Icebreakers are commonly associated with workshops, camps, orientations, and organizational retreats to foster community and build trust. However, these exercises and activities can achieve similar outcomes in other learning environments.

Icebreakers can serve a number of purposes:

(1) They can invite people to step out of their comfort zones (who they sit next to, how they interact, the issues they discuss, etc.) in a non-threatening way.

(2) They can motivate people to show up on time since they know a fun exercise will precede and/or lead into the theme of the day.

(3) They can provide kinesthetic ways of exploring complex topics or issues that may be difficult to discuss initially.

(4) They can get people on their feet and moving around in order to get heart rates up and provide some physical activity to ready the brain for the learning ahead.

(5) They can lighten or enliven the mood in order to keep learning motivation high if the setting has become too serious, somber, or drab.

In short, integrating icebreakers into our teaching practice is a great way to build and sustain a community of learners.

In this video, several educators share some of the icebreakers they have used with their students.



There are countless books and online resources that provide a number of icebreakers for a variety of settings.  One of my personal favorites is, Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples, and Tips by Mel Silberman. The book is primarily focused on “adult learners,” however he recognizes that, “young people (the so-called Nexters) today grow up in a world where things happen quickly and where many choices are presented…Nexters are especially receptive to active, experiential learning.” (Zemke, Raines, Filipczak, 1999).

“One of the key ways for people to attain a feeling of safety and security is to be connected to other people and to feel that they are included in a group. This feeling of belonging enables participants to face the challenges set before them. When they are learning with others rather than alone, they have available the emotional and intellectual support that allows them to go beyond their present level of knowledge.” (Silberman, 8)

Reflection Question: Are you a fan of icebreakers? If so, share a positive memory of when you participated in an icebreaker and the impact it had on your learning or community.  If you are not generally a fan of icebreakers, what is it about them that you have found problematic?  How can the goals and purpose of icebreakers be preserved while eliminating the possibility of them being unsuccessful, uncomfortable, or useless?

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29 thoughts on “3.3

  1. I am a fan of ice breakers. I like to participate in them. Ice breakers allow people to break the ice before the presentation actually starts. I think ice breakers allow you to engage in being heard in a group and to get to know one another on a personal level. I can recall in the school that I teach in now ice breakers are used very often to allow teachers to release their thoughts and sometimes it allow teachers to share information with someone they might not socialize with often.I think ice breakers allow the presenter to see who each person is, the thinking level each person is on and it allows people to open up in a class or group setting before getting started. I think the purpose of the icebreakers can be preserved by not over doing it in an opening setting by being too long, ask too much information, require entirely too much moving and a lot of touching.

  2. Icebreakers are great! We always start training days off with icebreakers, and usually the session directly after lunch as well. It’s great to start the day with laughter. We try to use ones that will really make people laugh. Sometimes however I have found that an icebreaker that requires a lot of team work can be a transformative experience for groups as well. This might be useful if the next training session proceeding the icebreaker will be about team work/requirements that we will all be employing as collaborators/educators together during the year that we work together following the training.

    The only thing that can come up about icebreakers that could be negative is that I find a lot of them involve touching (the “human knot”, holding hands of some kind or standing shoulder to shoulder, etc.). We learned early on in our work that this can be very uncomfortable for some people who do not normally touch people of the opposite sex for cultural or religious reasons. This is always quite easy to get around because you can always alter the activity or use a different one if you suspect or know this will be uncomfortable for a member of the community. But if the person leading the icebreaker is unaware, this can make individuals feel quite alienated or unsafe.

  3. I really enjoy icebreaker. In my experience of being a teacher or being a student, I never wanted as a teacher or student to get straight into the content of that particular course. Icebreakers allow a fun filled environment that allows the students to get a great first impression. We all know first impression last a long time. In my first year of being a teacher the entire staff did an icebreaker on the very first day. One of the question was, if I wasn’t at Dunbar today where would I be? I jokingly responded, “pursing a modeling career”. Mind you, I’m only 5’9. Two years later my principle still jokes about it. Don’t get to personal and don’t make it long, icebreakers are perfect.

  4. Icebreakers can be great and they can be deadly,lol. Being out of the classroom for 3 years and doing professional development for my schools, you have to know your audience and some likes and dislikes. That I learned the hard way. We have all been in a meeting where your instructor or meeting leader says go find someone you have never meant and start a conversation with them, introduce yourself to them. YUCK! And that is how the students feel also. I would always give my background in education and then take volunteers. Find out things that they thought worked and didn’t and come up with solutions. Then, if this is more than one day, the second day might have some icebreakers or team “trust” building exercises throughout the day. That way I have a feel for them and they do for me also.

