Initiative Games (Rick Curtis)

This material is the Group Development and Leadership Chapter from the Outdoor Action Program Leader’s Manual written by Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program.

This material may be freely distributed for nonprofit educational use. However, if included in publications, written or electronic, attributions must be made to the author. Commercial use of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.


Initiative games are a great way to bring a group together, particularly at the beginning of a trip when setting the tone is so important. They can help people get to know each other and begin that elusive process of establishing trust. Keep in mind that there is a level of interpersonal risk in some of these games. Use your leader’s radar to assess where the group is and what they are ready for. Below is a list of some games.

(See Section 15 – Bibliography & Footnotes: Resources for additional resources).

Initiative Games Teaching Outline

1. Use games which are appropriate to the “level” the group has reached. If you push too much with games before the group has developed an identity, you may turn some people off.

2. Safety comes first! In any situation in which people are off the ground they should be spotted at all times. It is too easy for someone to fall and injure an ankle, etc. which could ruin the rest of the trip for them. Also be aware if things start to get too rambunctious and out of hand; this can often lead to an accidental injury. Slow down the activity or stop it before something happens. Any unsafe practices such as hanging upside down, diving headfirst, throwing people, or overstraining must be stopped immediately. (See Section 10 – Safety & Emergency Procedures: Dynamics of Accidents).

3. Consider things such as the weather and the physical condition of the group to decide the type of activity.

4. Be careful of such things as glasses, watches and jewellery which can get broken (and can also inflict wounds).


THE NAME GAME – Each member of the group must invent some action to go with their name (a graceful bow, somersault etc.). Each person says their name and demonstrates their action, and then says the name and performs the action of the others in the circle. This continues around the circle until each member has “performed” everyone else’s name and action. This is a great tool to break the ice and get people to know everyone’s name.

NAME GAME II – Each member is asked to give their first and last name and some history or some special thing for them about the name. (eg. I am named after my great grandmother who immigrated from the moon, or I am named after my dad’s first cat, etc.).

HUMAN KNOT – Stand the group in a circle. Have everyone put their right hand in the centre of the circle with the thumb up. Then everyone should reach in with their left hand and grab someone else’s right thumb. Make sure that right hands are attached to left hands and make sure that two people don’t have both of each other’s hands. Send a pulse around the group to make sure that everyone is connected (if not, exchange a few hands to connect everyone). Then try to unscramble the knot back into a circle. This is another great game to do at the very beginning of a trip to get people to “unwind”. The knot should untangle unless you have an overhand knot (which cannot be undone, except by creative reconnecting).

ANIMAL SIZE LINEUP – Whisper to each member of the group the name of a particular animal. The group must line up from the largest animal to the smallest by making the animal’s sound and/or acting like the animal. No talking. Then when they have lined up have each person present their animal to the group and the group must guess the person’s animal identity. See how close the group came in its size line-up. This can also be done blindfolded by just using noises.

CIRCLE SIT – Have the group stand in a circle facing in, then have everyone turn 90 degrees to the same side so that they are facing the back of the person in front of them. Tighten up the circle and have the group all sit at once so that each person sits on the lap of the person behind. Once sitting, try to get the group to move the circle around by having everyone lift the same foot and shuffle it forward, then move the other foot and “walk.” Then have the group stand back up simultaneously.

GROUP STAND UP – Sit the group in a tight circle with their backs to the centre and have them link arms and then try to stand up as a group. You can start with only part of the group then slowly add more and more people.

MONSTER RACE – A Monster is formed by counting the number of feet and hands in the group and dividing by 2. That number is the total number of appendages (hands or feet) that can be touching the ground. The goal is to build a Monster with only that number of appendages touching and have the monster move as a unit from one point to another. If there are enough people, you can form two or more Monsters and have a race.

CIRCLE STAND – Draw a circle 1 foot in diameter on the ground. The entire group must stay within the circle for one minute.

CATERPILLAR – Have the group lie down on their stomachs side by side creating a long line. The person on the end rolls over everyone down the line and drops in at the far end continuing the line. Go through the entire group moving slowly across the ground. Make sure that the ground is suitable-not rocky or covered with glass, etc.

CAMP SETUP – Have the group set up camp without talking and only using one hand per person. This should go on for a specified period of time or until some event (like the tarp setup) has been completed. For safety, all stove and fire activities will be performed using 2 hands, minimal talking is permitted.

A WHAT? – Sit in a circle facing the centre. One person starts the game by taking an object, turning to the person on his right and saying “this is a _______.” That person then turns and responds, “A What?” The first person says, “A _______”. Then the second person says, “Oh, a _______”. The second person turns to the third person and the entire exchange repeats until it has worked all the way around the circle. Once people have the hang of it you can confuse everyone by calling the object some other name (for example pass a rock and call it a fish) and/or by starting another object going in the opposite direction from the first object. TAFFY PULL – First make sure that no one is wearing sharp jewellery or belt buckles, Then divide the group into two teams, the taffy and the taffy pulling machine. The taffies all sit down and link arms, legs and bodies to be a tangled taffy mess. The taffy-pulling machine has the job of trying to gently pull the taffy apart into human sized bits. Keep in mind that the best taffy is made by smooth stretches-if you pull too hard the taffy will snap. And it’s up to the taffy to decide how much s/he wants to stay part of the taffy mass. Each piece of taffy that gets pulled off becomes part of the taffy machine.

