Even if you’re not familiar with the term “icebreaker,” you’ve likely participated in one. An icebreaker is simply a question or activity that helps “break the ice” between strangers and encourages people to open up and talk to each other. Icebreaker examples include an impromptu “Where are you from?” while walking to class, or a scheduled team-building exercise at work.
Icebreakers can be especially useful in classes for adults, since grownups often do not interact as easily as children do. Find out about different types of icebreakers, examples of in-person and Zoom icebreakers, some tips to help icebreakers run smoothly, and what to do and avoid to make sure your icebreakers are inclusive.
What Is an Icebreaker and Why Should You Use Them?
Again, an icebreaker is any activity that helps people get to know one another. Icebreakers are often used in meetings and group settings like classrooms. An icebreaker could be as simple as asking, “How was your weekend?” or a more elaborate exercise like the frequently used icebreaker game, Two Truths and a Lie.
An icebreaker can be a good tool to foster connection and interaction in small or large groups, with both children and adults, at in-person or virtual gatherings, and in academic, corporate, or social settings.
Icebreakers generally fall into a few categories:
- Playing a game. Popular options include trivia, drawing games, and word games.
- Sharing something. This could be personal, such as a baby picture or the story of how they got their name, or related to the course or subject of a class, such as why they are learning another language.
- Responding to a prompt. This can be funny, such as Would You Rather or more straightforward, like write a poem using certain words: e.g., banana, mailbox, flip-flop.
- Creating something. Alone or in small groups, students make a video, a drawing, or build something out of matchsticks and marshmallows, for example.
It’s worth noting that to some people, icebreakers are a fun way to meet people. But others may find icebreakers awkward or anxiety-producing. (More on that below.) So why should you use icebreakers?
There are several benefits to icebreakers in a classroom setting, particularly with adult learners. According to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation, icebreakers can:
- help to create a welcoming environment where students participate fully in class and share ideas
- encourage students to share ownership of the class learning environment
- build rapport among students and foster a productive class environment
- prepare students to collaborate in group assignments
Note that while many instructors use icebreakers on the first day of class, these activities are not just for introductions. Using icebreakers more frequently can help build community and camaraderie throughout the entire semester or course session.
Zoom Icebreakers for Virtual Gatherings
During the pandemic when everything shifted online, we all got a crash course in virtual learning and working. And many of us realized we missed those natural encounters we used to have in the hallways and around the watercooler. It can be harder to gel in a Zoom room than in a lunchroom.
Icebreakers can be especially useful for building connections and camaraderie in online environments.
That’s why icebreakers are especially useful in online environments where we have to be more intentional about interacting with classmates and coworkers. We cover this more in-depth in our post 3 Steps to Create Community in Online Classes.
At CourseStorm, our team is largely remote. We host regular virtual happy hours when we get together socially online to play a game, tell jokes, or swap stories. Recent happy hour themes have included Jeopardy, Wheel of Dad Jokes, and (Re)live: Share about a memorable live performance.
If you’re using a Zoom icebreaker to kick off a meeting, keep it short. Quick, 5-minute icebreaker games include Name That Tune. You can go the DIY route and make a short playlist of songs, or use an app or desktop platform like Songlio. If you have a larger group, split into teams. Play about 20 seconds of each song to see who can identify the tune the fastest.
Another idea, which requires some advance preparation, is the Baby Picture Game. Ask for employees or students to send in photos of themselves as kids. Show the pictures during your Zoom meeting and have everyone guess which person is pictured.
Another benefit of Zoom icebreakers is that many of them pass the accessibility test. Meaning, students can participate regardless of disability—unlike, say, a game of musical chairs in person. Of course, if you have people in your group with vision or hearing impairments, you may need to make some accommodations. Accessible content in your courses benefits all students.
Inclusive Icebreakers for Adults
It’s also important to be aware that the goal of icebreakers is to build connection, yet some kinds of icebreakers can exclude people. A college leadership instructor shared some examples on LinkedIn of icebreakers that can have the unintended effect of excluding others.