  5. As I am not a current teacher, my experience with ice breakers is strictly from the perspective of the student. But, the more I think and talk with others about the purpose and use of ice breakers in the classroom, the more I become a fan of them. I can remember many instances on the first day of school teachers using ice breakers to get the class to start talking to one another. I see now through taking education courses that the purpose is two-fold: first, to give students something to do that is fun and not necessarily work related; and two, to try to break down barriers that exist to promote better communication.

    I do, however, feel that the use of ice breakers has limitations. As I prepare to become a high school educator, I can see certain ice breakers that might seem “dumb” to high school students, or may fail to promote communication among students in different social circles. Early in the semester, though, I can see ice breakers being effective, at least serving as an effort to make students comfortable with each other.

  6. I am a fan of ice-breakers. I have participated in a number of ice-breakers at workshops and seminars and find that they allow me to make connections with people that I would probably not associate with on a day-to day basis.
    I have used ice-breakers in my classroom over the years and find them very effective especially at the beginning of the school year. Ice-breakers are different from community builders, so we all need to decide the objective of these activities before using them.
    The clock buddy/clock appointment is more of a community builder or buddy check in activity that I have implemented in my classroom for most of the year. Students really harness the support of their buddies and this have helped to boost some of my students’ confidence in their academic potential and ultimately result in an improvement in their work.
    The goals and purposes of ice-breakers can be preserved when we skillfully select and use the ones that matches our objectives and connects with the persons in the group.

  7. I love Icebreakers, but they come with good and bad preconceived ideas. For me, it is a great way to get a meeting going especailly if your entire administrative team is going to take part in it. LOL. But also on the first couple of days back to school with new faces it is a way to introduce yourself. But if the majority of your staff is brand new, I would wait until the second day to do the ice breakers and see on the first day how everyone interacts with each other.

  8. I LOVE ICEBREAKERS. At their best, they have the ability to move individuals into an “our community” mindedness. (Come to think of it, even when poorly executed it begets a community forging sigh.) Plus they have earned me some “cool points” with students just for trusting them to get out of their seats.
    As a librarian, I don’t get many opportunities to use icebreakers. My time before a class is usually limited to 1- 45 to 90 minute period. It’s with the poetry club I have opportunity to regularly use icebreakers to unify the community, build trust and encourage timely arrival. Also, to get creative juices flowing and introduce new concepts or themes. One of my (and their) favorites is Ninja. (For a video explanation and example, watch HERE.) Knowing we will play Ninja definitely unifies them and has them rushing to workshop.
    Louder Than a Bomb DMV Slam Poetry Festival weekend at George Washington University. This is where I experienced the very best use of icebreakers. The participants consisted of 140 plus students on 20 highly competitive high school teams. In fact, they started with a 3 hour icebreaker session titled “Crossing the Street”. It was amazing to watch the transformation.
    Can I tell you that even though there were many students from many rivaling schools there was not one incident the entire weekend and to this day my poets talk with poets at the other schools more frequently than I speak with the coaches. (Hmmm. maybe we should have had an icebreaker)

    • Thanks for sharing these stories of amazing icebreakers, Pamela. It makes me think of something I read in Martin Seligman’s book, “Flourish,” where he talks about icebreakers and “energizers,” tuning the group. I also see where other participants are coming from in that how these icebreakers are facilitated can make all the difference. It sounds like the 3 hour icebreaker at the Louder than a Bomb poetry slam that the facilitators really hit it out of the park.


      Daryn Cambridge http://www.daryncambridge.com 571.314.0195 (mobile) Twitter: @daryncambridge Skype: daryncambridge

      On Tue, Jul 2, 2013 at 2:47 PM, Peace Learner

    • I just looked up the Ninja icebreaker game, I can see why your students wouldn’t want to miss that! Great idea.

  9. I generally dread having to do ice breakers myself, and this is probably why I don’t feel particularly great at implementing them in my high school classroom… but I do recognize their importance in helping build a community of learners. I guess, to be successful it’s important to keep everyone feeling safe and comfortable with what they are being asked to do, which, in my experience, is… nearly impossible when it comes to self-conscious teenagers on the first day of school. Most times, I have students go around the room and share names and favorite foods, and somehow it still manages to be a painful experience. This may be completely my fault as a poor facilitator and person who generally loathes ice-breakers. So many students switch in and out of classes at the beginning of the year (maybe this is because I teach an elective class?), I feel a lot of the group agreements and ice breakers lose meaning because they are were made among a community of students that has since changed!