KILLER – The OA leader should explain the rules of the game and then when everyone’s eyes are closed s/he should pick a Killer by tapping the person on the head. (If the leaders want to play, slips of paper can be passed around and the one with the X is the Killer). The Killer kills by blinking one eye at his victim. The victim must see the blink in order to be killed and must wait for 5 seconds after the blink before “dying”. (Be melodramatic!) Once killed you become a spectator. The survivors must try to figure out the identity of the Killer before they are killed. If someone has a suspicion one can announce, “I have an accusation.” Unless someone else says, “I second the accusation,” the game continues. If someone does second the accusation, the two accusers count to three and then each point to the person each one suspects. (Without conferences, gestures, etc. before pointing.) If they both point to a person who is innocent or if they both point to different suspects, (even if one of the suspects is the Killer), they are both dead because of poor detective work. If both point to the Killer, s/he must confess and the game is over.

RED HANDED – The group forms a circle facing in and one person, who is selected to be IT, stands in the centre. The IT person closes his/her eyes while the other players pass some small object (eg. a pebble) from person to person in the circle. The sneakiest pass is to hold the pebble in one fist, palm down, and drop it into the palm-up hand of the next person in the circle. After the object has begun to make the rounds IT opens his/her eyes, searching for the object. If IT suspects someone s/he taps that person on one of the person’s hands. If the suspect is empty-handed, the game continues with IT searching. If the person has the object, that person becomes the new IT and the old IT joins the circle.

TRUST CIRCLE – Group members stand in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder facing in. One individual stands in the centre of the circle. This person should stand straight, with feet together on the ground and arms at his/her sides-continue to stand straight but not rigid. S/he then closes his/her eyes and gently “lets go” falling to one side of the circle. The group members, standing with their palms facing the person gently catch the person and pass him/her across and around the circle. If the person gets out from the centre of the circle, stop the person, hold him/her gently, and move the circle so the person is once again in the centre. After a time the members of the circle can move out a bit. As this is done the circle members should stand with one leg behind them to serve as a brace for when they take the person’s body weight. Don’t step back too far. The goal is to gently pass the person, not throw them back and forth across a huge circle.

BACK RUBS – In pairs, a line or a circle, work the kinks out gently. Remind your group members that people have different tolerances for how hard/soft a back rub they want.

TRUST WALK – Have the group line up holding hands. One person at one end is the leader. The rest of the group closes their eyes (or is blindfolded) and the leader leads them over, under, around and through various obstacles. The leader must guide the person directly behind him/her by vocal and/or tactile directions and that person must do the same to the “blind” person behind him/her and on down the line. This can also be done in pairs. It is an interesting way to let people explore an environment (trees, bark, leaves, wet moss etc.) Be careful of people falling, glass etc.

TRUST FALL – Find some object (tree stump, rock etc.) that can be stood upon which places a person 4 – 5 feet off the ground. It must be a stable object. Form the group into two parallel lines facing each other. People should interweave arms with the people across from them to make a “zipper”. Have one person stand on the stump or rock, close his/her eyes and fall gently into the net. The person must keep their body completely rigid with their hands crossed over their chest. Start with someone fairly light so the group gets the feel of it before doing the heavier members of the group. With heavy people make sure the you have strong folks at about the middle to catch and support the major body weight.

DYADS – Separate the group into pairs, preferably with someone they do not know well and have them find a space together to talk. Each person in the pair will spend X minutes telling his/her partner anything s/he would like the other person to know about home, hobbies, family, things they are good at, goals, Princeton, etc. The partner will simply listen, asking few questions and making a minimum number of comments along the way. Reverse roles. Then have everyone regroup and have each person introduce their partner by saying some of the interesting things they learned about their partner.

FIND YOUR FEET – Have everyone in the group sit in a circle blindfolded and without talking. Each person must take off two items of clothing (shirts, shoes etc.) and place them in the middle of the circle. Mix up all the items. Then everyone must find their own things and get someone to put them back on (without seeing or speaking).

CREVASSE PRACTICE – Tie a rope round the waist of each group member about 6′ apart (you may need to have several ropes with several persons per rope). Have the group break camp in the morning.

