Summer Team Building: The Gym is Flooded!

The River

By Todd Novak and Matt Kiesow

This is one of our signature events during the 10-day Summer Connections program. It tests the mettle of freshman and mentor alike. It is organized chaos that results in impactful reflection. It makes teams, and it challenges individuals. It’s called The River, and we love it.

The Philosophy of The River

Conceptually, The River is a giant game of lava. When I was in early elementary school, my sisters and I turned our living room into Lava. The carpet was lava and anything we could throw on the floor would keep us out of trouble. Pillows, blankets, books, and anything else we could find were our stepping stones to get from one side of the living room to the other. If we touched the carpet, we died.

The River is taking that concept, putting it into a massive gym, and designing it for 75 people.

The activity is designed around interdependence. Students start and finish together. They fail together. They must accommodate those failures by going back and retrieving people. It’s designed to be large, experiential, and difficult. The intensity is  something they won’t forget. To those who participate fully, to the victors, and to the spirited, it is a great adventure across a gym floor.

Here’s how we put it all together.


For EACH team:

  • Four circular poly spots. (Each spot is about 8” in diameter.)

  • 2 softball bases (soft and 12”x 12”)

  • 1 large exercise ball (optional)

  • 1 frisbee

  • 1 scooter

  • 1 rope

General supply items:

  • 10 gymnastic mats

  • 12 large cones

  • 12 carpet squares

  • Find tall objects to spread throughout the gym floor as barriers and for visual appeal. These objects aren’t always a part of the game, but the game is played around them. For example: Shooting machines, rolled-up floor mats, platforms, etc.  (Use your P.E. equipment room as a resource.)

  • Whatever else you can find that looks interesting.


Little Theater for opening discussion

Large gymnasium for game play


  • Bleachers at one end of the gym are pulled out about six rows.

  • Place items for each team on the first row of the bleachers, equally spaced

  • Create a path from one “shore” to the other “shore” that includes a narrative for why and specific rules for how. (More explanation below.)  

Teacher Role/Responsibilities -

The role of judge in this activity is crucial. There has to be a good balance between justice and mercy, between following the rules and helping to equal out the race. To go too far in either direction takes away from the activity. Students become frustrated if the judge is too strict. Students can also become disinterested if rules are not followed and the activity loses its integrity. It’s good to be very picky at the beginning and then provide mercy to teams that are lagging behind in order to give them a little boost.

Mentor Role/Responsibilities -

The mentors are in it. It’s their job to keep things going and play fair. They can provide a great deal of integrity to the activity in the manner in which they play. It’s one of the attributes we train to, and it is nowhere more important than here. Play to win and play by the rules.

Presentation -

This activity has two distinct phases. We will provide the Presentation for Phase I and then the Play for Phase I followed by the Presentation for Phase II and then then Play for Phase II.

Presentation - Phase I in the Little Theater

Alright, freshmen! We have a problem. We are still going to the main gym but we are going to need to be careful. There was a water main that broke this morning and the gym floor is covered with flowing water. We’ll need to be very careful as we enter the room, and you’ll need to head up to the bleachers. You must stay out of the water!

Move the students into the gym. When we have done this well, students are looking at the gym floor trying to find the water. Once the students are in groups on the bleachers, continue:

As you can see, a river is raging through this room. It is going very fast. But it’s a special kind of river. If you are over the age of 25, it doesn’t affect you. But if you are a high school student and so much as put a little finger against this raging water, you are sucked into the water and must swim back to the shore and start over.

Guidelines/Rules to include in the presentation:

  • The bases, rope, and carpet squares must be held or touched at all times when placed in the “water” otherwise they are swept away. If a base is placed in the water and no one is touching it, the teacher takes it away from the team.

  • The scooter can be pushed across the gym floor and not taken away.  

  • Each team has a frisbee. (An exercise ball can be used to equalize teams if one team is much smaller than the others.) The frisbee may never tough the water or the entire team must start over.

  • The goal of Phase I is to get the entire team from the bleachers to a gymnastic mat that is waiting for each team. That mat is about ⅓ the length of the gym from the bleachers.

  • When the entire team is across the river, they must grab the frisbee and raise it above their heads and yell a chosen phrase three times very loudly.

  • Students may not stand on the scooter.

  • Students may not carry each other on their backs.

  • The frisbee must be activated by throwing it from a student standing on something in the water and a student standing at the finish line on the gym mat. It must be thrown across water. This could be 10 feet or 10 inches but the frisbee must be thrown to a person on the mat at the ending point of Phase I. If it is dropped, the entire team starts over.

