Having Fun Learning: Team Development Games that for Some Reason Work Around the World


In the late ‘80s, I set off for Nigeria to prepare a team of trainers who would eventually facilitate week-long courses on supervisory skills for family planning supervisors under the USAID-funded Family Health Services project. I had never been to Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. By that time, I had a fair amount of training and facilitation experience, but mostly in Latin America. What would it be like in Nigeria? Could I use the same training games that I had used successfully in Latin America? After all, most of them worked pretty well when I tried them in two European countries, and these same games worked in the Middle East. I didn’t know why I was able to use them successfully in all these different places or why the participants seemed to enjoy them, but they did.

So, I gave it a try. I played these games with my team of new Nigerian trainers. After some minor tweaks to instruction delivery, we used those games in all of the supervisory skills training sessions, and they worked well every time. Over the years as I continued doing development work, I incorporated more games and exercises into the mix. Some went into my toolkit permanently, some didn’t. It seemed that even if the exercise was challenging, the instructions and what we were trying to achieve by using them had to be relatively easy to understand and follow. As my toolbox grew, I selected particular ones for work-planning workshops, team-building sessions, and management and leadership programs and used them with local teams in countries from Peru to Mozambique to Azerbaijan, and they translated well. One thing was consistent across countries — the participants were all adults. In each place they laughed, they struggled, they collaborated, they competed — and they played, they had fun, and they learned.

I shared this phenomenon with Mark Sachs, a colleague and friend who leads the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network (CBODN) DC Area OD Practitioners Community of Practice. He asked if I would do a session on these games that work around the world, especially on international development programs. I enlisted a co-facilitator, my Global Health Division colleague Alexis Katzelnick-Wise, so that we could easily manage a group of more than 20 participants. Who knew there would be so much interest in this topic? As we prepared for this 90-minute session, we selected a variety of individual, small-group, and large-group games from my toolbox.

As we developed our session plan, we wondered what these games and exercises had in common. Would that help explain why they seemed to work with different cultures? The participants were all adults so we started there, and reached an "aha" moment. We looked up information on adult learning, specifically Malcolm Knowles’ six main characteristics of adult learners, which I had learned about years before when I was just starting my training career. Here is what Knowles said: adult learners are typically self-directed/autonomous, they utilize knowledge and life experiences, they are goal-oriented, they are relevancy-oriented, they highlight practicality, and they encourage collaboration. The group exercises all seemed to bring out or match those characteristics. We hypothesized that the best games to use with adults cover these six areas. There are probably other, more theoretical bases, but at least we had one explanation.

We discussed this notion with the participants and they found it a plausible rationale but also noted that the games Alexis and I chose also all had a certain level of analytical skills bias. Perhaps so. And a few of the participants had also used some of these games and exercises before and said that they had good luck with them with different types of participant groups (including in the public and private sectors), some from the U.S., some from other countries.

It was fun to watch how engaged everyone got in the games; they were serious players. The time to play the games was way too short but the evaluations showed that folks had fun and learned something, which we were pleased to hear. So it seems that adults around the world are like kids all over — we all like to have fun and if we can have fun learning, so much the better!

So much of our work in development involves building the capacity of others so that the change we are trying to create can live on long after the project is over. It is critical that participants leave training sessions with new or reinforced knowledge and skills as well as the ability to apply those skills, but that is easier said than done. Additionally, while having fun is important in these games, it is equally important to modify these games with culturally appropriate examples for each new group. Over the years I have found that regardless of the subject matter or the level of the participants, games and exercises can enhance the learning experience and make learning fun. And if we have fun, we tend to remember!

Ellen Eiseman is a director in Chemonics' Global Health Division.

