In advance, fill a bunch of balloons with helium gas.
Distribute one helium-filled balloon to teams of two or three people (grocery bags are optional.)
Each team has 20 minutes to experiment with attaching one or more resources to the base of the balloon to slow its rise to the ceiling when released.
When ready, release all balloons at the same time.
Each team aims to have their balloon be the last one to hit the ceiling.
The only condition of ‘winning’ is that a team’s balloon must touch the ceiling.
How To Play Narrative
Maybe you’re familiar with the Great Egg Drop initiative – it’s been a popular classic for years, and so the question was asked, what else is out there that is just as much fun and involves a team. This is the answer…
In advance, you’ll need to get your hands on a tank of helium gas (you can hire a bottle from a party supplies store.) Then, using the gas, inflate a bunch of regular, common, garden-variety balloons, one for each team you plan to involve.
Distribute one helium-filled balloon to teams of two or three people. Their simple (but not so easy) task is to attach whatever they choose to the base of the balloon in an attempt to slow its progress to the ceiling when it is released. Indeed, each team aims to have their balloon be the last one to hit the ceiling.
And that’s it.
If you wish, distribute one regular plastic grocery bag to each group as well, to serve as a receptacle for whatever items they may choose to weigh the balloon down. But this is just one option – string, sticky tape, etc are other options.
You may need to provide a few parameters in regards the time (say 20 minutes) and the type and number of resources each group may use, but that’s all. All you need to do is sit back and relax until launch time.
When ready, ask each group to prepare their balloon vehicle for launch, and on “3-2-1” instruct all balloons to be released (at the same time.) You could also record the time of flight for each individual balloon if coordination is difficult.
The only condition of ‘winning’ is that a team’s balloon must touch the ceiling (at some point.)
Enjoy, and because this exercise is relatively new, please tell me how it goes.
Practical Leadership Tips
You might think that getting all of the balloons inflated to an identical size and fill would be important. And while this is an admirable goal, close enough is normally good enough. In the end, everyone is working on the same issue – attempting to slow the pace at which their balloon (whatever size or inflation) rises to the ceiling.
If you have the ability to send each of the teams to their own ‘laboratory’ or break-out room, go for it. It will add to the sense of suspense and climax.
Keep an eye out for the use of fragile or harmful objects (if dropped) suspended from the base of a balloon – if something goes wrong, it could all end in tears.
Hint – have your video camera ready to capture the launch.
This exercise reminds me of the popular animated film called ‘Up’ in which an old man uses thousands of balloons to lift his house off the ground and float halfway across the world.
You could integrate Up The Challenge as part of a well-designed SEL program to help your group make caring and constructive choices about personal behaviour and social interactions across different situations.
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
While a simple task on paper, the focus and effort required of a group to interact and engage with others may speak to the benefits of having developed a set of supportive and healthy behavioural norms in advance. Or, if not, you could use these less-than-desired interactions or outcomes to explore what sorts of behaviours your group would prefer to see. For example, you could invite your group to reflect on the key ingredients of a truly creative and open-minded atmosphere. Questions such as Did everyone feel heard during the exercise? and In what ways did the group demonstrate that every idea was valued? could be useful discussion points.
Resilience & Adaptability
In a small way, you could also argue that the focus required to accomplish this task speaks to the adaptability and resilient characteristics of a group. That is to say, every group will make many, many attempts and adjust the objects they have attached to their balloon to achieve a very slow ascent.
Teams of One: Naturally, you could issue a balloon to each person (not teams,) and present the same task. Imagine the kaleidoscope of colour when all of the balloons launch at the end?
Limited Resources: Limit the number or type of resources the teams can use to attach to the balloon. For example, X number of coins, or any number of one type of object, or only organic materials, or any three materials, etc. Appreciate that when you first start using this activity, you’ll have to guess what works anyway.
Arty Balloons: Add an extra challenge, for each team to decorate their balloon and/or craft. Award points for best decorated, most inventive, most colourful, etc.
Coming Down: Take a look at the Great Egg Drop for a similar team activity that involves designing a vehicle which travels down, not up.
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Useful Framing Ideas
Did you see the wonderful Pixar film Up based on the story of an old man who uses thousands of balloons to lift his house off the ground and float halfway across the world? It may seem like a fairytale, but in theory, it is possible to do what he achieved (if you had enough helium and balloons to make it happen.) Today, we’re going to experiment with such a challenge…
Gravity is one of those immutable universal laws that we not only take for granted, but impacts so much of our daily lives. I think, for these reasons, we love messing with gravity when given the chance. And today, you have another chance…
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 creative problem-solving exercise:
What were your biggest obstacles to achieving success? Why?
Did anything surprise you during the exercise?
Did you need more or less weight than you expected at the beginning?
Did you have to overcome anything?
What might you have learned from this exercise?
The inspiration for Up The Challenge occurred to me while pondering a new twist on the classic Great Egg Drop problem-solving exercise.