The other day I had to meet with 20+ high school seniors, so I decided it was time to go back to one of my tried and true meeting strategies--Toys. It was so successful (as it always is), I thought I'd share the idea.
Bring on the Play-Doh!
About 9 years ago I was doing a retreat with 30 people. This was for a nonprofit that provided manufacturing training and about half of our group was made up of the trainees, who were extremely hands-on and fidgety when they had to sit still for too long. I needed everyone's participation in the meeting and knew that I had to do something to keep them all focused.
I'd read somewhere that if you can keep people's hands busy, they are more likely to pay attention for longer periods of time, so I thought I'd see what I could do. I ran out to the store and grabbed Play Doh, Legos and a few Slinkys and brought them with me to the retreat. I just threw everything on the table, explained why I'd brought the toys, and then waited to see what happened.
At first, people were a little tentative and looked at me like I was crazy. Then one guy grabbed some Play Doh and started forming some shapes. A woman took one of the Slinkys and began shifting it from side to side while a few more people took some Legos and started building. Within a few minutes, about 3/4 of the group was doing something with their hands.
Here was the cool thing, though. They ALL paid attention and participated in our discussions, more so than they'd done in previous meetings where I didn't bring the toys. By the end of the retreat a few days later, they were all thanking me for helping them see how they could stay focused, as many of them thought that there was something "wrong" with them that they had a hard time participating when they had to sit for a while.
Since then I've almost always used toys for training sessions, retreats, etc. I've used them with all ages, from high school seniors to senior citizens. Participants often think I'm a little crazy at first, but by the end of the day, they're generally convinced that this is a great strategy for keeping people focused. It's been particularly useful when I work with youth organizations--staff finally realize that there's a productive way to work WITH young people's energy, which is a real eye-opener for both them and the youth.
If you're worried that people will pay more attention to the toys than to your meeting, don't be. In 9 years of using this strategy, I've found that for most people, the toys actually get them MORE focused on what we're doing, not less. And if they do start to pay more attention to their Lego building than to what we're doing, then I know it's time for a break.
Give it a shot--let me know what happens.