How to Run the Paper Bridge Challenge: Instructions for a Facilitative Approach to Maximise Learning

The Paper Bridge Challenge is a popular team-building activity, and an entertaining way to explore meaningful learning outcomes like team skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and more. It’s a favourite amongst facilitators because it’s easy to run, and uses materials that are cheap and easy to get hold of.

We’ve written this blog post to guide facilitators through the process of running the Paper Bridge Challenge effectively, to ensure it delivers value to participants. We’ll also recommend more sophisticated activities that you can use to further develop the learning outcomes.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is the Paper Bridge Challenge
  • How to Use the Paper Bridge Challenge
  • Key Skills Developed
  • Instructions for the Paper Bridge Challenge
  • Discussion Topics
  • How to Win the Paper Bridge Challenge
  • Other Activities You can Use
  • Paper Bridge Challenge FAQs

Download your FREE Marshmallow Challenge resources

What is the Paper Bridge Challenge

The Paper Bridge Challenge is a team-building exercise that sees groups competing to build the most stable and sustainable bridge. By varying the criteria and the materials, facilitators can adapt the task to suit different learning outcomes and group abilities.

For example, you could set criteria like:

  • Length: the bridge must meet a specified minimum length to be valid, with the longest viable bridge being the winner
  • Strength: the bridge must be able to support a specified minimum weight, or to hold a specified object, to be valid, with any bridges unable to do so being disqualified
  • Design elements: the bridge must contain the specified design elements to be valid, with any non-compliant bridges being disqualified

The criteria you choose will depend on the ability of the group and the resources you have available. 

In terms of materials, our variation uses newspaper and sellotape as the building materials, but closely related bridge building challenge activities use things like:

  • Spaghetti strands with marshmallows to hold them together
  • Other items like lollipop sticks, tooth picks, drinking straws, and so on
  • Other joining materials like glue, string, or different types of tape

Whatever you decide to use, we recommend only providing a limited amount of materials to encourage discussion, planning, and creative thinking.

How to use the Paper Bridge Challenge

The Paper Bridge Challenge is often used to get participants thinking about design skills like prototyping, iteration, and failing quickly. It also encourages participants to use a range of team skills like collaboration, giving and receiving feedback, expressing ideas, building on the ideas of others, respecting others, reviewing progress, and more.

And while there are multiple ways to run the Paper Bridge Challenge – just head to Google and you’ll see slight variations in each version – we’ve written the instructions below to use a facilitative approach. 

By taking a facilitative approach to the Paper Bridge Challenge, facilitators can help participants to gain deeper insights into specific behaviours that helped and hindered their performance.

Key Skills Developed

  • Prototyping
  • Iteration
  • Failing quickly
  • Collaboration
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Expressing ideas
  • Building on the ideas of others
  • Respecting others
  • Valuing other’s contributions
  • Reviewing progress

Instructions for the Paper Bridge Challenge

Here’s how to run the Paper Bridge Challenge in 9 easy steps:

  1. Download your Paper Bridge Challenge resources
  2. Prepare your materials and the activity area
  3. Brief participants and split them out into groups
  4. Begin the activity
  5. Get building!
  6. Assess the bridges
  7. Declare the winner
  8. Review the activity
  9. (Optional) repeat steps 4-9

1. Download your Paper Bridge Challenge resources

You can grab our Paper Bridge Challenge resources right here. Inside you’ll find participant briefing slides, facilitator notes, and participant review sheets – all based on official MTa materials.

2. Prepare the building materials and activity area

The exact building materials you’ll need will vary depending on the criteria you set, but we’d recommend at least one full newspaper’s worth of paper for each team, along with a full roll of sellotape. If you’re judging by the bridge’s ability to support weight, make sure each group has the item their bridge needs to support.

The facilitator will need a pen, a participant brief per person, a review sheet per person, and the facilitator guide. You’ll also need a tape measure if you’re judging by length.

Participants will either need two surfaces with a gap between them, or one surface with two raised areas for the bridge to sit between (stacks of books, for example). Set each area with the materials needed for the teams. Place the review sheets face down.

3. Brief participants and split them out into groups

Use the briefing slides to brief participants, then optionally hand each participant a paper brief that they can refer back to during the task. 

When briefing the Paper Bridge Challenge, keep the following in mind:

  • Read the brief out as is, resist the urge to elaborate or answer questions from participants
  • Keep the energy high by starting the activity immediately after the briefing
  • Try to avoid subconsciously manipulating group behaviour, instead facilitating natural behaviour. This can be achieved by avoiding prescriptive or directive statements in favour of more guiding expressions (i.e. instead of saying “remember to involve everyone,” say “in this task, planning is important.”)

4. Begin the activity

Direct groups to their tables, set a timer for 20 minutes, and begin!

