The Adult and Community Educators of Florida, Inc. says the Encyclopedia of Icebreakers defines icebreakers as “tools that enable the group leader to foster interaction, stimulate creative thinking, challenge basic assumptions, illustrate new concepts, and introduce specific material." They suggest that you consider “contracting” when introducing icebreakers. To use contracts, be sure to describe:

  1. The rationale for the activity
  2. The objectives of the activity
  3. The structure of the activity
  4. The opportunity to ask questions
  5. Permission for students to participate at their own level of comfort.

The authors state that, “When given the freedom to choose, people tend to take greater ownership of their participation and are less able to claim ‘they made me do it.’” When given a choice, participants rarely "opt out." This site describes appropriate tone (silly vs. serious), length (about 1/16th of the total length of the program or class time), teaching points (dynamic with intended or unintended learning), processing (teaching opportunities), and safety (psychological/attitudinal).

Kathy Obear, in Principles for Using Icebreakers / Team-Builders, lists reasons for using icebreakers and team-builders:

  • to foster acquaintanceship (help people get to know each other better)
  • increase feelings of comfort
  • develop feelings of connectedness with others
  • develop a feeling of trust
  • break down walls/masks/barriers/territoriality
  • help participants to understand and appreciate the differences among people in the group
  • foster energy and enthusiasm
  • to "get the blood moving" again
  • serve as a "clearing technique,” helping participants to forget about other issues and focus on the seminar
  • provide an "advance organizer,” an overview of the next topic or the purpose of the seminar
  • increase personal awareness of current skill/knowledge level and need to learn seminar material
  • set the tone for the seminar--participation; fun; risk-taking; etc.
  • to "grab" the attention of participants

She also identifies the principles for using team-builders/icebreakers:

  • have the activity somehow relate to topics of workshop
  • use more physical activities at beginning and after any break
  • start with lower risk activities and build up to higher risk ones
  • always model/give an example before the activity
  • model enthusiasm and energy
  • build in a low risk amount of physical contact
  • encourage laughter
  • vary the membership of groupings and the size of groups
  • use dyads and triads for more high risk sharing
  • always process key points of activity to show relevance to overall seminar.

Secondary/Adult learners

For secondary and adult learners, “Icebreakers help to establish a positive environment and provide an opportunity for students to get to know one another and the instructor,” by reducing student and instructor anxiety, fostering interactions, creating a participatory environment, conveying the message that teacher cares about the students and their learning, making it easier for students to form relationships for future collaboration, and allowing students to become active participants versus passive participants (adapted from Teaching-Ettes, Ideas for the Classroom from the Center for Teaching Excellence).

According to the University of Northern Iowa’s Classroom Icebreakers webpage, secondary or college icebreakers should begin with real conversation; scavenger hunts may be good for getting kids moving around, but don’t contribute as much to communication. The goal is to have people open up, revealing bits about themselves in a way that makes them collaborative team players, rather than individual competitors.

You'll want to be careful about creating situations where individuals feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or forced to reveal personal information they would rather not disclose. Make sure the activity ends in a timely fashion; icebreakers should not drag on, but be a transition to real course content. Avoid competition and cultural bias. Six suggestions on the website offer course-related icebreakers, for example: "Describe the group/class/topic as a thing or animal and discuss the implications of the various analogies."

Teaching-Ettes lists 34 examples for creating a comfort level with coursework. Sample titles include "Sharing Course Trepidations,” “Simple Self-Introductions,” "Draw a Picture of a Significant Event,” and “Common Sense Inventory.” These activities vary greatly and incorporate many different skills.

Interactive icebreakers

In addition to the interesting concepts described on Donald Clark’s Performance, Learning, Leadership, & Knowledge website, his leadership page lists Icebreakers, Warm-up, Review, and Motivator Activities. He suggests dividing students into smaller groups which “allow for more discussion, keep participants from mentally wandering off, build rapport, and allow for "one-on-one" relationships.” He describes icebreakers as “structured activities” that can help relax, energize, break down cliques, and encourage random groups.

