by Donna Brandes


The bell rang, the door opened, the teacher stood aside, and we moved into the classroom . . . it was empty!  My first day of school, and not a picture, not a chair, not a desk.  EMPTY!  I couldn’t believe it.  We must have come to the wrong place.


But my mother was still leading me forward, looking quite unsurprised.  I sat on the floor in a corner of the room with the other children, and the teacher sat down among us.


She smiled at us and said, “I imagine you’re wondering why this doesn’t look like a classroom to you.  The reason it is this way is that it’s your room, and you can choose how you want it to be.  I will help you to make it any way you want it.”




“You can tell me all your ideas, all of them, and then we’ll choose.”




The ideas began to come slowly at first.


And six weeks later we had built a township, a functioning village, in the empty room.  We had a bakery with all shapes of cookies (biscuits to you), a pet shop with at least three guinea pigs, six white mice, and some baby chicks, and an assorted rotating population of our own pets.  We had a bank with real money, and a doctor’s office next to the chemists, which had a supply of antiseptics and plasters.  The shops were built like carnival booths and we had built them ourselves; perhaps the walls and shelves were crooked, perhaps our imaginations had to fill in the gaps in merchandise, my memory of it is that it was perfect, and we had built it, and we lived in it and played in it and worked in it.


Need I say that, in order to build it, we had been learning words to write on signs, and writing them, and measuring wood, and hammering nails, and adding sums, and baking bread and cookies?  And lots more.


The concept of starting from nothingness and moving through curiosity towards discovery, creativity, purposeful-as-opposed-to-rote learning, accruing knowledge and skills along the way, is not a new one (the incident described took place in 1940), and glorious lipservice has been paid to it in the intervening decades.  Perhaps drama teachers have been the most instrumental in advancing these kinds of teaching methods, the ones that are aimed at discovery, self-knowledge, and improved self-concept.  I have been in contact with hundreds of teachers in California and in England, and I don’t know very many who are willing to abdicate the position of being in possession of the Key to Learning and Knowledge, so that the learners can discover the key themselves.


The memory of that empty classroom, and others like it, shaped the kind of teacher I became twenty years later.  Over the eighteen years that I worked as a classroom teacher, drama specialist, Gestalt therapist and group leader, and then as a Lecturer, I found myself increasingly willing and able to be a facilitator of learning by emptying my mind and the environment of preconceived ideas and plans.  It was a very liberating feeling to shed the responsibility of all knowledge, wisdom, choice, assessment, passing of exams, and turn it over to the learners so that we could participate in the process together.


Among tools which I developed during those years, one of the most delightful, powerful, and effective was the use of Games.  Although some of the games were with me from my own childhood, and some from my training as a group leader and drama teacher, most of them I accumulated, invented, gleaned from the children, students and other teachers.  I learned how to use them purposefully to enhance the learning process and improve our communication with each other, our knowledge of ourselves, and our enjoyment of school.  I used to carry the games and ideas around with me on bits of envelopes and old shopping lists, in a plastic bag.


Then I found myself in the Teacher Training Game at Bede College in Durham, lecturing about humanistic methods of teaching, and spending a lot of time sitting in my office explaining the same games and ideas to dozens of individual students about to go on teaching practice.  And so, out of need, and finally laziness, the Gamesters' Handbook was born, and my ideas were compiled along with those of my friend and fellow drama teacher, Howard Phillips.



People have said to me, "Isn't there a danger of people using the book without knowing how?"  And others: "Perhaps the book should be banned from the classroom unless the teacher demonstrates that she knows how to use it."  My answer to that (apart from the fact that I am violently allergic to sentences which begin "Isn't there a danger of . . . .?". Yes, there's danger; life is dangerous unless you want to be a hermit or live in a padded cell, and growth comes from taking risks) is that the game can be played on a very simple level, just for fun, or on a continuum of more advanced levels, stretched, expanded, integrated into school curricula, drama, counseling and group work.  The beauty of the games we are discussing is that they are so highly adaptable and that they are non-competitive for the most part.  As a self-styled 'expert', I have played the games with every possible kind of group, including blind people, handicapped, elderly and mentally disturbed people, infants, students, social workers, teachers, doctors and nurses, and some of my best friends.  I have played them on the floor, in chairs, at desks, in the car, on airplanes, on a boat, and in the desert.  And one of the outcomes of all this experience is that I am firmly convinced that ANYONE can use the games constructively, even at the most matter-of-fact level, and that people can be quite easily trained to expand upon them and upon their uses.


Being Constructive

Games are not pointless activities.  Each game can have a different purpose which can always be defined - even fun is purposeful.  Games can help sort out problems, the kinds of problems found in inter-personal relationships.  They can help social inadequacy by developing co-operation within groups, develop sensitivity to the problems of others through games needing trust, and promote inter-dependency and a sense of personal identity.


Games can also enable the promotion of effective communication.  Their usefulness in this direction cannot be over-emphasised.  By helping people to relax in groups, games can promote the flow of communication between complete strangers - particularly important with shy people who need additional encouragement.


The 'role-playing' aspects of many games provide the security which enables group members to develop their ideas and express themselves.  The enjoyment that can be generated by games does more than anything to develop a group identity.  This fun can act as the basic ingredient for any group, and can develop cohesion and an open, accepting atmosphere more readily than anything else.


