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Escape Ordinary Team Building

By Adam

“The thought of that makes me want to vomit!” declared my mother about the thought of participating in team building activities.  Let’s be honest, when most of us hear the words team building, we are either ecstatic about something fun and out of the ordinary or, like my mother, feel sick to your stomach.  There is not a whole lot of in-between.  

There is nothing wrong with the traditional “team building” activities that were prevalent in the 1970s & 80s. They have made their way back into the game bag of countless church youth departments.  These activities still have the potential for immense value and provide growth opportunities for both groups and individuals.  We will call them classic. 

Obviously quite a bit has changed over the last 40 years and team building activities are no exception.  Harnesses made out of rope have given way to harnesses bordering on the edge of comfortable with wide webbing and padding.  Ropes slung over tree branches have been replaced by aircraft cable and steel beams.  While some of the activities and materials have changed, the rationale for team building and development have not. 

The concept first appeared in the 2004 video game “Crimson Room” and in July of 2007, the SCRAP company in Kyoto, Japan debuted the first modern, live action, escape room.  If you are not familiar with the phenomenon of escape rooms, they are fully immersive experiences where players are given a scenario in which their objective is to use clues, puzzles and hints to escape in a set amount of time.  They are often created to make the players feel like they are fully a part of the room with authentic decorations, relevant puzzles, and imaginative consequences if they fail to escape.  Themes range from escaping a sinking ship to working as a government agent trying to take down Al Capone. 

While they are extremely entertaining, escape rooms also have the potential to be a team building experience in a very untraditional way.  In these rooms, groups must communicate with each other about what they have found.  Is that highlighted appointment on the wall calendar a clue or is it just a decoration?  Does anyone have an idea how to use this seemingly out of place mirror on the wall?  Is the quote on that poster something that Abraham Lincoln really said?  Why is there a picture of part of this room on the wall?  An individual attempting these rooms may solve a puzzle or two on their own. However, the real beauty of the escape room is seeing the group's thinking patterns mesh to find the clues, solve the puzzles and escape.  Some call this teamwork. 

On the other hand, I have personally facilitated escape rooms where the participants refused to cooperate with each other.  The same combination that opened a lock on the desk was tried on every other lock after the first was already opened.  I have seen groups where one participant will throw out what they think might be a clue, only to be ignored by the rest of the group.  Turns out, they were correct, and their group needed that specific clue to escape.  Was that person deliberately ignored for some reason? Maybe they were not assertive enough with their suggestion.  Maybe they kept others up all night pulling pranks in the cabin and the group just does not want to hear from them anymore.  Maybe that person lacked the self-confidence to put their ideas out in front of their peers.  I have seen escape rooms dominated by one individual and I have seen where new leaders emerged among their group. 

Regardless of your escape room scenario, an artificial situation is being used to bring out real emotions and reactions among those participating.  Real emotions that existed well before your group entered that escape room and those real reactions that will continue long after you have escaped. Now that your team has surfaced these reactions and emotions, they have the opportunity to grow as a product of the time spent locked in a cave by a band of pirates. 

For your group to “escape”, they must:

  • Effectively communicate
  • Take on new roles within their group
  • Trust each other
  • Implement new ideas
  • Face deadlines
  • Brainstorm creative ideas
  • Be aware of their surroundings
  • Work well with others
  • Know their boundaries
  • Resolve differences
  • Accomplish tasks
  • Ignore the non-essential
  • Put the pieces together
  • Pay attention to details
  • Stay focused on the goal
  • Listen to the suggestions of others
  • Work together as a team

Regardless of your state of mind as you enter the escape room, be warned: real emotions and reactions will surface.  Patterns of behavior become obvious, individual roles will be tested, interpersonal conflict may rear its ugly head and creativity will be stretched.  However, your team has the opportunity to take their artificial situation and translate their experiences to the real world.  That is what team building has always been about regardless of playing the classic “human knot” game or attempting to ace the 5th grade year end test to be released for summer break in what students consider the most horrific escape room theme ever!

Congratulations, you now appear to be a genius for having a great time while further developing your team and its members (if they know it or not).  Escape the ordinary team building activities by locking your group in a room together. 

Christian Retreats Network /

Based at Lake Williamson / PO Box 620 / Carlinville, IL 62626