As early educators, we know we need to create a positive, supportive, and trusting environment for the children and families we serve. In order to do this, we must also build those values into our team culture. Every member of your staff will be better able to do their jobs when they feel valued, trusted, and heard.
This is where team-building comes in. For many, the thought of “team-building” calls to mind forced group fun, awkward games, a distraction from the real work, and concerns about cost. These are all valid concerns, and potentially grounded in your lived experience. The reality is that there are too many benefits to building a strong team culture not to try. A strong team culture is associated with higher job satisfaction, employee retention, and fewer interpersonal conflicts. At the end of the day, caring for young children is challenging, and we need to be able to rely on our teammates in both big and small ways.
Here are some ideas for creating fun, valuable, and affordable team-building experiences for your unique staff.
Ideas for team-building events
For many programs, team-building experiences are concentrated in just a handful of training days. While these days likely have some business that must be covered, you can incorporate team-building games throughout the day. Think of them as productive brain breaks that are an enabler of real work, not a distraction from it.
Given the realities of COVID, not all of these ideas will be feasible right away, or they may need to be adapted for social distancing. You should feel free to take them and run in whatever direction best suits the needs (and safety) of your team.
Ahead of your next big training day, request everyone send in 2-3 facts about themselves that their colleagues don’t already know. Assemble them on a large grid (similar to a Bingo card), and give each person a copy of the grid at the start of the day. The goal is to identify who each fact belongs to. This will encourage people to break out of their immediate teaching teams and have conversations with other people. At the end of the day give out prizes for people who fill in the most squares or achieve Bingo.
This is a fun and creative game that pushes people out of their comfort zone, and is essentially a hybrid of the games pictionary and telephone. This works best in groups of 5-6 people. Give everyone a piece of blank paper and a pen.
To kick the game off everyone will write a sentence at the very top of their paper. Everyone passes their paper to the right. The next person’s job is to read the sentence to themselves and draw a picture of the sentence. After drawing the picture, you will fold the sentence backwards so the next person cannot see it. When everyone is done drawing, you pass your papers to the right again. This time, the person will see the picture that was drawn and write a sentence describing the picture. Before passing the paper on to the next person, they’ll fold the image backwards again, so only the sentence is showing.
The game continues like this until everyone has had a turn with each paper, or you run out of space. Then, spend time reading through the sentences and images and laughing at the silly misunderstandings along the way.
Some tips: people may be quick to say things like, “But I’m not good at drawing,” and you should reassure them that it doesn’t matter—this game is funnier with every level of skill. In fact, if people are too realistic in drawing, it makes the sentence writing too easy.
Encourage people to draw small pictures so you can fit several on a single page. Don’t overthink it!
Walk and talk
Preschool teachers are not used to sitting still for long periods of time. Take advantage of brain and body breaks by matching people up to go on quick walks together. You can match people up in groups of 2-3, depending on the size of your team, and send them out for a stroll around the building or around the block. You can even give people a conversation prompt or question to discuss.
- If you could live anywhere on the planet and take everything that you love with you, where would you choose to live?
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
- If you had to eat one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- What would the title of your autobiography be?
- What fictional family would you be a member of?
- What’s your ideal day off?
Have a quick debrief when everyone gets back by asking each team member to share one thing they learned about their walking partner.
This can be a great way to perk up after a lunch break and give everyone a chance to get some fresh air. Set up an obstacle course for your team to traverse. You can use jump ropes as balance beams, milk crates to step or jump over, hula hoops as stepping stones, etc. Don’t worry, the obstacle course itself doesn’t need to be too elaborate or challenging. Pair people up in groups of two, and then blindfold one person. The person without the blindfold will have to help guide the blindfolded person through the course.
Instruct everyone to split up and gather three items from their classrooms, but without any further instruction on how they’ll be used. When everyone returns, break them into small groups.
Tell the groups that they are now stuck on a deserted island together and the items they just retrieved are all they have to survive. Give everyone time to brainstorm and share.
Have groups take turns sharing out their funny, resourceful, and absurd survival stories.
We all know that in-service days can be precious and rare, and you probably want to commit to team-building more than just once or twice a year. Here are some ideas for how to create a culture of team-building every day.
Create a system in which teammates can give each other recognition for their hard work. This could be virtual or hand-written. If you have a weekly email you send out to your staff, consider including the high-fives there. You can request your staff submit their high-fives to you over email (or using a free Google form if you want them to be anonymous).
Alternatively, if you want to go low-tech and have a physical staff bulletin board on display, you can create a drop-box where teammates can write and share their high-fives. You can then display them on the staff bulletin board to make sure they get visibility.
It can be really nice to recognize special holidays, milestones, and birthdays, and if you’re like a lot of other centers, you don’t have any budget to do this. Consider scheduling the occasional potluck for your team to come together and celebrate with food.
Keep in mind that asking people to contribute in this way can sometimes be a burden, and people won’t always feel comfortable sharing if they’re unable to provide food. So think about ways to make sure this isn’t becoming a stressor for people. For example, depending on the size of your team, you could pick one day in a month and celebrate all of the birthdays, milestones, etc. on the same day, rather than over multiple days.
Family-friendly after work outing
It can be difficult to plan social events outside of work hours because everyone has a variety of obligations that could begin as soon as they’re off the work clock. Think about what kind of local, convenient, and inclusive outings you and your team might be able to schedule. Is there an outdoor skating rink you can all go to in the winter for an afterwork skate? When the weather's warm, is there a free evening outdoor concert where you can set up a group picnic?
If you have bookworms in your center, it might be fun to create a book club. It could be focused on ECE-related books, or completely unrelated to your work. If you’re concerned about commitment level, it could just be an article club, featuring a longer, meatier article. If it’s possible to arrange lunch schedules and coverage so the club can discuss what they’re reading over lunch, even better! If that’s not possible, your members will at least have something to discuss in passing in the kitchen and teacher break room.
Walk, run, jog, there’s something for every fitness level. Once a week or once a month schedule a time for teammates who want to walk, run, or jog together to get out together. This can be a great way to support everyone’s fitness goals, while also giving teammates a chance to chat in a more casual setting. This is totally optional, but your walking/jogging club might even want to sign up for a 5k together and run as a team.
Keep creating a supportive team culture year-round
Building a cohesive and functioning team is not something that happens overnight, but rather takes time and attention. After all, things that are worthwhile are usually not easy. When you’re feeling uncertain about whether or not this should be a priority, remember that creating a work environment that is positive, playful, and built on trust will benefit everyone at your center, including the parents and their children.
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