Place two ropes on the ground forming two concentric circles.
Explain that the circles represent three distinct zones:
– Inner circle – represents your Comfort Zone (everything you know and have learned to be successful).
– Larger circle – represents the Stretch Zone (where all meaningful learning occurs, need assistance to succeed).
– Beyond large circle – represents the Panic Zone (aka flight or fight zone, little or no learning occurs.)
Having set the scene, announce a series of scenarios which offer a physical, emotional or mental challenge.
Ask people to position themselves within the zones according to their relative comfort level of meeting the particular challenge.
Repeat many times, later inviting suggestions from your group.
Video Transcript for Comfort Zones presented by Mark Collard
Now effectively we’ve got three circles.
I’d like you to identify a blue circle, there is a circle between the white and the blue, and then there is one on the outside of the white. So first of all grab that concept.
We talked earlier today about the concept of Challenge by Choice. And this is an exercise that I have used frequently particularly with groups not familiar with experiential ed or adventure-based learning, and certainly perhaps haven’t had too many challenges or at least haven’t broadened their understanding of what a challenge is.
So for now I would like you to understand that this area, what’s on the floor, is basically the realm of all experience, and that the blue for each of you individually represents your comfort zone.
Okay, so everything you know, everything that you can do is represented by the blue.
So being very deliberate, but what are some examples of things that are in your comfort zone that you know you can do and are successful at? What are some examples?
Sleeping. I can ride a bicycle. I can ride a car. I can speak English.
(Ride a car?)
Ride a car, drive a car then.
(Hire a car service)
(Dig a hole.)
Dig a hole. Maybe you know how to belay. All that sort of stuff. Great, excellent!
So all of education is about inviting people to step outside their Comfort zone. The whole point of education is that people grow, but they can only do that if they step into what is referred to as the Stretch zone.
And the more often they step into a Stretch zone that is into an area that is not comfortable, perhaps a bit of a challenge, the more often they do that the more comfortable they become and therefore their Comfort zone gets bigger.
So I believe the bottom line for all education is about increasing our comfort zones. So someone in year seven they have got a certain size comfort zone, they leave in year twelve it’s going to be much bigger.
Okay, and there are lots of tools we use for that purpose.
So Comfort zone is the blue circle. The Stretch zone is something that you’re doing for maybe for the first time. Last year my wife and I took five months off and we spent three months living in Italy, purposefully to learn the language.
I’ve never spoken Italian in my life before. We went to a language school, we lived in Florence for three months, and lived like the Italians. It was a great experience. It was very much Stretch zone. We had an apartment that burned, we lost our keys to our apartment, we got arrested, all of these experiences were part of our Italian adventure and we did not know how to speak Italian very very well.
That was definitely a stretch.
That leaves us with just one area left, and that is outside the white zone, it has got a variety of names let’s call it the Panic zone. Comfort zone, Stretch zone, Panic zone.
No learning occurs in the panic zone. The reason being, other than of course learning to never do that again, it is about fight or flight, it’s about survival.
Generally speaking when people are pushed into their Panic zone all they want to do is just survive it and never do it again. That is their Stretch zone has been pushed too far.
So first of all have people got a concept of what I have created here in the realm of education? Comfort zone, Stretch zone, Panic zone.
The next couple of minutes I’ll start, but I’ll invite you as a group to contribute and take this on. Take it on in terms of what could be possible for this group.
I am going to give you a series of scenarios to consider. I would like you to physically place yourself in this continuum. If what you here you go “oh yeah I am really comfortable with that”, then stand within the Comfort zone. However, if what you hear is perhaps a bit of a stretch then you find yourself wherever that needs to be.
If it is something that absolutely terrifies you, you would never ever consider yourself doing it, then find yourself a spot outside the white rope as well.
For example if right now, let’s say we are all outdoors, and a black poisonous snake was to slither through the centre of our group, where would you be? In your Comfort zone, Stretch zone, or Panic zone. Please stand where you would be not where the group would be.
(Group moves into different circles.)
Okay there is no right or wrong answers to any of this either. Fantastic! Very good.
One more and then I am going to invite you as a group to start to consider different scenarios, and don’t think of them just as physical. For example, you are in a relationship for the first time, it is very new, it’s all very exciting and your partner then says “Hey I’d like you to meet my parents.” Where would you be Stretch zone, Comfort zone, Panic zone? Where would you be?
(Group moves into different circles.)
Alright, over to you folks. A few examples of scenarios emotionally, physically, or mentally that would provide a challenge for one or more people.
Who would like to offer a suggestion?
Okay so you are about to go for an abseil. Where are you at? Great.
(Group moves into different circles.)