    I guess with this in mind, in the past I’ve had luck integrating “team building games” in throughout the school year — not in the context of breaking the ice, but with some kind of social objective — and to deepen our feeling of community once we all have at least a little level of familiarity with each other.

  10. I’m not big on ice-breakers, but I am interested in community-building activities. The ESL teachers at Wilson have a number of traditions to build community among ESL students. At the start of the year, we do “team-building” games outside in a field. We go ice-skating the afternoon before winter break. We have a picnic before the end of school. This year, we went to the cherry blossoms festival one afternoon. This takes time away from school but it really helps to build friendships between students.

    I also take each of my 5 classes on one field trip each year and that helps them to bond with each other.

    Recently I was in a group where most people knew each other well but there were some newcomers. Everyone shared “one interesting thing about themselves.” It was open-ended enough that I don’t think it put people on the spot and I learned some new things about even people who I knew well. I’m okay with those kinds of open-ended icebreakers.

    • The ESL team must be commended for these community builder event. They are more realistic in fostering relationships. Ice-breakers are just fun ways of basically introducing your self to others.

  11. I typically enjoy icebreakers, however, like most of you have said I highly dislike the icebreakers that require you to do foolish things that take you outside of your comfort zone. I am generally an introvert (outside the classroom), I see icebreakers as a chance to have my voice heard in a large group. I like to think I facilitated a pretty effective icebreaker today in my 2nd grade class. The students had to create a self portrait where they used symbols for their facial features. If they had a sister, their eyes were triangles, etc. Majority of the students were familiar with each other, but this allowed us to learn something new. In order for icebreakers to be effective, the duties of the participants should be something everyone can comfortably complete. It should also be something that teaches us something we didn’t know about our colleagues.

  12. I am generally not a fan of icebreakers. Many of the icebreaker activities I have participated in were with people I already knew so they did not feel necessary. When I walk into a meeting/conference with colleagues or people I already know and I see “ice breaker” on the agenda, I think to myself, “Do I really have to do this again?”. And, in most cases, the icebreakers are ones that I have done before, such as 2 truths and a lie, so they are not interesting.

    That being said, when I have participated in genuine, interesting icebreakers that forced me to engage with new or unfamiliar people, I found them to be very valuable. I like how everyone is thrown into the same situation, regardless of their comfort level, and how I am forced to interact with people that I wouldn’t have on my own. One positive experience I had with icebreakers was when I started my masters program. Our professors went through a couple different icebreakers to help us get to know each other, establish partners that could be used throughout the course, and give us ideas for our future classrooms. I really enjoyed meeting and learning about the people in my cohort through the different exercises and had a feeling of ease and comfort when I left after the first day.

    I think that in order for icebreakers to be successful and useful, they must be well thought out and planned prior to implementation. They should be interesting and force some level of engagement from all participants. If you are leading the icebreaker, it’s important to know your audience, especially their strengths and weaknesses; and, you should establish a goal or objective for your icebreaker.

  13. I LOVE ICEBREAKERS! They are genius in my opinion of classroom environments, retreats, student organizations, and building friendships. Everyone needs a chance to be silly and feel ridiculous with others. They equal the playing field and allow people to let go of everything else except what’s going on in that space with those people at that moment. Ki’Tay said something that is key–icebreakers are only as effective as the leader makes them.

    This past weekend I led a retreat for 60 college students who are all in my community service fraternity. I worked with 2 other students to have intentional icebreakers going from low risk to high risk throughout the day and chose leaders tho I knew would be outgoing and enthusiastic, and who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or immature leading silly games. The retreat was successful, and would have had a different outcome if we would have had different student leaders.

  14. For me there are two types of icebreakers. The first type serves as a “warm-up”. The goal is not to get to know people better, express feelings, etc. These types of icebreakers are type of dances, songs, or mimicking games. These serve more as energizers and I’m not the biggest fan of them because they often force people out of their comfort zones without achieving and really group growth. The second type is where participants share about themselves, their feelings, their goals, etc. These often serve as both information gathering/sharing processes and energizers. I really enjoy two “two truths and a lie”. I regularly did this with my students/friends in Macedonia and got to learn a great deal about everyone who participated.

  15. In my experience, ice breakers are only as authentic and community building as the leader creates it to be. The individual leading an ice breaker sets a clear tone at the beginning and has to reinforce this tone throughout the exercise. Henceforth, I do find ice breakers to be effective, but only when they are appropriate to the audience, sincere and led in an inclusive manner.

