The premise is simple. When I run my station for a group of kids, they have to move a box from point A to point B without touching it or dropping it. They have a collection of blankets, PVC piping and ropes to work as a team to construct a carrying device. This activity is meant to simulate the carrying of the Aron Kodesh, or holy ark, by the Israelites on their forty year sojourn through the desert, teaching the campers about aspects of the Miskhan, our theme for the summer, all while tricking them into a team building and communication activity. At the end of the activity I focus the closing sicha (conversation) on the importance of different jobs in a community, and how the members of their communities are just as much of a resources as that PVC pipe they were using to construct their design.
When I was creating this activity with Jacob before the tour, I had a very specific concept in mind when selecting the materials. Explicitly described in detail in the Torah, the ark was essentially a big golden box with two winged cruvim (often translated as cherubs) on top of it, carried on two large poles. So to that effect, I provide the groups with what, in my head, would be the perfect materials to build a stretcher. Poles for the group members to hold, a blanket to drape across the poles to cradle the spray painted wooden box that represents the ark, and a rope to lift the ark onto the blanket. Fascinatingly, however, this is very rarely the design that the kids make.
I have seen groups put boxes into boxes, sacks on poles, knots through key holes, and countless other designs. One group even created an assembly line passing the box wrapped in a blanket to each other all the way from point a to point b. Each time I present the rules in the same way. In addition to not being able to touch the box, the groups have to listen to each other, ensure that each member is participating the in the construction, share the resources between the teams, and to wait to test out their design on the real aron box until I give them permission. And yet, each time the design is different, and more interestingly the group dynamics vary widely from group to group.
I have watched in fascination, the differences determined by the demographics of a group. I am by no means a social psychologist, but because I have done this experiment so many times, I have noticed some patterns that have come up among the groups. Groups of all girls more often than not stand in a circle and talk out their plan before trying to implement it, while groups of boys immediately go for the materials and discuss their way through their plan based on who is holding which material. Older kids tend to go with the first idea that is spoken by a member of the group, while younger kids each come up with their own idea and are then upset when their idea was not implemented by the group. Some groups get fixated on the fairness of the division of resources between the teams, while other groups are upset when both teams come up with the same idea. I have had reactions ranging from total enthusiasm (often the 7-11 year olds) to complete apathy (often the 12-14 year olds) to utter bafflement (often the 4-6 year olds). Needless to say, that despite the fact that I am repeating the game 4-16 times a day, the results and group dynamics are never the same.
Are these differences due to camp culture? Biology? Gender socialization? Stages of human development? I am certainly not the one who will be able to answer that question. However, there is one, overwhelmingly cliché, universal similarity amongst all the groups. The groups that were able to listen and include all the members of their team did better than the teams that could not. The teams that were able to work together were able to carry the Aron farther, build a more sound structure, and experiment more.
On the bus we live in very close quarters, with four other people. After a long day of work, in the middle of a frustrating discussion, on a hot day, it is easy to forget that our greatest tools are the people around us. This is true of any group or team. I am excited to see more groups of kids try out this experiment this summer, and I hope that I remain humbled by the ways that they find to work together to solve problems.