When I was younger, hearing the term ‘teen leadership activities’ often came with a sense of dread. Immediately I would assume that these activities would be boring and unmemorable; so I never wanted to participate, and thought of myself as far from a leader. I was never the loudest person in the room; I wasn’t one to raise my hand, and I would shudder at the thought of giving a speech in front of people. Maybe you’re feeling nervous just reading these thoughts, too.
That all changed when I attended The YES Camp. The YES took what I thought leadership was, acknowledged it, but also expanded on it. They defined leadership in a new and exciting way for me. While leaders could still be successful giving speeches and being loud, the word was also suddenly associated with things like growth, self-awareness, empathy, cooperation and resilience. These are things that we all value and all want to improve whether we’re a teenager or not.
The activities we use at The YES help with teen leadership development at key moments of their lives; and they allow us to understand that the identities we take, or the way we choose to perform come with different benefits and disadvantages –– being able to pinpoint them can allow us to work with them instead of against them. Activities shouldn’t tell teens if they are a leader or not, but what kind of leader they already are and how they can be challenged to grow. Whether you’re a more mindful planner, or a loud and energetic motivator, there are valuable roles for every teenager to fit into. At The YES, we make sure that we can help teens explore who they are and who they want to be through a variety of leadership activities that are engaging, educational, fun and inclusive. Keep reading below for some of our favourites!
1. Spider Web
What You Need: Yarn or rope, and two trees or sturdy poles
In this activity, you’ll need to set up yarn or rope between two trees or poles to create a spider web effect - make sure that the holes of the web are different shapes and sizes, but keep in mind that all of them should be big enough for a person to fit through. Challenge participants to work together to get everyone through the web. The catch: you can’t go through the same hole twice! This activity allows participants an opportunity to work together cooperatively to make a plan to get everyone through the web.
It requires teamwork as some participants may need to be carried through higher holes, as well as trust by those being carried. Co-operative leadership can look like several roles in this activity: planners, listeners, and action-takers, and youth are able to discover what role they tend to fall into, as well as a chance to try to challenge themselves to try out another role. For an extra challenge, ask participants to not communicate verbally or split them into teams and see who can do it fastest! As always, much of the learning comes from discussing the activity afterwards, and hearing from individuals and the group to find out how they overcame the challenge, and what insights they had along the way.
What You Need: Big open space, tennis balls, blindfolds
For this activity, teens are separated into groups of three, each team stands at the edge of a rectangle on a field. Inside the rectangle are tennis balls scattered with no particular pattern. Each individual in a group takes on a role and stands in a specific position:
Person A has their eyes open and can see the entire field - they give directional instructions to Person B by whispering.
Person B has a blindfold on and listens to these whispered directions; their job is to communicate at whatever volume they wish to Person C.
Person C is the team’s ‘tank’ and their role is to listen to Person B’s instructions and find the tennis balls on the ground. Once a ball is found Person C should be instructed by their teammate, to underhand throw a tennis ball at an opponent tank to get them out.
Through tanks, teenagers are able to learn to work together on the best strategies to win a round. After each round, they should be allowed time to regroup to communicate about what they can do differently to improve their next attempts. This activity pushes youth to engage in their teamwork skills, communication skills, and planning, while also getting them to encourage healthy and goofy competition with one another.
3. Egg Drop
What You Need: Eggs, general supplies (scissors, tape, paper, cardboard, string, markers, etc), and cleaning supplies (for broken eggs)
For this activity, participants are put into small groups and have a limited number of supplies and time to build a container that will help their egg survive a drop. Giving this activity a time limit of about 15 minutes will give pressure to the activity, and allows participants to explore how they lead and what roles they take on in time-constrained situations, as well as an opportunity to think creatively about solutions with others. Making the drop as dramatic as possible with a drumroll or music always amps up this activity!
You can choose the intensity of this challenge by making the drop as low or as high as you like, and getting the teams to decorate and name their egg, introduce their team, and take an active role in the dropping ceremony.
4. Leader in Your Life
What You Need: Pen, paper
The facilitator instructs each participant to think of a person they really admire and to write their name down on a piece of paper. It could be a person they actually know, a celebrity, an athlete, a politician, etc. Everyone has leadership skills, including the person we’ve just written down. Under the person’s name, have participants write down what qualities they admire in this person. It’s awesome to have participants share with each other who they chose as it provides an opportunity for us to learn about what different leaders can look like. After sharing, get participants to cross off the name at the top and write their own name. Chances are they admire these skills because they’re applicable to themselves! They might be things they are good at, or they might aspire to be a leader in a similar way. Next, get the participants into small groups again to talk about this exercise and what they learned about themselves. This activity is great for when you’re in need of a more self-reflective leadership activity, and need a break from physical activities.
While the above list is just a small snippet of to the many summer camp activities that exist at The YES, impact also needs to be added to the fun and authenticity in leadership activities. Over the years, I’ve learned that it isn’t so much about what game is played but instead the reflections that are prompted at the end of an activity: what we call a debrief. Perspective taking and empathy are key learning strategies from The YES, and it’s most easily done through post-activity discussions that invite all experiences to be heard. These key conversations are prompted through open-ended questions and some examples are below:
What was that experience like for you?
What skills did you need to be successful in that activity?
What was challenging and what would you have done differently?
What roles did you take on?
Was there anything about this activity that reminded you of something at home or school? In what way?
These debrief conversations always opened up my eyes to what others were doing, and allowed me the opportunity to reflect on how I am similar to other teens, how I am different, what was in my blindspot, and where I can grow.
Looking back at the activities that I did at The YES as a teen, I can’t help but be grateful for them. They were so much fun that, at the moment, I may not have known how much they were helping me. Seeing The YES staff team dressed in their silly and ridiculous costumes always left me just as stunned as I was by their enthusiasm for wanting to know what our experiences were like during the activity. The effort and energy that you put into running an activity doesn’t go unnoticed, whether you’re channeling a goofy character, or being vulnerable in your truth – to get teenagers to commit, you need to role model commitment! This is what creates the fun. This is what creates authenticity. This is what creates a relationship that isn’t ‘you vs me’ but ‘us’.
My perspective of leadership changed when I went to The YES, as did many others', which you can read about on our Testimonial Page. I'm no longer fearful of leadership, but excited a about it. Leadership activities for teens work best when they’re a part of an experience with as many voices as possible. They work best when we invite teenagers from different backgrounds and contexts to embrace who they are, and encourage them to move towards common goals based on their own self-reflection, their care for others, and believing in their ability to make impactful decisions.
About the Author:
Shania Chand (she/her) is the Program Director of The Youth Excellence Society. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication, a Minor in Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, and a Certificate in Social Justice from Simon Fraser University.