In advance, suspend a taut bungee cord horizontally between two points about 1.0 to 1.2 metres above the ground/floor.
Assemble your group in front of one side of the line.
Challenge your group to move all of their team members from one side and over the top of the line to the other, while never touching the line.
The task must be completed while every individual is physically connected to the rest of the group at all times.
If and when one (or more) people are separated from the rest of the group, or the cord is touched, apply an appropriate penalty.
Allow ample time for the group to plan and execute the task.
Set a time limit, if desired.
Invite your group to reflect on their experience at the conclusion of the task, or the expiry of the allotted timeframe.
How To Play Narrative
In my many days as a challenge course instructor, I must have delivered this variation of the classic Electric Fence group initiative dozens of times. It’s one of my all-time favourites. For a little history lesson, take a look at the Leadership Tips tab.
The key setup is establishing the electric fence, so to speak. You can be in or out of doors, it’s up to you. What you need to do is suspend a long piece of stretchy bungee cord horizontally between two points. Again, refer to the Leadership Tips tab for set-up ideas.
Also, in regards to preparation, you are best to present this exercise only after your group has been introduced to and have practised their spotting skills. People will be lifted off the ground, so it is, therefore, imperative to help your group learn how to complete this task (many times) safely.
Note, the spotting skills required for this exercise are very similar to those described for the Spider’s Web activity.
Gather your group to one side of the suspended line, and explain that their task is to move all of their team members from one side and over the top of the line to the other, while never touching the line.
The typical story is that the line represents an electric fence that cannot be touched nor penetrated insofar as the space directly under the line exists. That is to say, as part of their efforts to move people from one side to the other, no one is permitted to place any part of their body on or under the line.
Ideally, you want to position the cord about 1.0 to 1.2 metres (3′ to 4′) above the ground. And, importantly, the ground should be as flat and level as possible and free of debris.
As one further challenge, instruct your group to complete the task while every individual is (somehow) physically connected to the rest of the group. At all times, there can be no one disconnected from the rest of the group, nor any islands of small groups, lest a penalty applies.
Some groups interpret this as having to form a circle of hands. That’s no more true than it is necessary to use hands to keep physical contact with others.
I like to explain it like this – imagine if any one person was given an electric shock, it would be possible for every other person in the group to be affected, too. This means circles are not necessary and certainly, one need not use hands to maintain physical contact, ie a foot atop of another will suffice.
The very obvious question is what happens if and when a touch occurs. You have many options, here are four to consider:
Aim to keep the touches as few as possible. To this end, you will tally them with the intention of undertaking the task two or more times (to improve their performance;)
The person or persons who touch must return to the starting side of the line;
For each person who touches, that person and one (or more) others (who have safely traversed) must return to the starting position;
Any touch or infringement requires the whole group to return to the start.
Once you have announced the most appropriate penalty, you’re good to go.
Stand back, pull the cord taut and observe all of the interactions of your group solving this problem.
Throughout their experience, you want to look for those moments when one or more individuals are separated from the group and, of course, any touches or penetrations of the electric force field.
As a challenging and sometimes tricky initiative, be sure to allow ample time to invite your group to reflect at the conclusion of the activity. Note, depending on your setup, this may be when the group runs out of time.
Check out the Health & Wellness Programming and Reflection Tips tabs for useful facilitation ideas.
Practical Leadership Tips
I cannot stress enough how important it is to use a stretchy cord. In the event someone is ‘dropped’ as they are being passed over the line, it is important for their safety that the line stretches to the ground/floor.
If spotting skills are new to you, please check out this page for some preparatory tips before presenting this activity.
There are many options for setting up the line. In the early days, I used to connect each end of the cord to the waist belts of the pants of my co-facilitator and me. This provided a consistent height for the line, not to mention a wonderful vantage point to catch any touches. When I didn’t want to be permanently stuck in one position for long periods of time though, I would stretch the line between two trees, goal posts or a door frame.
For purposes of integrity, I believe it’s better to be strict than allow your group to get away with infringements that should have been penalised. This is clearly a personal choice, but I think it’s very powerful to be consistent and fair in your arbitration. It’s an integrity thing.
The requirement to maintain physical contact at all times throughout the exercise is the primary reason this adaptation of the original Electric Fence has been so successful at keeping participants safe. You see, it prevents those being passed over the cord from being tossed over the top because the focus of the original task was to simply get everyone over to the other side.
