Adding a Little SPARK

How do you get ready to work with a group of people that you don’t know?
How do you get ready to work with a group of people that you do know?
How do you get your mental engines warmed up for the task ahead of your team?

While there are many answers to these questions, my favorite one is to add a little SPARK.

I was introduced to the idea of a SPARK during one of the first design thinking sessions I attended. At the very start of the session, we played a game called “Zip, Zap, Zop.” We formed a circle with all of the people attending and played catch with an imaginary ball. The “ball” was passed around, and across, the circle with either a zip, zap, or zop sound. As it was “caught”, it quickly was passed to the next person with another zip or zap or zop. Laughs and smiles were everywhere. Some people missed that the ball even came to them! One person “dropped” the ball with an overacted fumble, which brought even more laughs. As we played, the group of strangers fell into a rhythm. Eye contact became constant, as did concentration. People became creative with their catches and throws as the ball was passed behind their back or between their legs. In just four short minutes, this group became unified, energized and playfully imaginative. In short, we were SPARKed!

— Author’s Aside: I’ve never been told what SPARK actually stands for. Many internet searches have turned up fruitless. My questions to SPARK facilitators have been replied to with shrugged shoulders. Heck, I don’t even know if it is supposed to be capitalized! I’m not saying that the term hasn’t already been defined, I just haven’t found it. But just in case it hasn’t been defined, I thought I’d throw out a few ideas to see if any stick… 🙂

A SPARK (Spontaneous Performance Action Requiring Kreativity) is often done to help energize a group. At the start of an early morning workshop, or when the the afternoon is starting to drag, getting up and moving can quickly get the brain in gear – check the tweet to the right for evidence… (sure it’s for kids, but aren’t we all kids at heart?)  And once that brain is going, the creative juices rise to the surface of your grey matter, making them much more accessible and ready to be used as fuel for the imagination!

Another reason to SPARK (Showing People Acting Really Kool) is to help create a social connection between participants through a common experience. You might think of this as an ice breaker or rapid team building exercise. An activity that gets strangers interacting with each other, especially in a light-hearted way, is a sure step towards creating collegiality in a freshly formed team. And having that collegiality in place improves the ease with which the team exchanges ideas, collaborates, and functions overall.

A SPARK (Special Process Activating Repressed Kleverness) also helps establish a positive posture towards mistakes. Typically when someone makes a mistake they cringe and get mad, or self-conscious and shut-down. When someone makes a mistake in the midst of a SPARK, however, they typically laugh and joyfully try again. Specific attention is brought to this jovial reaction by the facilitator, and a request is made that all mistakes are reacted to in this way – with a smile and an “I’m learning” attitude.

But a SPARK (Sudden Public Assembly Recreating Kontemplation) can also be an activity for reflection. After an intense learning/working experience involving a team effort, it is good to stop… take a breath… maybe even take another breath… and think about all that was accomplished by you and your team. Such reflections can be whole group shares, or smaller subgroups. In any case, they should become part of the community conversations that have taken place over the course of the work. (Note: the group reflection does not replace the individual reflection that should take place too; the individual time can be taken pre- or post- group reflection, with enriching benefits to the individual no matter when it happens)

Hannah Fox, the author of the improvisation book Zoomy Zoomy, sums up the reasons for using these SPARK games quite nicely:

These games create a space for us to play together and connect with our joy; they also develop imagination, confidence, critical thinking, trust, connection, and understanding with groups.

Most of the time, the reasons for doing a SPARK overlap – they can be both energizing and an ice breaker for instance. And a particular activity can be used to emphasize one aspect more in one setting, and then the same activity could emphasize something else in a different setting. The choice is often up to the facilitator.

Though the reasons to SPARK might shift, the vital components of a quality SPARK activity do not.