COOKIE MACHINE – Form two lines facing each other standing shoulder to shoulder with elbows bent and forearms in front, palms up. Alternate arms with the people to your left and right to create a “zipper”. You are the giant conveyor belt of a cookie machine. The person (cookie) should stand back from the line and announce what type of cookie they want to be. They can then slide into the arms of the cookie machine or run and jump with arms outstretched. They are then passed down the conveyor belt and are bounced and rotated so that they bake evenly. Meanwhile the machine should give some baking sound effects. Be careful lowering the person to the group at the end. Also be careful of glasses, watches, and jewellery for both the cookie and the machine. –

From More New Games

YURT CIRCLE – A yurt is a type of Mongolian nomad tent in which the roof pushes against the walls in equilibrium, keeping the structure standing. Form a circle with an even number of people. Everyone should be facing the centre and standing shoulder to shoulder holding hands. Go around the circle, one person says ‘in” and the next person says “out” alternating around the circle. Keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. On the count of three all the “ins” lean toward the centre of the circle and all the “outs” lean back. The yurt stays upright because each part lances and supports the whole. – from More New Games


Bivouacs – ridge tops on clear nights with good weather are great for these. Even if its just getting the group out from under the tarp to sleep out under the stars (and not be so dependent on the plastic).


    * These have become a fun thing to do while hiking down the trail.
    * The person presenting the mystery should give the situation and ask what happened.
    * The others participating must solve the mystery by asking questions.
    * The presenter can only answer yes, no, maybe, or it doesn’t matter.


1. A man is lying dead in the forest, with a matchstick clutched in his hand.

2. A man walks into a bar, sits down and asks the bartender for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a gun and points at the man. The man says, “Thanks”, and walks out of the bar.

3. A man is driving along a mountain road, listening to the radio. Suddenly, he drives off the road and over a cliff and dies.

4. There is a table with 53 bicycles on it. A man, sitting at the table, is hunched over, quite dead.

5. A man gets on a train in town A and heads to town B. He boards a train back to town A. Halfway there, he becomes distraught and leaps from the train, killing himself.

6. A man wakes up in the morning and reads the headline of his local paper: “Mrs. Smith Dies in Ski Accident in Switzerland,” and he announces, “That wasn’t an accident. That was murder!”

7. There is a man standing next to a box. Seven people walk in, look in the box, nod to each other and then the man, and walk out.

8. A man goes into a seafood restaurant down at the harbour. He orders the special for the day, albatross soup. He takes one bite, then goes out to buy a gun and kills himself.

9. A man is found dead hanging from the ceiling in a completely empty room with all doors locked from the inside. There is a pool of water on the floor.


1. Three soldiers were flying in a balloon on a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory. Unfortunately, the balloon started to lose altitude. Realising that if they crash they would certainly be caught and killed, they decide to take drastic measures. Since they had already thrown all their ballast overboard, they decided to draw matchsticks. The person with the shortest matchstick would have to jump, allowing the others to escape. The person dead in the fall was the unlucky one.

2. The man who walked in to the bar had the hiccoughs. The clever bartender figured that scaring the person with the gun would be better than a glass of water, and he was right.

3. The man in the car is a disk jockey at a nearby radio station. He had just committed a murder for which he knows he will be the prime suspect. In order to set up an unshakeable alibi, he taped his radio show ahead of time and committed the murder while the tape was being broadcast. On the way back to the station he hears the tape machine malfunction and stop on the radio. He realises his alibi is useless and kills himself.

4. The 53 bicycles are actually a deck of cards, with bicycles on the backs. The dead man was caught cheating (slipping an extra card in), and was shot by another player.

5. The man who lives town A has been blind all of his life. He has an operation performed on his eyes in town B in an attempt to restore his sight. The operation was a success. However, on the way back to town A, the train enters a tunnel and suddenly there is no light. Thinking he has lost his sight forever, he jumps from the train.

6. The man is Mr. Smith’s travel agent. Mr. Smith murdered Mrs. Smith while they were vacationing. The agent knows because Mr. Smith, a real penny-pincher, bought a two-way ticket for himself to Switzerland and only a one-way ticket for his wife.

7. The seven people and the man were shipwrecked on an island with no food. Finally, in order to survive, they resorted to drastic measures. They had the man, who was a surgeon, remove one hand from each person so the group would have food. The surgeon kept both of his hands so he could perform the operations. Eventually, the group was rescued. As part of the group’s agreement the surgeon had to have one of his hands removed when they returned to the mainland. His hand was in the box in the room. The seven entered saw that he had fulfilled his part of the agreement, and left.

8. The man was part of the crew of a freighter that sank in the Pacific. He, and two other crewmen, his best friends, was adrift in a lifeboat for weeks. They had no food and all their attempts at catching fish had failed. He became weak and delirious. One of his friends died and the other cut up the body to keep them alive. The surviving friend told the man that he was eating an albatross that had been caught. When the man ate the albatross soup in the restaurant it didn’t taste anything like what he had eaten on the lifeboat. He realised what had happened and killed himself.

9. The man committed suicide in the locked room. He hung himself by standing on a block of ice, which melted.


  •     Joining Together, Johnson, David & Johnson, Frank, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1982.
  •     Teaching a Skill, Nantahala Outdoor Centre, Bryson City, NC, 1983.
  •     Management of Organizational Behaviour, Hersey, Paul & Blanchard, Kenneth, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1977. Copyright (c) 1995 Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.

This page collated by Rick Curtis.

[Category:Group Dynamics and Activities]


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