Equal Status

Sitting in a circle, rather than in rows of chairs or in a random setting, can influence group dynamics.  It gives the same status to everyone, including the leader, and allows a much greater degree of eye contact.  Within the circle people should be able to voice their opinions or feelings without the risk of being judged or laughed at.  It is up to the leader of the group to ensure that this freedom is understood and respected.


A 'round' is the process whereby each person, progressing around the circle in turn, makes a statement completing one of the following: I noticed . . . (particularly good for films, etc.); I discovered (especially after a new experience or game); I wish . . . ; I learned . . . ; I appreciate . . . .  The latter two are highly recommended for evaluating an experience.  One round of 'I resent' followed by one round of 'I appreciate' enables everyone to express both negative and positive feelings, in that order


When doing rounds, everyone must listen quietly to the person speaking, and no comments are to be made, even by the leader.  If a statement is made that necessitates discussion, this should be saved until after the rounds are completed.  Anyone can refuse a turn by saying 'I pass', and there should be no comment about this either.  This structure can be used for many purposes, including discussing and evaluating anything from a film or a game to a personal experience, planning group meetings, problem solving, and positive reinforcement.


The Waiting Game

This approach can remove a great deal of the need for maintaining discipline on the part of the leader.  Tell the group that you are not going to fight for their attention or quiet, that whenever they are together as a group for instruction or discussion, you will just wait until they are ready to listen.  Tell them that it is called the 'waiting game' and that you will not take responsibility for getting their attention, that they must take it for themselves.


The leader's waiting must have a quality of nothingness - no resignation or martyred patience - all questions and interruptions must be ignored.  It must also be a non-threatening attitude; don't worry about the time you are wasting.  If you persevere with them in the beginning, you will save great quantities of time and effort later.


Remember, the idea behind the waiting game is that the members of the group take responsibility for how they are behaving, not the group leader.  If they use the group time at first to chat with each other, they will soon get bored and express a preference for active happenings.  You must be patient and consistent, and play it every time or it will not work.


Whatever problems or concerns you are having with any given group are not your problems, they are the group's problems, so don't try to solve them at home when lying in bed at night.  Tell the problem to the group and ask for ideas or feelings about it.  Remember, you are as much a member of the group as anyone else; you should share your feelings and problems with them if you want real group interaction.


Attitude Test

The leader has to have certain basic attitudes in order to use the games effectively.  If these attitudes are not authentic, or only superficial, the others in the group will be able to sense the pretence.  In fact, it would be ideal if prospective leaders and users of the Gamesters' Handbook had to pass an attitude test.  Try it for yourself.  Just read the following questions and answer them in your head - honestly (who do you think you're kidding anyway?).

Merging with the group

Are you willing to give up the hierarchy and stop being the authority figure who has all the answers?


Are you willing to hand over responsibility to the individuals in the group?


Are you willing to truly accept any answer that comes?


Are you willing to be there as a facilitator and give control to each person in the group?


Do you really believe that eeryone is capable of taking responsibility for him or herself?

Losing your investment in how things go

Can you stand the uncertainty of not knowing how any game and situation might turn out?


Can you adopt a fail-safe attitude that says, "there is no way things can go wrong because, whatever happens, I can help the group to learn from it"?


Can you give up always being right about everything?

Accepting others

Can you accept that your way of thinking/believing  may not fit everybody?


Can you refrain from imposing your will on others?


Do you react negatively to anyone who looks, acts, speaks, dresses, behaves, thinks, values things differently from the way you think they should?  (Come on, everybody has to say 'yes' to that one if they are being honest.)

Having a sense of humour

Will your sense of humour stretch to letting you see the funny side of any situation you get into?

How did you do on the test?  That's OK!  I really believe that you can train yourself to be a facilitating, accepting, non-judging, fun-loving leader.




I'm not talking about being permissive (horrible word).  In fact that's incongruous because you also have to give up the idea of permission.


The standards set for a group like this are very strict and I as leader have to be assertive about working towards them.  I have to know what I want and make it very clear.  We are going to listen to each other and value each other's contribution, even though we may not agree.  We are going to learn from each other.  Each of us is 100 per cent responsible for how this group goes.  Each of us can make the group into a learning experience - or sabotage that effort.


Again, I am not talking about being 'permissive'.  But the above goals are reached by being very patient and acknowledging positive behaviour.  Being willing to remind people over and over again of what we're trying to accomplish.  Any hint of punishment or personal rejection will take me away from the goal of self-responsibility for each member of the group.  When a trace of authoritarianism creeps in, it is difficult to get back to the cohesiveness we were starting to build.


Building Trust

I could write a separate book on how trust develops in a group - it's a by-product of all the attitudes mentioned above.  I can only evoke trust by being trust-worthy.  If I don't mean what I say, keep my agreements, communicate what I am doing and intending to do, then my leadership turns into manipulation.  If I don't absolutely trust the people I'm working with (or at the very least communicate about and clear up my distrust) how can I expect anyone else to trust me?


[This is the first half of this article.  It will be concluded in our next issue.]


[This article was first published in the Bulletin of the Group Relations Training Association (GRTA) in June 1982.  Eleven years later, with Donna Brandes' kind permission, I published an abridged version in the Winter 1993 issue of Groupvine that I was then editing for GRTA.  I have recently made contact again with Donna in Perth, Western Australia and hope she may let us have an update in due course.  (Joe Sinclair - Editor)]


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Gamesters Handbook: 140 Games for Teachers and Group Leaders
by Donna Brandes, Howard Phillips
Trans-Atlantic Pubns Inc; ISBN: 0748703411; Teacher edition (December 1995)