Ask each team to form a straight line holding hands, but ask the middle two people to hold the two ends of the rope between them.
Without letting go of the rope or their partner’s hands, challenge each team to tie a simple overhand knot in the middle of the rope length.
Note the two outside people are not permitted to use their unclasped hands to assist in any way.
Allow ample time for teams to problem-solve and apply trial-and-error techniques.
When successful, invite your teams to reflect on their process and/or present a more challenging knot to solve (see Variations tab.)
How To Play Narrative
If you use ropes or teach the tying of knots, you’ll love this very simple, yet powerful exercise.
First, grab a bunch of short (1 to 2 metre) lengths of rope, the thicker the better. If you happen to have an old or retired coil of kernmantle rope lying around this will be ideal.
Gather your group and divide them into small groups of approx 6 to 10 people. Use a random group-splitting strategy such as those described in Getting into Teams if you’re looking for ideas.
Ask each group to form a straight line holding hands, and when ready, ask the two middle people to drop hands and hold one end of the rope each between them, ie they are each holding one end of the rope, rather than their partner’s hand.
In essence, each small group will have constituted themselves as one long piece of rope, with a regular piece of rope positioned in the middle.
Your groups are now ready to go.
Challenge each group to tie a simple overhand knot in the middle of the (real) length of rope. Of course, there is a catch, actually two:
No one is permitted to let go of their partner’s hand; and
The two people who form the ends of the (human) rope are not permitted to use their hands at all.
If it’s useful, you can view and/or download a photograph of an overhead knot from the Resources tab.
Depending on the abilities of your group, if you want to make it even more difficult, ban the ability of participants from using any of their fingers or thumbs to assist in the knot-tying operation, even when their hands are still clasped. Yes, some people are sneaky.
And that’s it.
Sometimes, I choose to display what the finished knot looks like. Most people know what an overhand knot is – they tie their own shoelaces, right? – but this group initiative suddenly makes the task a whole lot more difficult to comprehend.
If you have many small groups operating at the same time, be ready to issue a more difficult challenge for those who complete this task quicker than others (see Variations tab.)
In my experience, this is a wonderful team-building exercise that is ideal for exploring the benefits of perspective and seeking different points of view. For example, think about how different the knot must look from the perspective of someone holding the rope to those who are located much further away.
Practical Leadership Tips
If holding hands is an issue or not permitted (ie health issues,) cut a lot of small lengths of ropes (30-50cm) and position them between each person in the line.
It is best to keep the ropes relatively short (1 to 2 metres) for two reasons:
The knot is easier to view from the outer edges of the human rope; and
You want the people connected to one another to become the rope and too much rope diminishes this need.
Ideally, use 12-13mm kernmantle rope, if possible. Unlike flat tubular webbing, kernmantle rope retains its shape and its texture makes it ideal for knot tying, as shown in the photographs featured in the Resources tab.
You could integrate Overhand Knot as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability 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:
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
The complexities of this fun group initiative will challenge your group to interact and engage with each other in a manner that will necessarily speak to the benefits of having developed a set of supportive and healthy behavioural norms in advance. Or, if not, you could focus on any less-than-desired interactions or outcomes to explore what sorts of behaviours your group would prefer to see and commit to in the future.
For example, in addition to those described in the Reflection Tips tab, you could invite your group to reflect on the following questions to explore a variety of full value behaviours such as:
How did the group demonstrate its ability to care for self and others?
Generally speaking, how did the group make decisions? How were all members involved?
Was everyone fully aware of the group’s actions at all times? If not, why not?
What types of leadership were demonstrated during the exercise? Were they effective?
Did you observe an action or process that concerned you? Why?
Was adaptability a key component of the group’s success? How?
Were there moments of accountability that concerned you? Why?
This can be a tough initiative for some groups to solve, so consider it as one part of a carefully sequenced program to teach how to deal with frustration and disappointment. You may choose to teach these coping strategies in advance or focus on those moments when tempers frayed to reflect on alternative responses.
Figure 8: Challenge your group to tie a Figure 8 Knot in the centre of the rope. You can view and/or download a photograph of what this knot looks like from the Resources tab.
Reef or Square Knot: Divide into two teams, each holding a short rope in the middle. Challenge the two teams to work together to tie a Reef/Square Knot. You can view and/or download a photograph of what this knot looks like from the Resources tab.
Playful group initiative with a difficult solution.
Classic problem-solving exercise to inspire creativity.
Playful & challenging task for pairs & small groups.
Useful Framing Ideas
Sometimes when we can see the mechanics of how something works, it is easier to understand how it functions. This is especially true with knot tying…
As you stand there holding the hands of your partners, I would like you to imagine that you are all a part of a very long piece of rope. The most pliable part of the rope is in the middle and this is where you need to focus your attention for 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 leading this challenging problem-solving exercise:
Do you think your group was successful? Why?
What was the most difficult part of the challenge?
Do you feel that your role was valuable? Why or why not?
How did your perspective change during the exercise?
In what ways does this problem reflect your real-world, eg school, work, play, etc?
The inspiration for Overhand Knot came to me when I was teaching knots to a group of challenge ropes course instructors sometime in the 1990s. We needed a unique way to teach ropework and this was super-fun and tactile.