Form a tight circle with everyone facing into the centre.
Instruct each person to extend one of their arms in front of themselves and then grab the hand of another person opposite them in the circle.
Repeat this process with the other arm, grabbing the hand of a different person.
When ready, group members aim to untangle themselves, without ever letting go of their partner’s hands.
Continue to free as many people from the tangle until one or more circles are produced, or until the group agrees it cannot proceed any further.
How To Play Narrative
This classic human knot exercise works best with up to 12 people at the most. If you have a larger group, split into smaller groups of 8 to 12 people.
To begin, ask your group to form a tight circle with everyone facing into the centre. Ask each person to extend one of their arms in front of themselves and then grab the hand of another person, preferably not of their closest neighbours. Repeat this process with the other arm, but this time grabbing the hand of a different person.
Now, from this mess of arms and co-joined hands, explain that your group’s task is to untangle themselves, but without ever letting go of their partner’s hands.
It’s a tough gig, but typically once a few people start to wriggle themselves free of the tangle, the knots become easier to unravel. You could expect to see one large circle of joined hands evolve, or perhaps two or more linked or unlinked circles.
On some occasions, however, it may be physically impossible to untangle everyone. In these circumstances, you may wish to apply Knot First-Aid – see the Variations tab for more detail.
This simple (but not easy) initiative is a wonderful opportunity to test your group’s decision-making skills, not to mention their capacity to stick with a problem.
The activity is natural for teaching perspective, patience and effective problem-solving techniques.
To this end, upon completion, invite your group to reflect back on how decisions were made, the different roles people played and how conflicts were resolved. Check the Reflection Tips tab for some questions to get you started.
Practical Leadership Tips
This may not be the best activity to undertake on a hot, humid day. People quickly get uncomfortable not only holding sweaty hands for long periods of time, but the odour which may emanate from close proximity to others often hastens the onset of fatigue. For this purpose alone, take a look at the variation called Knot My Problem.
Keep an eye on the types of contorted movements some people may be expected to undertake in order to untangle themselves, or follow through by way of another person’s attempt to unravel. Wrists and arms, in particular, can come under some serious stress during these movements, and should be monitored.
Moments of un-tanglement may take a long time for some groups to reveal, so patience is the name of the game. As the exercise requires large doses of patience and focus to solve, consider your sequence and the abilities of your group before presenting it.
The human knot, or by whatever name it may be known, will sometimes elicit a groan or two from a group because it’s been around forever. This does not make the exercise any less useful or valuable to your group, but if it helps to generate a little more enthusiasm, consider surprising your group by introducing it by one of its lesser-known forms (see Variations tab.)
You could integrate Human Knot as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathise with others including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
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
Unlike some group initiatives, the success of Human Knot requires everyone to be physically involved in the solution. Consequently, there will be many opportunities for your group to exercise and demonstrate effective communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills. As a suggestion, lead a conversation about positive and healthy cultural norms in advance of this activity and then invite your group to reflect on their success or otherwise in upholding these norms.
For some individuals and groups, the task of completing this challenge can take too long. Therein lies an opportunity to embrace this activity as part of a session that explores the practice of certain resilient strategies. Help your group to reflect on their experience by identifying those times when they felt like giving up or were discouraged or felt hopeless.
Knot First-Aid: If necessary, entitle the group to identify just one set of linked-hands that can be temporarily released and re-connected in a new position (of the group’s choosing.) If pushed, you may apply this trick one more time, but no more!
Buddy Ropes: Invite people to grab the ends of a short piece of rope, rather than a person’s hand. Ideal for larger groups, and is a useful technique when close proximity for long periods could be an issue.
Take a look at Knot My Problem to explore an innovative variation of this classic group initiative that can involve more people, more comfortably, for longer periods of time.
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Useful Framing Ideas
Getting yourself tied up in knots is a phrase used to describe someone getting into all sorts of trouble. Groups can get tied up in knots as well, sometimes, literally, as this next exercise will demonstrate…
Have you heard the saying, Rather than being a part of the problem, see yourself as a part of the solution? It’s often easier said than done, but the sentiment is true – everyone of us has the ability to re-focus our energies and work towards a solution, rather than get bogged down in the details of the problem. But, sometimes, a solution can be staring us in the face, and yet we can’t see it. This experience is sure to occur many times in our next activity…
Issues of perspective can sometimes be described in terms of someone who can’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s explore what this concept means in the context of this next activity…
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 classic, team-building exercise:
What is one image that stands out in your mind when you reflect back on this exercise?
What skills were necessary to help your group be effective in this activity?
In what ways did your individual perspective of the problem(s) impact your involvement in this exercise?
Can you think of an example when the group was able to express or demonstrate empathy for one or more of its members? How and why did this occur?
How did you and the group cope with frustration? Were you able to manage your emotions?
Describe a time when you observed a social cue that signalled something to you? What did you make this mean?
Was there a time when the strengths of one or more people were leveraged to help the group succeed?
How would you describe your communication and problem-solving processes?
Were you successful? How do you define your success?
What is one lesson you have learned from this exercise about working well as a team?
The inspiration for Human Knot, and many more powerful, team-building, problem-solving initiatives, was sourced from the following publication: