In advance, print one or more ‘house’ shape diagrams (see Resources tab) on cards to share among your group.
Distribute a length of rope to each person or small group.
Instruct each person/group to manipulate the entire length of rope to reflect the shape on the card.
The shape is two-dimensional, and must be laid upon a flat surface (table, floor, etc.)
Explain that there are multiple levels of success:
– Level 1: to create the identical ‘house’ shape.
– Level 2: as above, but without the rope crossing over itself, or doubling up.
– Level 3: as above, but with the two ends of the rope beginning and ending in the same position.
Encourage your group to seek a solution for each level.
With most groups seeking a solution to Level 3, conclude the activity.
This particular puzzle, I’m going to ask you to use this tubular webbing or this bit of ribbon, and the object is to recreate exactly the same shape as what is shown on these little bits of laminated paper.
It’s the old puzzle where you place your pen on the paper and have to basically draw that shape without the pen coming off the paper. It’s similar to that but it’s different, is that you’re going to be using the ribbon to create it.
And there’s several levels of solution. So when you think you’ve actually got it, let me know. More often than not you will perhaps achieve the first or second level and I’ll then encourage you to go up to the next level.
So you’ve got three stations in which to work with here.
(people playing Rope House looking for solution)
Awesome. Great. So looks like most of you are in a similar position. So you’ve come to the first level here, which is great, because you have to get past this point before you can move on. There’s a couple of levels that people often start in.
First of all, you’ve got what’s called the crossover. Notice in two places you’ve got the actual ribbon crossing over itself. Your object now is to recreate exactly the same shape without any crossover.
Now the other part too is that there’s no doubling up. For example let’s say you had for some reason this part kept going all the way up here to continue, that would be a doubling up. So that’s a doubling up which you’ve avoided, but you do have two crossovers and I think you’ve… you’ve only got one crossover. So you’re actually one step closer.
So see if you can get the same shape but without any crossovers or double-ups.
(people playing Rope House)
So notice where the two ends of your ribbon or your tubular webbing end up. So you got one here and one over there. You got the same thing.
The next level is to see if it’s possible to recreate exactly the same shape, no overlaps, no crossing over, but have the ends meet from the start and the end together, so actually start from the same point, so they finish or begin from the same point.
So right now they don’t because they’re in two different corners. So it might be that they start and begin and finish in a corner but it might be they’re in the middle of something as well.
See what you can do. See if it’s possible.
(people playing Rope House)
How To Play Narrative
I frequently use this activity to open my programs because it works so well to set the tone for what is possible. That is, it opens my group’s minds and challenges their pre-conceived notions of what they can or cannot achieve.
Print one or more of the ‘house’ line-drawing illustrations (see Resources tab,) and distribute among your group, enough for each person or several to share.
Distribute a length of rope, one for each person or small group (2 or 3 people.) Then, upon referring to the diagram on the cards, instruct your group to manipulate the entire length of rope to look like the ‘house’ shape.
Explain that there are multiple challenges involved, and with each success, you will review the results and indicate which level of success the individual or group has achieved. Try not to describe the parameters of each level’s success, rather, introduce them one by one as the group discovers a solution.
The three levels of challenge are:
Level 1: to create the identical ‘house’ shape (with no limitations.)
Level 2: as above, but without the rope crossing over itself, or doubling up (ie the rope runs back on itself.)
Level 3: as above, but with the two ends of the rope beginning and ending in the same position.
Success with Level 1 comes pretty easy, and then gradually more and more people will achieve Level 2. Encourage your group to persevere, because seeking a solution to Level 3 is where people get stuck.
Following a reasonable length of time seeking a solution to Level 3, I would suggest concluding the exercise and gathering your group to quickly process their experience. This process is, of course, optional, but the exercise lends itself so beautifully to a powerful metaphor.
In short, Level 3 cannot be achieved. At least, I have never seen a solution (Stop Press: see Leadership Tips tab.)
Yet, the exercise is not a trick – it is a powerful metaphor for what is possible. Take a look at the Leadership Tips tab for some possible discussion points around this theme.
Practical Leadership Tips
Rather than print the ‘house’ illustration, simply draw it on the whiteboard, or project the shape on a screen.
Be careful with your words. Do not infer that Level 3 cannot be (or has not yet been) done as your group struggles to find a solution. Encourage them, and acknowledge that the solution is a ‘tough gig.’ Your group has to believe that a solution is possible, otherwise, they will quickly give up.
