Student Engagement

Phrase Ball

Material Needed: A Nerf or other soft ball
Time Required: 15-20 minutes
Group Size: 5-40
Purpose: Public speaking, adjusting to change, problem solving

  1. Arrange participants into a circle, and tell them they will now discover how talented they are at speaking extemporaneously.

  2. The members of the circle will toss the ball to one another, at the same time speaking a simple, descriptive phrase; ("the placid lake, the little girl, the beautiful city skyline, the terrifying grizzly, the soft Nerf(tm) ball, etc.) Tell them that since there are no rules, there are also no wrong phrases! Have the group take turns tossing and speaking until everyone has gotten confident with their ability to come with a phrase (this usually takes less than 5 minutes). When you feel this has happened, wait for the next time the ball is thrown to you and hold on it.

  3. Congratulate them all on their verbal virtuosity, and tell them they have moved ahead to the advanced level with astonishing speed. Tell them they will not play the game again, this time with only one rule: Their phrases must relate to the phrase that came before. That is, one person will say a phrase and toss the ball, and the person catching it will add onto that phrase.

  4. Try a couple of passes. Toss the ball and say: "the idle cannibal..." The person catching must now say something like, "picking his teeth." (Applaud him to encourage the rest.) This person will then throw the ball to someone else, saying perhaps, "the soft, summer  clouds..." And whoever catches it might say, "floating across the sky". That person turns and tosses it so someone else, saying, "the angry two-year old..." That person catches it and says, "yelling her head off". And so on.

  5. Do this until, once again, everyone seems comfortable with the ability to speak extemporaneously, at least most of the time. Express your admiration and ask your learners to sit down.

Debrief/ Discussion Questions:

  1. What were your thoughts or feelings when the ball got tossed to you? Did these change as the game progressed?

  2. How comfortable were you in coming up with something to say in the moment? Did you censor or evaluate your contributions?

  3. What round was easier for you, round one or two? As a speaker, how could your presentations improve if you focused on responding to your groups instead of impressing them?

  4. How does all this apply to making your presentations? Does being spontaneous mean you shouldn't carefully prepare yourself? [Answer: No!]

  5. KEY POINT: Once you've prepared- written, rewritten, and rehearsed your presentation- what do you have to do next? [Answer: Get ready to play with the unexpected...because it will happen].

  6. Note:

  7. If your learners consistently have trouble with this game, it is because they are pressuring themselves to be clever- to come up with poetic, funny or unusual phrases. Keep reminding them that the point is to be spontaneous and impromptu. Tell them they don't have to worry about their originality. It will show up by it self; in fact they can't repress it. For the moment, their challenge is to dare to be banal- to just go with the first idea that occurs to them. Then swallow your pride and model this for them every time the ball comes your way!

Tamblyn, D., Weiss, S. (2000). The Big Book of Humorous Training Games. New York. McGraw-Hill. P 141-143

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