Play - Phase I

After we explain the rules, we give teams a two-minute planning period to gather their team on the bleachers and prepare to play.

At the end of two minutes, we answer any questions. We then blow the whistle to begin play. If we have eight teams, we recruit another teacher so that a teacher is in the lane between every two teams during the activity.

Students begin to make their way across The River. If they leave a poly spot on the water with no one touching it, it is taken away with great effect.

Teachers will accumulate objects that are taken from teams. Some of those objects need to be returned at critical stages in order to keep play interesting and in some cases even possible.

The activity is over after all teams successfully make it across, unite under the frisbee, and yell a school cheer.

Presentation - Phase II

After students complete Phase I, teams need to gather the supplies they started with and return to the bleachers.

Once we get everyone back on the bleachers, we begin Phase II, which will cover the enter length of the gym.

Freshmen and mentors, you have successfully completed the first stage of The River. And now begins the journey to the far shore. The rules for getting to that far shore are much the same and the goal is the same: Get your entire team there. But there are a couple of new challenges in front of you.

First the frisbee. This frisbee has special powers. At the far end of the gym there is a line between the river and the shore. When the frisbee is thrown from the river to the shore and caught by a student standing on the shore, that student is changed. As long as this person has the frisbee touching the top of their head, they are no longer affected by the water and can move around the gym as they wish.

When throwing the frisbee from the water to the shore, the frisbee must not be dropped. If the frisbee is dropped, it remains on the shore and can never be used to “walk on water.” The entire team must also return to the starting line to begin the journey again.

Second, there are two islands (gymnastic mats) in The River. On each mat is a wand of power (lacrosse stick). When a team holds that stick with a straight arm high in the air, no other teams may touch that mat. It is now an owned island.

Third, there are a number of reefs (racks of chairs) jetting out in the middle of the gym. On those reefs  are extra supplies (Mats, poly spots, and carpet squares). Those supplies are for the taking.

Fourth, the flow of the river has lessened. When a poly spot is thrown on the floor, it no long needs to be touched. It can be dropped and will remain there for you to use.  

Fifth, once you make it to the end of the Phase I or beyond and fall into the water, you go back to the END of Phase I and restart from there.

Sixth, success is bringing the frisbee and your entire team to the far shore, raising the frisbee above your heads with all people touching it, and yelling your team’s cheer loudly three times.

Play - Phase II

We give teams a two-minute planning period, answer their questions, and then begin Phase II.

Teachers now have a much longer zone to supervise, but the fact that mats can be dropped and do not need to be picked up greatly reduces the work.

During play providing support and encouragement to lagging teams is critical.

Play is not over until all teams successfully complete The River. Those lagging teams will need additional support like extra polys pot or other helps to encourage them, but all teams must complete the activity.

Process -

At the end of The River students are hot and sometimes bothered. We move back to the bleachers or to the Little Theater where we started to conduct the process.

As with any competitive sport, there is much more to the game than who finished first or second or third. And so it is with The River.

The purpose of competition in Summer Connections is to drive conversation. It drives an internal conversation as students observe themselves. It drives the conversation between freshmen as they struggle to communicate their ideas to their peers. It drives the conversation between mentors and freshmen as mentors endeavor to lead and freshmen strive to be heard. Competition exposes agendas, reveals strengths, creates buy-in, inspires risk, and fashions a common experience.

We now take time to process the competition beyond a win/lose situation and move it toward learning.

One way we bring that learning to light is with “Three Claps”. As we gather in the Little Theater or on the bleachers, we start to tell stories. We train mentors in advance to successfully complete this task. One at a time, mentors stand up and tell a quick story of success and mention a specific freshmen by name. At the end of the story, the rest of the students clap three times. The mentor sits down and another mentor jumps up and does the same thing. We do this until the mentors run out of observations. We then open it up for the freshmen to stand up and tell a story about other freshmen.

Despite the intensity of The River, going through “Three Claps” is a great way to refocus and reflect on what happened and to celebrate together.

We then transition to what this means for the transition to high school. That’s why we are here and so we ask these questions as well:

Why did we add this activity to Summer Connections?

How can this help you in high school?

How can this help you help someone else in high school?

Scoring -

There are three different scores that are earned during The River.

  1. Phase I - 15, 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, 1, pts.

  2. Phase II - 30, 27, 24, 21, 18, 15, 12, 9 pts.

  3. Spirit Award - 10 pts.  (The team that shows the greatest team spirit is awarded these points the following day.)

If you are interested in looking at the draft copy of all that we do in the summer, you can click HERE.