For example, as a young gay person who was not yet out at work, he felt uncomfortable when asked in meetings to share about his weekend. While others talked about their spouses and kids, he was anxious about revealing more than he wanted to his coworkers.
Be aware that while the goal of icebreakers is to build connection, some activities can exclude people. Ask these questions to ensure you’re offering inclusive icebreakers.
He suggests a few things that teachers, managers or group leaders can do to ensure they are not unintentionally excluding others when using icebreakers:
- When considering a potential icebreaker, ask yourself, “Can I imagine this question or exercise excluding anyone?”
- If you are unsure, ask a few people for their thoughts.
- At the end of the class or meeting, ask participants how successful the icebreaker was in ensuring all were included.
- If someone leads an icebreaker that doesn’t feel inclusive, assume good intent and share your feedback with them.
The University of Michigan suggests these icebreakers to foster inclusive classrooms:
In this icebreaker activity, students have the option to share their name, nickname, or any name that has a history or story such as the name of a pet or nickname given to a friend or family member. Students might share where the name comes from, or what particular meaning the name has for them.
There are some considerations for instructors to keep in mind when implementing this classroom icebreaker to make it inclusive. For some students, their name story may require them to disclose personal information that they may not be ready to share in a classroom setting. For example, a transgender student may not feel comfortable discussing their name as it may require that they disclose their transgender identity.
For these reasons, let students know they can choose any name that has meaning to them to discuss. Also, always give people the choice to opt out of any icebreaker they don’t feel comfortable participating in.
Web of Connectedness
For this in-person activity, the class sits in a circle while the instructor asks discussion questions. These could be low-stakes questions like “What is your favorite hobby?” or more specific, like “Why did you decide to take this course?”
A ball of yarn or string is passed to each person who speaks. After a participant shares an answer, they hold on to part of the string and pass the ball to the next speaker. By the end of the discussion, the string will form a web among the students.
5 Fun Icebreakers for Adults
To recap some suggestions above and give you even more ideas, here’s a list of five fun icebreaker games for adults:
- Two Truths and a Lie. The name pretty much explains it all, but here there are some tips and examples of how to play to make your truths and lies believable to make it more competitive.
- Drawing Games. For an in-person gathering you can play Pictionary using a large pad of paper or a whiteboard. A fun, free online option is Drawasaurus. The worse you draw, the funnier it is!
- Would You Rather. Again, the name says it all, but it’s worthwhile to spend some time prepping questions that will spark discussion, but not controversy. Here are some sample icebreaker questions divided into categories, e.g., Would You Rather Questions For Coworkers.
- Jeopardy. Many people are familiar with the gameshow, where players choose categories and answer in the form of a question. But any type of trivia game can make a good icebreaker. Factile lets you play online; basic features are free.
- Scavenger Hunt. You can play in person or on Zoom, and you can spend 20 minutes on this icebreaker or half a day. Make a list of items for people to find, either in your classroom or in their location. E.g., something purple, something edible, something you can draw with. Here are some sample scavenger hunt lists and templates.
Some tips to help icebreakers run smoothly include giving people a heads-up in advance so they can prepare or opt out, helping participants find a partner if required, and announcing the halfway point and the end of the activity.
Here are some tips to help icebreakers run smoothly:
- Give people a heads-up in advance of any icebreakers, if possible—in the class description or meeting agenda, at the beginning of a gathering, or in advance of the next class. This gives people time to prepare and time to contact you privately if they are not comfortable with the idea.
- Help people find a partner if required. Don’t assume that everyone will pair up easily: some people are more introverted than others, or there may simply be an odd number in the class.
- Indicate who will start first (e.g., the person whose name comes first alphabetically, the person whose birthday is closest to today’s date, etc.)
- Announce when the activity is halfway finished; that way if only one person has gotten a turn so far, the other will have a chance to participate as well.
- Signal when the activity is over, such as by ringing a bell, clapping, or turning off the lights.
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