    I once was at a conference and we were asked to write a poem on our childhood by focusing on food. This icebreaker is hands down the most effective and “step out of your comfort zone” activity that I have participated in. Not only did each individual become vulnerable, but we all had shared experiences to discuss. I believe icebreakers that allow someone’s story to be told in tandem with shared experiences is always beneficial in so far as it decreases generalizations and creates an atmosphere of active listening.

  16. Richard Cambridge: I am not a fan of “conscious” icebreakers? Although, I do have positive memories of icebreakers which impacted the learning community. A bus tour before the actual retreat/learning event was not billed as an icebreaker, but in effect was just that and it worked. What I find problematic and awkward about ice breakers is when the facilitation is not done very well and people feel that their space is being violated before the want to accept intrusion. I think the goals and purpose of icebreakers can be preserved by creativity and a sense that actual “icebreaking” does not always have to come at the very beginning of the “event” or class.

  17. I really like icebreakers. I have taken so many classes at AU in which I don’t learn most of my classmates’ names. I think that even college students need a little help sometimes to be social, and if there are no icebreaker games at the beginning of class, students are a lot less likely to ever really get to know each other. If the teacher facilitates an icebreaker at the very beginning of the year, it eases the tension and awkwardness that sometimes happens in a class full of college students who are strangers. If I know a little about each person I am in the class with, chances are I will feel more comfortable speaking more often and bouncing off the ideas of others. I feel like the icebreakers we did on the first day of our class were excellent. I left the first day of class feeling like I knew more about the people in that class from one class period than I do about most of the people in my classes after a semester. Icebreakers set the foundation for thinking of each other as colleagues rather than just classmates.

  18. I like the idea of ice breakers. Being an extravert they don’t really bother me or make me uncomfortable. My biggest criticism about ice breakers is that you usually end up doing the same few over and over again. To me this is the biggest problem. The feeling of, “but I’ve already suffered through this activity 5 times before” passes through my, and I’m sure many other people’s minds. The sad part is there are so many different ice breakers that can be used, but people don’t know about them or are too busy to research or try new activities. Also, I think introducing the idea of the activity by any name other than “ice breakers” will help the attitude of the class.

  19. Daniel Knoll – I love icebreakers. I love to meet and talk to other people, but I rarely will simply walk up to somebody in a classroom or at a conference and strike up a conversation. I’m initially incredibly nervous to meet other people, but ice breakers calm me down because they make everyone step out of their comfort zone. In a weird way, when I know that I’m not the only one who is nervous, it makes me a lot less nervous. One example of an ice breaker I enjoy is called ‘snowball’. Everybody writes down three things about themselves on a piece of paper, crumples it up into a ball and then throws their ball around the room (hence the name snowball). You then pick up a piece of paper and have to find the person that note belongs to. The game gets people up and moving, and you build a connection with 2 people, the person who you found, and the person that found you. You can then share what people wrote with the rest of the class.

    I particularly liked what Audrey wrote when she said that ice breakers are annoying if there isn’t an intentional outcome. Having an ice break to fill space and not accomplish a central goal such as building connections can be a frustrating and often boring experience. As a facilitator, it is essential to understand the outcome of an icebreaker, and what the overall goal of the group is. An effective ice break for a classroom as opposed to a short business conference may be very different, it all depends on context.

  20. I think icebreakers are a great way to have an interactive classroom whether with children or adults. Almost everyone likes the opportunity to share something about themselves in an informal environment or to learn about the other people in the class without having to ask them outright.

    I can’t think about a particular incidence in which I really enjoyed an icebreaker but my overall feeling about them is that when I have had them in my classes, it makes learning more fun and engaging and is a great way to wake up at the beginning or the end of a long day. I also like the different level of engagement that it provides in a relaxed and safe setting. The times that I have not enjoyed icebreakers have been when they have lasted too long, not had anything to do with what we will be learning in the classroom that day, or forced me to step too far out of my comfort zone by forcing sharing with the whole group. It is important to structure icebreaker activities that encourage but don’t force sharing and interaction.

    Besides initial icebreakers to get to know one another, if used in the everyday class environment, I think it is important to be thoughtful about what icebreaker we are using. It is important to connect icebreakers with what we will be learning about that day in order to use them as a cohesive part of the classroom and not just a fun activity that some might feel is wasting time.