You could literally use shoe-laces, or short pieces of string, but the longer and more colourful the cord, the more tactile the exercise will be. The only property it must have is flexibility, ie a stiff cord won’t do.
On 6 May, 1954, Roger Bannister made history by becoming the first person in the world to run a mile in less than 4 minutes (3:59:40 to be precise). And while this fact is fascinating, in and of itself, the most fascinating part of this story is that before the year was out, 8 more people broke the record. Why? Because they believed it could be done. Yet, until that day in May 1954, few people truly believed it could be done. And then, the record was broken, and suddenly the whole world believed it was possible. Do you know what the world record for running a mile is now? 3 minutes 43.13 seconds. Amazing. Maybe Level 3 of the Rope House puzzle is impossible? Yet, the only reason people persevere for so long – seeking a solution to Level 3 – is because they believe it is possible. Roger Bannister dared to ask the question – is running a mile in less than 4 minutes possible? Was he capable of doing this? So, what is your group capable of? The answer – only as much as they can believe is possible.
Another dominant theme: doing the work that matters. Roger Bannister did not wake up that morning in May 1954 and decide he would run a mile in under 4 minutes. He worked at it for a long, long time. He had to prepare himself, he put in the hard yards, and then finally, he cracked it. Your group is the same. Provide an environment in which they can believe the impossible, help them prepare for work that matters, and they, too, will discover what they are capable of achieving.
You may know this exercise as the ‘pen and paper’ trick, where you have to draw the ‘house’ shape without the pen ever coming off the paper. The typical solution will permit the pen crossing over itself, but the process of trial-and-error and discovery is much the same.
Stop Press: After many years of never seeing a solution for Level 3, one group solved the problem – in 3D (three dimensions.) So… it IS possible to create a rope house without the rope crossing itself, or doubling up AND having the two ends begin and end in the same place – provided you permit a solution in 3D. Until this day, my groups and I had only ever considered (read, assumed) a two-dimensional framework within which to solve the problem. Contact me if you’d like to know more.
You could integrate Rope House 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
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
This exercise is nothing if not strongly correlated to goal-setting efforts. Applying a growth mindset to this team puzzle will allow individuals and groups to elevate their goal-setting ambitions, especially when framed in a ‘What is possible?’ conversation. Connect the increasing levels of the problem to the benefits of setting realistic yet challenging goals. Refer to the questions in the Reflection Tips tab for some possible starting conversations.
The lessons of preparation and framing and hard work are all relevant to the topic of leadership. Leadership is more than just standing tall and pointing the way forward. Help your group to understand that successful and effective leadership involves inspiring groups to achieve more than what they think is possible (eg, the Level 3 of this puzzle.) Make observations of where these behaviours are demonstrated during the exercise.
Pen & Paper: Use pen and paper, instead of rope. Same exercise, just on a smaller, more personal scale. While the same parameters apply, the finished ‘product’ is more difficult to identify if someone has truthfully avoided crossing over or doubling up – so it is best to see the solution drawn in front of you to verify its success.
Knot A Challenge: Take a look at Not A Knot to enjoy another fun team puzzle that is specifically designed to challenge people’s perspectives.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Utilise a digital whiteboard such as Zoom’s annotate tool or Whiteboard to allow your group to etch possible solutions on the screen, a bit like the original pen and paper trick. Each user can use their own whiteboard and when they believe they have solved the problem, you can invite them to show it to the whole group on the common screen.
Note, as you will not be able to view physical lines doubled-up or crossed over one another, so watch carefully as possible solutions are demonstrated to you and the group.
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Useful Framing Ideas
In May, 1954, Roger Bannister entered the Guinness Book of World Records when we was the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes. He dared to ask the question, what is possible? Today, that record is approaching 3:40, a time that would have been viewed as impossible in 1954. This next exercise, asks the same question of you – what is possible?…
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 fascinating and powerful team puzzle:
What questions did you have as you attempted to solve the problem?
Did you ever consider that the puzzle could not be solved? Why?
Why did you keep persevering with the Level 3 Rope House challenge?
Do you think a solution to Level 3 is possible?
How is belief connected to success?
Even if a level 3 solution is (mathematically) impossible, what does this exercise teach us about leadership, self-belief and success?
Describe one ‘Rope House’ problem in your life or work that you wished had a solution.
The inspiration for this Rope House exercise comes from my Mum or Grandmother (I can’t recall exactly) who first introduced the ‘pen and paper’ trick to me when I was very young.