Collect five sets of two identical items, eg five different fruits, coloured balls, etc.
Divide your group into small groups of five people only.
Ask each group to sit in a circle, facing each other.
Assign a label to each person representing one of the five different items, eg banana, apple, orange, etc.
Randomly distribute the items into the left and right hands of each person.
Finally, remove any one of the (ten) items from one person’s hand.
Challenge your group to return all of the items to the person to whom they belong in as few passes as possible, ie both oranges return to the hands of the Orange person.
Announce that all passes can only occur within three parameters:
– Only one item can be passed at a time;
– An item can only ever be passed into an empty hand; and
– A person can only ever pass an item to one of their two neighbours.
When ready, invite your groups to start solving the problem, in as few moves as possible.
How To Play Narrative
In advance, collect five sets of two identical items. The items can be anything you want, provided there are five varieties such as five different fruits, or five different coloured balls, or four different suits and the two Jokers from a deck of playing cards, etc.
You’ll need small groups of five people only. Ask these groups to sit on the floor or in chairs facing each other in a circle.
Before you distribute your items, assign a label (coinciding with the different items) to each of the five people in the group.
For example, nominate one person as Hearts, another as Diamonds, a third person as Spades, a fourth as Clubs and the fifth person as the Jokers. If necessary, pin a sticky label on each person to remind everyone who represents which item.
Now, mix the items, and randomly distribute them into the left and right hands of each of the people in the small group. Finally, remove any one of the (ten) items from one person’s hand (only) because you need one free hand to start this initiative.
So, your set-up should see one item in the hand of every person, except for one person, who is only holding one item. And the items are randomly distributed. Phew, you’re now ready to start.
Announce to your group that their objective is return all of the items to the person to whom they belong, ie both Hearts return to the person wearing the Hearts label.
However, the passing of an item can only occur within three parameters:
Only one item can be passed at a time;
An item can only ever be passed into an empty hand; and
A person can only ever pass an item to one of their two immediate neighbours.
And, that’s it. Let your group at it.
Observe the process each group uses to solve the problem. Focus not just on the strategy used to return all of the items, but how the group worked together to arrive at their solution.
This is a fun task, but like many group initiatives, there is enormous value in processing your group’s experience at the end (see Reflections tab,) and then relating what was learned to ‘real world’ examples, eg team sports, co-operative learning units, group projects, etc.
Practical Leadership Tips
Most of the time in your efforts to form groups of five, you’ll end up with one to four people left over. Invite these folk to either wait their turn to become one of the five people, or act as an observer.
To the extent that the items are initially distributed randomly, it does not matter if one or more people end up holding one of their own items.
Note, that on occasions, it may be necessary for one person – who has already received their two items – to temporarily give one or more of them up to allow the group as a whole to solve the problem.
Provided an item is passed to an immediate neighbour, it does not matter which hand (left or right) is doing the passing and/or receiving.
In case you’re wondering, there is no minimum number of moves. Well actually, for any given distribution, there probably is, but this would be too cumbersome to detail here.
Continuous Improvement 1: Attempt the task several times, with all items starting from the same position. Challenge your group to return all of the items to their rightful owner in the fewest number of moves.
Continuous Improvement 2: Time how long it takes the group to solve the problem, with a view to recording the quickest time.
Larger Groups: Try slightly larger groups, up to eight people. The principles are the same, it will just take longer.
Take a look at Traffic Jam for another task focused on traffic and congestion.
Useful Framing Ideas
Computer science is a fascinating subject area, and it does not even have to involve computers. For example, here’s a great practical exercise which explores traffic, congestion and networks whereby a system needs to be designed to deliver the right information to the right place quickly…
It is said that computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes. In the same way telescopes are used to view the stars, a computer is just another tool which can be used to explore science. One area of computer science explores how information is delivered efficiently and accurately, as demonstrated by this next task…
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 terrific small group problem-solving exercise:
What did you notice during the exercise? Why was this significant to you?
How were decisions made by your group to pass certain objects?
Were any compromises needed to be made to allow the group to ultimately succeed?
What can be learned from the process of passing the items to your work, school or other areas of your lives?
Small Group ‘Team-Building’ Session
What You Need: 5-8 people, 45 mins
Props: 5 sets of 2 identical items, hula-hoop, set of Word Circles (Print+Play)
Helium Stick – not-so-easy, quality control, whole of group challenge
The inspiration for The Passing Game (originally known as the Orange Game) was sourced from the csunplugged series of free YouTube video tutorials, produced by the computer science department of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.