Problem Solving Activities and Skills

Problem solving is a very valuable skill to have, and each of us possess it to some degree. To teach problem solving skills, you need to set a few challenges or puzzles for the team to solve.

There are several things you need to consider when approaching or creating problem solving activities.

What are you trying to Achieve?

Balancing a team on skis
Problem Solving activities

This is the most obvious question to ask, yet often overlooked. You need to ask what it is that you are being asked to do. This leads onto other questions such as “What does success look like?” of “What effect are you trying to have?”

If you are creating problem solving activities, I find that making the outcome obvious a good way to engage the team. However, you have to make the method require some considerable thinking and experimentation. This is the key to setting problem solving activities. It is not a challenge if the solution is easy.

Another important thing to consider when setting problems is to make the solution appear achievable. Unless your team is full of some strong characters, you may find that everyone gives up. This most often happens with teenagers who aren’t always engaged with team building and would rather be somewhere else. Maintain attention by a bit of storytelling. You are just trying to get a box out of a tree, you are rescuing a stranded pilot, or stealing food store from a group of bandits.

Understand the Situation

Do you understand the circumstances in which you have to work and solve the problem? Do you understand the following:

  • Rules and constraints of the problem
  • Assumptions – don’t take anything for granted. You may be able to find clever ways to circumvent or innovate
  • What is important? – It cost the key factor, or time, or how much resource you use?
  • What are the dependencies – How to different parts of the system interact or relate? If you change one area, what is the impact on the overall situation?
  • Time critical responses – what needs to be done and when, or doesn’t it matter?
  • Will circumstances change during the task? – Will external factors change the rules by which you have to play by?

Learning system skills is another way of approaching problem solving activities. Thinking strategically is an extremely important skill, especially for leaders.

Problem Solving Activities

So, here are a few ideas to get you started. Some are physical, others can be done in the classroom or office. All of them require the team to think strategically and for there to be good leadership.

Water Barrel Swap

Tie a pulley to a tree branch and pass a rope through it. Tie a barrel to each end of the rope. Fill one barrel with water. Then fence off an area around the barrels. The challenge is to swap positions of the barrels without anyone touching the floor inside the fenced off area, or touch the barrels.

Swamp Crossing

Create a swamp, and then the teams have to cross it without going in it. They can be provided with a variety of useful and unuseful equipment. Planks and bricks are commonly used. You can also get the teams to make a bridge.

Get Container from Fenced Area

Place a container inside a fenced off area. The teams are then given a range of equipment to reach and remove the container with it or the equipment touching the ground. Poles and ropes are the main bits of kit. If the canister is light, then the use of an elastic band and four pieces of string are a quick extraction solution.

Film Canister Retrieval from Tube Using Water

Mount a length of plastic drainpipe vertically. Seal off the bottom. Drop in a plastic film canister. The team then has to use their initiative to get the canister out. It will of course be too narrow to get your hand in, and the use of a stick will not work. The solution is to pour in water to make the canister float to the top of the drainpipe.

Carry Bucket of Water Along Rope Over Obstacle course

Make an obstacle course and string a rope along it. Then put the rope through the handle of a bucket of water. The team then has to work together to get the bucket along the length of rope over the obstacles without spilling any water.

The Wall

As a team, get over a ten foot wall.

Get the Team Through a Sheet of Paper

Using a sheet of A4 or letter sized paper and a pair of scissors, you have to cut the sheet of paper so that it forms a hole big enough to fit the entire team through.

HINT You cut the paper in a zig zag pattern…

Measuring Without Markings – Water Decanter

Give the team two jugs. One jug holds 5 litres, the other jug holds 3 litres. The team has to measure t exactly 4 litres using the jugs. They have an unlimited amount of water to experiment with. The answer lies in pouring water from one jug into the other and back.

For a more advanced problem to solve, give the team an eight litre container full of water and two empty containers, one that holds 5 litres and the other 3 litres. The team must divide the eight litres into two of the containers, each with exactly four litres in each.