  • It must build empathy between the participants. A common experience becomes a bonding moment that just-recently-made-ex-strangers can reconnect with, as they continue to connect with each other.
  • It must involve some degree of physical movement. It can be something as bold as a game of tag, or as subtle as switching seats to the other side of the room. The mind and body are linked, and the road to an active mind passes through an active body.
  • It must involve eye contact with people. Whether in a design thinking session where interviews and noticing non-verbal queues are valuable insights, a MakerEd session where do-it-together observations can lead to associations and innovations, or just working through the day-to-days of a typical meeting, a people-centered communications approach is invaluable.
  • It must have a low entry barrier to participation. Playing a 5-on-5 basketball game can provide all of the benefits that a SPARK game can, but there is a certain skill level needed to actually play the game. Additionally, there is specialized equipment that is required. And not to mention some folks might have issues with playing a game that makes them recall their buried middle school gym class nightmares. 🙂 The SPARK should be simple to learn and simple to participate in.
  • It must be fun. Above all, the SPARK should be playful and enjoyable. There’s already enough work and stress to go around. Let the play back into your life and watch your creative confidence soar!

These games inspire laughter, spontaneity, ensemble building, physical and vocal expression, concentration, self-discovery/reflection, self-esteem, and ultimately, I believe good health. They get adults, and teenagers too, playing again, which is no small feat.” –Hannah Fox

So where can you find examples of SPARKs that you might want to use in your next team meeting? You’ll have some of your best luck searching for improv games – many of the facilitators that I’ve talked to have pointed me towards this form of theater to get ideas. Below you will also find some links to resources that I’ve used. The list is linked to my Diigo library, so as I find more sources, they’ll show up here. You can also find a few pictures from some of the workshops I’ve facilitated where we did a little SPARK work as well. If you have other resources to share, please include them in the comments below for all to benefit from.


This resource section contains SPARKs that are separated into four categories – Energizers, Ice Breakers, Creative Confidence, Reflection – based upon the blog post above. These categories are certainly not mutually exclusive, as the way that each is facilitated can be modified to fit the context and needs of a particular situation; a SPARK is often chosen because the type of thinking the activity requires is the exact type of thinking needed in the anticipated work that will be done.

What follows is a list of SPARKs I’ve personally facilitated with… and found a video or step-by-step instructions for (or at least games that could be remixed to create something similar). This list will be updated as time allows, but continue to refer to the Diigo Linkroll above for the latest SPARKs I’ve stumbled upon.


  • Epic Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournaments – A classic series of hand-to-hand battles, with an ever-growing throng of crazed supporters! Losers become the winner’s biggest fans, and hopefully, follow them to the championship round!
  • Jump in / Jump Out – A group game of physical action and mental focus to get a team energized, and laughing about mistakes.

Ice Breakers

  • High School Buddies Reunion – Meet and greet game that remixes Handshake Buddies with The Mingle Game. Three rounds to re-live that epic nickname, that secret handshake, and that killer dance move from your teenage days!
  • Sheriff, Bandit, Victim – A three-person SPARK that is great at promoting awareness in the participants. “The skill is looking at what’s there, looking at what’s needed, and becoming what’s needed.”

Creative Confidence

  • Snap, Clap, Stomp – a paired game where 1, 2 and 3 are eventually replaced by a snap, a clap, and a stomp. It’s all about realizing that making mistakes and realizing that everything is still okay… and smiling about it.
  • I Am A Tree – a group game that helps build collaborative creativity through both physical and verbal improvisation.
  • One-Liners – an individual SPARK where people channel their inner Picasso in order to draw a randomly selected animal using only one continuous line. The big takeaway behind this activity is being able to distill complicated chaos into simplistic purity – similar to how one might have to determine what the core element of a larger issue is. (Here is the Picasso article with pictures and an explanation behind his reason for pursuing this skill, and a link to a random animal generator to help pick out the critter people will draw.)


  • Whip Around – a structured conversation that allows everyone the chance to say something, or pass if they want to, and for the facilitator to get a brief snippet of what the group is thinking.
  • Toss the Ball – A remix of Whip Around and The Talking Stick, but it uses a ball instead. (By the way, the Talking Stick is really all about listening – talking is easy; listening is hard)
By Jim Tiffin Jr (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

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