5. Get building!

Groups build their bridges in this step but, more importantly, they discuss and exchange ideas, negotiate a route forward, and iterate their design to meet the objectives. As interpersonal dynamics begin to unfold the discussion might get lively and you might be tempted to get involved, but we recommend letting them get on with it as much as possible.

6. Assess the bridges

When the timer runs out, get groups to stop building. Assess each bridge according to the criteria you set at the beginning of the task, making sure to:

  • Rank the bridges according to the key objective
  • Apply any penalties 
  • Make any disqualifications

7. Declare the winner

Announce the winner based on the outcome of step 6. You can award 2nd and 3rd place as well, then segue into the review process by reminding participants that this is the more 

8. Review the activity

Use the review sheets to get participants thinking about their performance during the task.

The experiential learning review process is designed to build on participants’ reflections on their performance, and to strengthen learning outcomes as a result. This shifts the focus of the task: instead of celebrating the team with the best bridge ‘winning,’ individuals and groups are invited to consider what helped and hindered performance, to think about what they would change going forward, and, if you follow step 9, to put these ideas into immediate practice.

9. (Optional) repeat steps 4-9, or use a different activity

Experiential activities are designed to be run multiple times, although when variables are kept the same the learning opportunities will steadily decrease on each repeat. This is a result of participants improving at the task itself rather than developing better team processes.  

Instead of repeating the Paper Bridge Challenge, you could use one of the following MTa activities:

  • Rectangle, from MTa Team Kit: this activity explores individual differences within teams and the power of diversity
  • Hoist, from MTa Insights: this activity is great for exploring interactions between teams

How to Build a Paper Bridge

Here are a few paper bridge ideas that might provide helpful prompts for groups who are completely stuck:

    • What structural elements are you using: which shapes are likely to be strongest? Bring to mind real bridges and think about common design elements.
  • How can you make the materials more sturdy: think about things like increasing thickness, layering, and so on.
  • Are there ways to increase structural integrity: while the sellotape is helpful for joining paper together, most improvements to the bridge’s structural integrity will come from how the paper is used.
  • Where are the weak points: if the bridge collapses, think carefully about how the specific points of weakness can be addressed.

And remember, the real way to ‘win’ the Paper Bridge Challenge is to reflect on learning outcomes and refine understanding of behaviours. When the task is facilitated experientially, the bridges themselves are incidental.

Other Activities You can Use

Each of the MTa activities below provides an opportunity to explore similar competencies to the Paper Bridge Challenge in an experiential context. 

Over the Bridge, from MTa Team Kit

This engaging and energetic activity enables participants to improve their team working and communication skills. Over the Bridge centres on core team skills, customer focus, identifying objectives and quality standards, and is designed to accurately reflect workplace pressures in order to deliver effective and lasting learning.

The first phase sees groups tackle a challenging and ambiguous brief, and the second phase provides an opportunity to refine performance based on learnings from the first attempt.

Competencies shared with the Paper Bridge Challenge: prototyping, iteration, giving and receiving feedback, expressing ideas, and reviewing progress

Cable Car, from MTa Insights

Cable Car introduces leadership skills whilst reinforcing effective team working. A leader must oversee construction by three separate groups, initially inspiring a vision and then shifting to a more facilitative leadership style as the task progresses.

Competencies shared with the Paper Bridge Challenge: respecting others, valuing other’s contributions, building on the ideas of others, collaboration.

The Rig, from MTa MINI

This activity adds a layer of complexity to a construction-based challenge by evaluating teams on the amount of money they can make. Teams are free to organise themselves how they wish, but with location-specific sub-activities requiring completion, it’s easy for the mechanics of the task to take over and distract groups from the real objective.

The Rig is great if you’re short for space when facilitating.

Competencies shared with the Paper Bridge Challenge: collaboration, giving and receiving feedback, failing quickly, expressing ideas, respecting others.

Paper Bridge Challenge FAQs

Here are answers to some questions you might have about the Paper Bridge Challenge after reading our blog post.

What is the Difference Between the Paper Bridge Challenge and the Bridge Building Challenge?

Both are popular team building activities with similar objectives of building  a bridge that meets certain criteria. The names are often used interchangeably, but the Bridge Building Challenge casts a wider net in terms of the building materials.

Can the Paper Bridge Challenge be Used as an Ice Breaker?

It can be used as an ice breaker, although you may prefer a quicker activity in this context.

MTa Helium Stick is our quick, energising activity that introduces the fundamentals of effective team working: we’d recommend this over the Paper Bridge Challenge for facilitators looking for an ice breaker.

What is the Strongest Shape for a Paper Bridge?

We won’t give away any spoilers here because watching teams figure out the strongest shape is part of the fun. Instead, we’ll give you a hint to go and look at the designs of famous bridges and see which shapes and design elements keep cropping up.

How Do You Make Paper Strong Enough to Support Weight?

As a general rule, folding paper greatly increases its ability to support weight. This combined with structural decisions and effective design further strengthens the overall structure of the bridge.