Posted in: Chemonics
Leave a Comment

From Entry-Level to Executive at Chemonics


I’ve had the honor of hiring a lot of people during my career at Chemonics. In the last few years while serving as senior vice president for our West and Central Africa and Haiti business unit, and now as senior vice president for Human Resources, I’ve made it a practice to have the final interview with every entry-level staffer my team hires. I do this not only because I think it’s important to meet potential colleagues, but also because I have an important message that I want to communicate to...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2016


From measuring countering violent extremism programs to explaining why land tenure matters, Chemonics’ staff have shared diverse opinions, experiences, and technical approaches on the Connections blog. Here are the 10 most popular blog posts in 2016: 10. Predicting Human Rights Violations Before They Happen by Laura Zambrano, deputy chief of party for the USAID Colombia Human Rights Activity. 9. Cambodia’s Shrinking Space for Civil Society and the Role of Donors by Morana Krajnovic, civil society...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

Market Development at the Nexus between Public and Private Sectors


The Sustainable Development Goals established an agenda for transforming the world in which we live. SDG1 sets for the ultimate objective for the global community: to end poverty in all of its forms by 2030. The remaining 16 SDGs identify critically interlinked objectives which are both necessary and sufficient to achieve this objective. They clearly illustrate that economic growth initiates should be viewed through the lens of a larger, more complex development problem – one that requires...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

A New Look, but the Same Chemonics


Today you may have noticed that Chemonics looks a little different. We have a new look and logo, which you can see on our website, our social media channels, and, of course, here on our blog. The new logo retains the heart of our old logo—the compass rose—and updates it to align more with who we are today. Another new addition is our tagline: development works here. We have never had a tagline before, but we felt that now was the right moment to share with the world what is important to us and...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

5 Surprising Facts About Indonesia — and Why They Matter for Global Development


There are several countries that often come up when people talk about international development and the global economy, countries that need not be listed because you can probably already name them. Indonesia is not usually among them, but as these five facts show, there is a lot at stake in this large and incredibly diverse country's development. Fact 1: Indonesia is a lot bigger than you think.  Source: The World Factbook It’s difficult to grasp just how large a country is, in part because we have...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

Looking Ahead to the Next 40 Years


In 2015, Chemonics celebrated our 40th anniversary. As such milestones often do, it provided us with an opportunity to look back at our history, plan for our future, and celebrate with our friends. I was especially gratified to see so many of our staff all over the world join the celebration. In many ways, looking back on our previous four decades has galvanized us for what is ahead, and 2015 was an amazing year for those of us who are passionate about improving the lives of people throughout the...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

Chemonics Mourns the Loss of Julia Naegele


In late September, we were saddened to learn that Julia Naegele, who had worked with Chemonics since 2012, was killed in a car accident in South Sudan. Julia was an inspiration to many of us at Chemonics, and we mourn her deeply. Her death is a terrible loss to our team and to her family. She committed her life to helping others in need. She was in South Sudan working on the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, part of an effort to identify the populations of South Sudan most in need of urgent...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

#Chemonics40: Celebrating the Past, Embracing the Future


Today, Chemonics celebrates our 40th anniversary. On July 14, 1975, our founder and first CEO Tony Teele began an incredible journey with just a development mission and a single employee. Forty years later, many things have changed. Chemonics has more than 2,800 employees worldwide, 94 percent of whom are local. We are 100-percent employee owned, which was a dream of Tony’s. We have implemented development projects in more than 145 countries worldwide. But one thing has never changed: our mission...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

#Chemonics40: Celebrating People


In 2015, Chemonics marks 40 years of advancing our development mission, of partnering with international and local organizations and clients, and of delivering lasting impact for our beneficiaries. Looking back at my 22 years with Chemonics, I am proud of many things. I am proud of the work we have done to improve people’s lives. I’m proud of the partnerships we have built, locally and internationally. And I am proud to have worked with so many wonderful people, whether it is our beneficiaries,...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »

Welcome to the Compass!


Welcome to the Compass, Chemonics’ technical blog. We are excited to start this new venture, our first corporate blog, because we strongly believe that sharing ideas and experience helps us learn, grow, and ultimately do better development. When we began considering the idea of blogging, we asked ourselves a few key questions. First, why start our own blog? And second, what would we add to the conversation? The answers to both questions tie back to our mission of helping people live healthier,...

Posted in: Chemonics
Read More »