(Squeezing through a small hole in a cave.)
Ooh good I like that. That is good. It is a stretch. It’s a stretch.
(Group moves into different circles.)
What did you notice happen during the course of each of the scenarios? What did you notice happen within the group?
(We moved around.)
What do you mean Marcus?
(Went in and out.)
Okay, so there is a lot of movement. Were you ever in the same spot all the time?
No, it’s unusual for any one person to be in the same spots at all the times. Okay, great. What else did you notice?
(You get to know the people around you in a different way.)
Yeah great! It’s like “oh I wasn’t aware of that.” Not a good, bad, or ugly just hey I wasn’t aware. Okay.
(Not everyone was in the same spot despite being a similar group of people)
Yes, yup that is very true.
(Some people went to places that I didn’t expect. Like you said a small spot in a cave and Heston wasn’t in the middle, and he is a cave guy.)
He may not have been able to fit. It’s true.
So okay given that those levels of awareness or those things what does that mean?
What does that mean for us as a group? When you take that information on, what does it mean?
(I think that can be also a good sign like maybe for the kids in general to see that you know people aren’t always that much very sort of being there. Something like that, it might give them a bit more confidence to know that they’re not, I don’t know. They don’t always have to be comfortable in a situation)
Yup, so that general awareness might allow people to pick that up.
What else might it mean? What else might it be communicating to the group?
And I am thinking about our experience right here right now because we are not pretending this is something we are actually doing.
Honesty, yeah that is true. We didn’t conduct a survey how honest were you.
Did you just feel uncomfortable to stand where you really wanted to be, and therefore felt that it was easier just to be with everyone else. It is not a wrong or a right, but yeah it might indicate the level of honesty.
If you don’t seem much movement at all as a facilitator it might indicate that there is something going on for the group. People aren’t feeling safe.
How To Play Narrative
Are you looking for a perfect way to prepare your group for an upcoming adventure, or perhaps to help broaden their understanding of what ‘challenge’ is? Look no further.
Set up an area where you can establish two concentric circles (one inside the other) – the smaller one being about 2–3 metres (7–10’) diameter, the second about 4–5 metres (14–17’) diameter.
Start with your group standing around the outside of the largest circle looking in.
Next, you want to generate the notion that what your group is looking at represents a scale that measures the level of comfort or challenge that may be perceived in the development of any particular human skill. Kick off describing the smallest circle in more detail, and then work your way out.
Use your own words and examples, but it goes something like this:
Inside Circle – Comfort Zone:
Everything you know and have learned and are successful at is found within this circle/area. And because you experience comfort or success with these particular skills, there is little if any stress involved. For example, I have a strong command of the English language, so speaking English sits within my Comfort Zone. Driving a motor vehicle also rests within my Comfort Zone.
Larger Circle – Stretch Zone:
This is where all meaningful learning occurs. Indeed, it is the only zone in which learning, growth and development occurs. When we step outside of our metaphorical Comfort Zone, our abilities, knowledge and expertise are stretched. The only way we can experience success in this zone is with the guidance, tuition or support of others. The more we enter our Stretch Zone, the more comfortable we become, thereby allowing our Comfort Zone to grow. This is the primary aim of all education, to grow people’s Comfort Zone, by inviting them into the Stretch Zone. For example, I was in my Stretch Zone when I lived in a non-English speaking country because I needed assistance (a language school) to speak the native language.
Beyond the Large Circle – Panic Zone:
Also known as the ‘fight or flight’ zone. When people find themselves inside this zone, it’s all about survival. It is rare for anyone to learn anything within their Panic Zone, other than not to let it happen again. This is where people are pushed beyond their limits (or that of any form of assistance or tuition,) and retreat back to their Comfort Zone promising never to return. Examples of panic may include swimming with sharks and having a complete stranger ask to marry you.
OK, you’ve set the scene, now for the fun part.
Explain that you will now invite your group to consider a series of hypothetical situations, and will ask them to physically place themselves (stand) in relation to the degree to which they would experience success with the development of that skill. I always start off with a few scenarios and then hand over to the group for their ideas.
Here are some wonderful openers:
You spot a big snake about to slither its way through the middle of the group. Where would you be –within your Comfort, Stretch or Panic Zone?
A friend has asked you to go bungy-jumping…
You’ve finally decided to ask the cutest, most popular girl/boy in the class for a date…
After two months of dating, you are about to meet the parents for the first time…
After a long silence, you finally decide to call everyone’s attention and explain that you disagree with what’s happening in the group…
Without notice, you have been asked to give a 30-minute speech to an audience of 300 people, starting in 10 minutes, about a topic you know little about…
You have to sing a song in front of a group of your peers unaccompanied…
After ten or so minutes, pause the group for a moment, and ask them to review what’s just transpired.