While Clark’s activities are designed for adult learners, they can also be adapted for secondary classrooms. One of his icebreakers assigns groups to use Legos?, Tinker Toys, clay, or some other medium, to build a model illustrating a concept they have just learned. The team then presents its model, describing how it relates to the subject matter. Other activities are The Magic Wand (how would you change your job, your work, yourself, etc.); Marooned (what items would you bring in case you were stranded on an island); The Interview (two person teams interview each other about their lives, interests, etc.); Who Done That (who in the group has done what from a list of activities); The ADDIE Game (Analysis, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluate – a problem scenario); and Finish the Sentence (the best project I ever did, the riskiest thing I ever did, etc.). There are also suggestions for reviews (used to reinforce concepts or topics), rearranging the classroom (to show change implementation), a motivator activity and a reflection time suggestion.

In Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Innovative Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action , the authors describe many activities that are springboards to learning. The site allows you to download PDF formatted copies of chapters from the book where you can learn how to create warm up questions, springboard exercises, and interactive lesson plans with work sections (where students apply their understanding of objectives). There is a helpful FAQ (frequently asked questions) section, which answers questions such as, “My class periods are only 50 minutes long. When is there time to do all this?” Templates for creating exercises and sample activities are included in the various chapters. (See especially Chapter 7: “The Engaged Learner: Interactive Methods in the Classroom,” Chapter 11: “Five-Minute Springboard Exercises” and Chapter 16: “The Rest of the Springboard Exercises.”)

Additional resources

Interactive Resources

Kim, Miri, “Teacher Talk: Icebreakers,” Center for Adolescent and Family Studies, School of Education, Indiana University
http://education.indiana.edu/cas/tt/v3i1/icebreak.html

International Education and Resource Network (iEARN)
www.iearn.org/handbook/workshop/icebreakers.html

Icebreakers and energizers

KimsKorner
www.kimskorner4teachertalk.com/classmanagement/
icebreakers.html

Boyd, Susan, “Ten Ways to Break the Ice” 
www.susan-boyd.com/tenways.htm

One Stop English, “Warmers, Fillers and Icebreakers,” 
www.onestopenglish.com/Lessonshare/Warmers/index.htm

Back-to-School icebreakers

Education World - Icebreakers Vol. 8
www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson273.shtml

Icebreakers Vol. 4
www.education-world.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson131.shtml

Teachers Tools and Templates: Icebreakers
www.education-world.com/tools_templates/index.shtml#icebreakers

Kelly, Melissa, “Warming Up the Classroom Climate,” Your Guide to Secondary School Educators, About, Inc.
http://712educators.about.com/cs/icebreakers/
a/icebreakers.htm

Povlacs, Joyce T., “101 Things You Can Do the First Few Weeks of School,” Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/
guidebk/teachtip/101thing.htm

Beat the Heat – Plan Icebreakers for Fall - Teachnet
www.teachnet.com/how-to/backtoschool/071298.html

ESL and multicultural icebreakers

ESL Flow
www.eslflow.com/ICEBREAKERSreal.html

EdChange: Multicultural Pavilion: Awareness Activities
www.edchange.org/multicultural/activityarch.html

Unique icebreakers for psychology students

Eggleston, Tami and Gabie Smith, “Building Community in the Classroom through Ice-Breakers and Parting Ways,” Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology, McKendree College
www.lemoyne.edu/OTRP/otrpresources/buildcommunity.pdf

Books

“Icebreakers to Use in the Classroom,” (Bibliography)
Teaching Effectiveness Program, University of Oregon
http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/librarylinks/
articles/icebreaker.html

Magnan, Robert, 147 Practical Tips for Using Icebreakers with College Students, Atwood Publications, 2005
www.atwoodpublishing.com/books/225.htm
Sample Activities: 
www.atwoodpublishing.com/tocs/icebreakers.htm

Jones, Alana, Team-Building Activities for Every Group (2000), More Team-Building Activities for Every Group (2002), Rec Room Publishing (Also see the game “Team Up” also available from this website.)
www.gamesforgroups.com/teambuildinggames.htm

Located in Sewell, the Educational Information and Resource Center (EIRC) is a public agency specializing in education-related programs and services for teachers, parents, schools, communities, and non-profit organizations throughout New Jersey. Learn more about EIRC at www.eirc.org or call 856-582-7000. Contact Patricia Bruder at patbruder@yahoo.com.