannot see it. But in a few minutes, it will be difficult not to see it. This is exactly how it occurs for many people when they learn [enter particular skill here] for the first time. You will appear clumsy, fail often and will want to give up. But once you observe the subtlety of [enter skill,] the difference between being average and very good is obvious…
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 fun team puzzle:
Did you discover the system used to identify polar bears and ice holes quickly, or slowly?
What did you tell yourself as the activity progressed? Good or bad?
When you finally understood the system, how did you feel?
The system or key in this puzzle is quite subtle until it becomes very obvious. What elements of your life do you think remain hidden from the group?
The inspiration for Polar Bears & Ice Holes was sourced from one of my Project Adventure trainer colleagues, so long ago, that I cannot recall who it was. And as far as I’m aware, it is not published in any book either.