  21. I am usually not a fan of icebreakers. In fact, I usually dread going to the first day of new classes, orientations, programs etc. because I know an ice breaker is looming. I see them as forced interaction, usually silly, and having no relation to what the class/orientation is actually about. With that said, I usually come out of the icebreaker feeling more relaxed, comfortable, and familiar with my peers. I understand the reasoning behind the concept, and do feel that they frequently have positive outcomes. I think to be successful ice breakers should be relevant to the group, mindful of the maturity level, and have little physical contact (as that can be uncomfortable for many people). Icebreakers should allow people to disclose information about themselves, but at their level of comfort. They should highlight similarities so that the group feels inclusive, but also highlight differences in a positive manner so everyone can recognize the attributes that they will be bringing to the new group.

  22. I’m a fan the majority of the time. It’s only when I don’t respect or am annoyed by the facilitator that I find ice-breakers tiresome. But I recently had a *revelation* about ice-breakers during a retreat with all the Alternative Break student leaders at AU. We did numerous throughout the weekend retreat, some silly, others very serious and meant to introduce a new topic rather than introduce us to each other. The effect of these ice-breakers was that we all got to genuinely know (or at least recognize) each other in a short amount of time, which in my experience rarely happens in a big group of college students! I also usually was more interested in the answers to ice-breaker questions my peers gave when they were part of an activity that got us up and moving.

    I think it’s key to make each ice-breaker intentional. The worst is a useless activity that leads nowhere. Also, it’s important to consider the comfort level and maturity of the group you’re working with. Physical contact may not be the best way to introduce people, and only at a later stage would ice-breakers requiring deeply personal questions be appropriate.

  23. I do not like ice-breakers. They feel canned, juvenile, and inauthentic. Especially the getting up and moving around the room part. However, I am also aware that it is good practice for me to push my way through an ice-breaker, to stretch myself, and to suspend my judgements. 90% of the time, I come out the other end of an ice-breaker feeling like the room has warmed, and admonishing myself for being such a curmudgeon. I think ice-breakers are most effective when the audience is considered. One of the aspects of working in education that I hate is when adults do not know how to adjust to speaking to other adults. Just because I work with kids does not mean I am one. I’d rather have icebreakers that involve adult conversation with probing, relevant questions. Same results, developmentally appropriate.

  24. Generally, in my experience, I have not been a fan of ice-breakers. I have typically found them to be forced and a waste of time. Often, I’ve felt like what Emily said, that they are just another agenda item.

    One positive memory I do have from these is from over the summer. I am on the leadership team at my school and we were debriefing staff feedback we had gotten from the end of the year. A lot of negative focused on “communication and listening”. The trainer we were working with led us through this following activity:


    Basically, we were told that every time we heard the word “right” we had to pass the object our group chose to the right and every time we heard the word “left” to the left. At the end of the story, we were given a set of comprehensive questions, which none of us could answer because we were so focused on listening for those words. It was relevant to the discussion we were about to have and it made everyone more comfortable about processing all the negative feedback and so opened up some discussion.

    I tried this one with my 7th graders at the beginning of the year when we were talking about focus and active listening. They loved it and they really loved hearing that their teachers did equally poorly on this exercise. It opened up some great discussion about active listening and why it’s important.

  25. My experience with icebreakers has been primarily with the Altbreak program. Because of this, in general, I am not a fan of icebreakers. Sometimes they are just another agenda item designed to “build relationships” and assumes that after the ice is broken everyone will be friends. If this is the goal, I personally place more value on time invested in one-on-one time. Icebreakers can be a stand alone activity to warm up the room, but if the goal is to build relationships, they should be used in conjunction with activities that go deeper.

    I think this problem can be solved by choosing activities that reveal something about the individual (weather report vs. human knot) and spending enough time on it that people really get into the activity.

  26. I am a fan of participating in ice breakers, but I am not a fan of leading ice breakers. It is oftentimes difficult to match an icebreaker with the learning objectives other than in the abstract way of building community. One of the way teachers in DC are evaluated is on “maximizing learning time.” Everything must be tied to a time-bound measurable goal. It is hard to measure community – though a positive learning environment is something that is measured in our assessments as well.

    In my experience, there has been so much push back from students when I have attempted icebreakers, that what should be a 15-25 minute activity plus a debriefing, leads to utter chaos. Students don’t often understand the process of the icebreaker, the goals of the icebreaker, or how to change back into “class mode” for a debrief. In short, transitions to and from icebreakers are a major issue.

    I have found some success in using icebreakers that involve students creating a visual representation of themselves or something they are learning about. In my school, this means that students will pick on one another and joke about their own work, but it is effective in getting their minds going and building some sort of community. It may not look like the classroom community I was raised with, but it is a classroom community nonetheless.

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