Highly recommended – take a look at the Reflection Tips tab for a few starters to help you groom a safe and supportive learning environment.
Practical Leadership Tips
Got no ropes? Use the centre rings of a basketball court, or draw chalk circles on the asphalt, or drag your heel in the sand, etc.
Be sure to present or encourage a good mix of adventures, reflecting mental, physical and emotional risks/challenges. Also, it works best when individuals are not overly influenced by where others position themselves. To this end, carefully consider your preparation (ie can people make safe decisions?) before introducing this exercise.
There is a lot to this understanding of Comfort Zones, known more strictly as the Zones of Proximal Development, developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1986-1934.) Resist the temptation to comprehend this model of human development as solely related to feelings (ie do I feel comfortable, or not) and focus on what is necessary to achieve success with any particular skill.
The key question to ask is: do I need guidance, tuition or some form of assistance to be successful at this skill. If the answer is no, then you are likely situated with your Comfort Zone. If you do need help to be successful, then you are likely in your Stretch Zone. Finally, if the answer is no matter how much assistance I could receive, I will never be successful, then chances are you are situated in your Panic Zone.
You could integrate Comfort Zone Circles as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand their emotions, thoughts and values and how these influence their behaviours in different situations.
Specifically, this activity offers ample 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
Everything about this activity speaks to the development of emotional literacy and social and interpersonal skills. When sequenced carefully as part of an integrated SEL program, this exercise can help you explore these competencies (see Social-Emotional Learning tab) and skills in a fun and engaging way.
For example, following a series of carefully scripted scenarios, you could invite your group to reflect on what they observed during the activity insofar as these outcomes relate to compassion and empathy, ie a common realisation that follows is that we are all different and we all have different needs. You can also frame the following abilities in the context of comfort:
Ability to cope with frustration;
Ability to self-regulate (emotions;)
Awareness of self and others;
Levels of inhibition; and
Level to which individuals feel fully valued.
Framed in the context of creating powerful group norms, Comfort Zone Circles is an ideal vehicle to test the validity and acceptance of certain behaviours. For example, you could invite individual group members to position themselves within the circles based on their comfort with one or more stated behaviours such as a particular decision-making model or the use of a certain phrase or language. Without even uttering a word, your group can quickly discern the level of comfort or otherwise (by simply observing where people are standing) with these types of behaviours.
Horizontal Format: Lay three ropes (or mark lines) on the ground, parallel to each other. Explain that standing on the first (closest) rope represents the ultimate in comfort, standing on the second rope represents you are being ‘stretched’ and standing on or going beyond the third rope is the Panic Zone. Naturally, there are degrees of comfort, stretch and panic between and beyond the ropes. Then, proceed as above.
Graphical Interface: Present the zones with an X and Y axis, where X represents the level of perceived challenge (comfort, stretch, panic), and Y represents the degree of actual risk present (none to lots). For example, spotting a big snake may make most people move into the right-hand side of the X-axis (high perceived risk,) but if it wasn’t venomous (low actual risk,) some may position themselves lower on the Y scale.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
In advance, draw two concentric circles on a slide you can display to your virtual gathering. Using the Annotate tool, invite your participants to stamp their preferred positions on the screen (based on your proposed scenario) relative to the three Zones. If you have multiple scenarios, clear the screen between each round. Debrief as required.
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Useful Framing Ideas
Everyone is different, reflecting the life sum of their education, culture, background and experiences. Given this, it is reasonable to expect that any one person will meet any particular challenge differently to the next person. Some may perceive it as easy, while others are terrified at the prospect. There’s no wrong or right, each experience will simply occur differently for each person. This exercise is all about exploring, acknowledging and respecting these differences…
Consider the concept of ‘comfort’ as the extent to which you can successfully express yourself. Every day, we encounter a wide variety of situations in which we need to respond –some we fully embrace, while others, we shy away from. How does this impact on our performance, and that of the group in which we live, work or play?…
Challenge by Choice means you have the power to decide at what level of comfort, stretch or stress you wish to participate. You are responsible for putting yourself in your stretch zone as often as possible to create the most effective learning environment in which to participate. In this exercise, we’ll have the opportunity to explore what creates the most effective learning environment for us as a group…
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 introducing this terrific front-loading exercise:
What did you observe about the group as the activity progressed?
What might these observations say about our group?
What impact does this knowledge have on our group as we embark on our next task/project/adventure?
Interactive ‘Get-To-Know-You’ Session
What You Need:
8+ people, 40 mins, ‘Sit Down If… Questions’ (Print+Play), pen & paper, 2 x long ropes