For the record, I was once engaged as an expert witness for the prosecution in a court case involving the use of the original Electric Fence activity in which one of the participants was seriously injured. The biggest issue was the neglect of the program provider (who was successfully sued.) They failed to keep their knowledge and skillset up-to-date because they presented the activity as it was first described in Karl Rohnke’s original Silver Bullets book in the 1980s. Based on the results of multiple safety studies conducted by Project Adventure in the 20+ years following its publication, the Electric Fence was revealed to be the #1 most injurious activity in the adventure programming world. Accordingly, Project Adventure and many other program providers adapted their setup and presentation of the Electric Fence to make it safer, and one of these adaptations was the One-Line Electric Fence.
As useful teachable moments, two other problems beset the Electric Fence as they were experienced by the negligent provider (mentioned above) that are worth pointing out. First, the activity was presented on a slope. Second, the facilitator stood a long way back from the group and was unable to offer any spotting assistance at all (especially when it was urgently needed.) Take the hint.
Health & Wellness Programming
As a complex and challenging group initiative, this exercise is ideally suited for inclusion in a program looking to develop social and interpersonal skills. In particular, it features golden opportunities for:
Self-awareness – can I lift others, am I willing to be lifted by others, the focus to remain connected at all times, etc.
Social-awareness – observing the interactions of others, the level of safety-consciousness, integrity and boundary-keeping, etc.
Responsible decision-making – effective group process when making decisions, inviting contributions from all, accommodating everyone’s needs, etc.
Relationships skills – the group’s ability to individually and collectively nourish and maintain positive healthy relationships while meeting a challenge, etc.
Consider which one or more of these competencies you would like to focus on, and frame the activity accordingly. For example, if you want your group to develop their decision-making skills, you could integrate this exercise soon after facilitating a conversation about what good decision-making looks like. To this end, invite your group to voice their opinions and then challenge them to practice these skills in the activity.
Take a look at the Reflection Tips tab for some useful conversation starters.
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
You could present the One-Line Electric Fence as a test case for the display of certain full value behaviours. That is to say, having discussed what healthy behaviours look like, you could invite your group to display these cultural norms during the challenge. Alternatively, you could present this problem-solving activity and then lead a conversation to help your group establish some useful boundaries to help them continue to be successful. For example, if forming a circle permitted more people to feel included in the planning process, this cultural norm could be embraced as a permanent feature of later group tasks.
Dis-Connected: As above but without the requirement to maintain physical contact with the group at all times. This option is only appropriate if you feel that your group has the necessary maturity and physical capabilities to undertake the activity safely.
Raise The Bar: Increase the height of the bungee cord to ramp up the challenge for your group. If necessary, step in as an extra supervisory spotter.
Mute Process: Any or all of the above, without the benefit of verbal forms of communication during the actual scaling of the fence. That is, your group can talk during their planning stages, but as soon as they connect to pass the first person over the line, all verbal communication will cease from that point on.
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Classic group initiative to pass through a web of strings.
Physically demanding team challenge with lifting at height.
Dynamic group initiative to focus on trust & support.
Useful Framing Ideas
You’re looking at a simple cord strung between two points and you may already be thinking you know what’s going to happen. Maybe, maybe not. For a start, did you know that there is an invisible force field that hangs directly below the cord to the ground? You cannot penetrate it and you cannot go around it, so your only way out is to go over it…
Groups that stick together succeed together, that’s what this next exercise is all about, literally…
What sort of standard do you set for yourself? If you set high standards, how do you measure the standards of others? Are you sometimes frustrated by the efforts of others as not being good enough? This is a judgement-free zone, but you will be expected to cooperate together to solve a complex problem that may sometimes frustrate you…
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 challenging group initiative:
What was the most challenging part of this exercise?
What parts of your planning helped your group succeed?
What occurred that was unexpected?
How did you and/or your group cope with these unexpected events?
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate your group’s level of integrity?
Did you observe any behaviours that concerned you? Why? Did you communicate these to the group? What happened next?
Can you think of a time where you were influenced by reading a particular social cue?
In what ways did we, or did we not, demonstrate compassion and empathy?
Can you describe your group’s goal? Was it clear? Did you achieve it?
The inspiration for One-Line Electric Fence was developed on the run when I was delivering one of many adventure programming workshops with Project Adventure in the 1990s.