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Game Play Creates Group Cohesion and Leaders

September 10, 2017

Who knew? Playing games—the right games—can create group cohesion, boost morale, and create leaders. Late this summer, Lyndon State College Mountain Recreation Management Professor Ben Mirkin published Backcountry Play Book, a resource for outdoor education and recreation professionals, camp and scout leaders, and volunteers who lead people of all ages into the backcountry. Mirkin wrote the book with former Lyndon colleague, Jamie Struck, and dissertation advisor UNH Professor Jayson Seaman.

“I used to think adversity was the strongest predictor of group cohesion and social development,” said Mirkin. “Rain and inclement weather, for example, requires group members to work collectively against adversity.”

Now, Mirkin sees the strongest predictor of group cohesion is playing the right combination of facilitated games that are then properly debriefed.

The Game Grid, a cornerstone of the book, helps leaders get to this perfect combination of games. The grid is built around five purposes such as morale boosting, group building, group management, dividing up the group, and debriefing and assessment. When to play each game is another part of the grid, based on a new group coming together, traveling, safety, hanging out, and wrapping it up.

In his professional life, Mirkin begins every trip he leads with a series of well-thought-out games that are tailored to the needs of participants with the intention of helping them achieve group goals—and ordered in a way that promotes development.

When he started doing research to find more games for his groups, Mirkin realized there was an opportunity, and the Backcountry Play Book was born. Ben worked with Seaman, who was his dissertation advisor, to write the grid. It’s simple to understand and easy to implement.

At Lyndon State, Mirkin offers a course on leadership and small group dynamics. Each class begins with games and activities. In the first half of the course, these games are facilitated by Mirkin. During the second half of the course, he hands course leadership over to his students. They prepare an ice breaker and an activity to lead each class.

Those moments demonstrate the need for this book and illustrate a guiding principal of group game play—handing over control as development occurs. Stepping outside of life in the game environment can create intense learning while having fun.

Every trip Mirkin leads begins with game play. On the trail, games can take minds off challenges. In camp, games can be structured for specific purposes as well. When issues arise, games can help frame the answers. The development from instructor led games to student leader of the day is always an important component of learning as skills and relationships build over time.

The book, published by Wood ‘N’ Barnes—woodnbarnes.com, is available from online booksellers and local bookstores including Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville.

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