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Icebreakers Can Help You Create Rich Learning Environments

Icebreaker Experience

As the name suggests, icebreakers are designed to “warm up” the session. It is important to note that delegates need to be receptive to learning before they can start to learn. An icebreaker helps to warm up the delegates and prepare them for more learning activities.

Icebreakers are effectively a tool in your trainer’s toolbox. Of course, like any tool, you need to master the skill of using them to get the most out of them. This article explores various qualities, benefits and advantages of icebreakers and presents guidelines in using them.

Playing icebreakers tend to open people up. It gets them interacting and learning. It helps shatter the preconceived notions that most adults have developed over the years. As much as we try not to have prejudices and be open minded, there are still internal filters and preconceived notions that unconsciously occur in your mind. Things you’ve seen, heard, or experienced over the years that formed your ideas and perceptions. Icebreaker games can shatter those and open people up to working together.

What Are the Benefits of Using Icebreakers?Leadership Recipe

  • They can transform a rather average or dull meeting into something rather special.
  • Ice breakers introduce people to one another in a fun and informal way
  • Ice breakers relax people and help them to get to know each other far more quickly
  • Energize and motivate participants
  • People learn better when they are involved physically, mentally and emotionally. Icebreaker activities provide this kind of active, practical learning
  • Games offer an opportunity to share their knowledge and learn from each other
  • People learn differently. Some learn best by hearing, some by seeing, some by reflecting, some by interacting, some by doing, some by talking, some by incorporating music or rhythm, some by solving problems. Games offer an opportunity to help people with diverse learning styles to engage with a topic or issue.
  • The facilitator can use an icebreaker as a quick assessment of the group to gauge how much they know about the topic, how comfortable they are in groups, what is their background, expertise and so on.
  • Can reduce participants’ sense of anonymity or isolation in any venue
  • Helps to foster a shared sense of purpose and community in the course
  • Get everyone involved – Participants are active participants versus passive participants from the onset
  • Create a special atmosphere in which people will feel comfortable
  • Enable people to find out what they have in common
  • Allow people to move around
  • Keep participant’s interest
  • Open the door to learning new ideas and concepts
  • Help people think outside the box

Icebreakers can…

Be excellent devices to help people feel more comfortable with themselves and with others and feel more “at home” in a group

Break up the ‘cliques,’ invite people to form random groupings, and help individuals meet others in non-threatening and fun ways

Be used to set a tone for the time a group will be together, will encourage people to feel “safe” and hopefully will evoke lots of laughter in releasing tension.

Make way for more meaningful interaction and relationships during the life of the group.

DisadvantagesPlus or Minus

  • Consumes precious time – consider their Length
  • Potential for repetition or lack of variety
  • May not have direct relevance
  • If you do not know your audience well it will be more difficult to mitigate prejudices and/or needs
  • Done incorrectly, an icebreaker can have damaging and lasting effects on group learning and behavior in any given session.
  • May not be appropriate for all types of meetings or particular venues; for example a Memorial Service, Announcing a “Product Recall,” etc.
  • Certain Personality types may be forced out of their comfort zone (Introverts, for example)
  • Some people may consider them frivolous if the exercise doesn’t seem directly relevant or clear objectives are not defined. To some, Icebreakers may be perceived as touchy-feely, frivolous and a big waste of time. Some critics argue learners from different cultures and countries may be even more averse to icebreaker activities than skeptics in the U.S.
  • If the facilitator is inexperienced he/she may not be prepared to avoid any potential for humiliating or putting participants on the spot, without an “out”.

Regardless of the initial negative inclinations of some participants, icebreakers remain a highly valued component of many learning sessions, no matter the age, level, or geographic location of the learners. Why? Because the benefits of icebreakers so strongly outweigh the drawbacks, most of which can be managed by carefully selecting and framing the activity.

When to Use Icebreakers

3 people taking notes

As the name suggests, an ice breaker session is designed to “break the ice” at an event or meeting. The technique is often used when people who do not usually work together, or may not know each other at all, meet for a specific, common purpose. Consider using an ice breaker whenever:

  • An Icebreaker is appropriate for the context and venue of the meeting; and time allows; i.e. whenever you want to make your meeting more interesting, participative and fun.
  • Participants come from different backgrounds.
  • People need to bond quickly so as to work towards a common goal.
  • Your team is newly formed.
  • The topics you are discussing are new or unfamiliar to many people involved.
  • The technical nature of the training necessitates a collaborative learning environment.
  • As facilitator you need to get to know participants and have them know you better.

Icebreakers can be used for generally any part of the training session, I like to use them at the beginning, during transitions and breaks, and once-in-a-while to unwind at the end of an intense session.

I use them in the beginning to acquaint participants with one another in a fun and safe context, reduce tension and anxiety and create an open & non-threatening atmosphere. I use them during transitions to recharge participant energy, reinforce learning by doing something kinetic, or provide calm reflective period, which also helps reinforces training, or (when needed) to reduce tension and anxiety that built up during the preceding session. When I use them at the end of a training (or team building) session it is to help participants reset / unwind overstimulated minds, and/or provide quiet reflective time.

Calm Down!

Relax 1

Sometimes the problem is not warming up, but the need to calm or “come down to reality” after a session of intensive material is given. Also, to get the full benefit of new material, some “introspective time” might be needed.

Have the learners lay their heads on their desks, lay on the floor, or get in a comfortable position. Then, have participants reflect on what they have just learned. After about five minutes, say a key word or short phase and have them reflect on it for a couple of minutes.

Repeat one or two more times, then gather the group into a circle and have them share what they believe is the most important points of the concept and how they can best use it at their place of work.

Note: This may seem like slack time to many, but reflection is one of the most powerful learning techniques available! Use it!

Other Considerations


8557948_orig_Client Team 1

  • Have a clear objective. What do you want to accomplish with the exercise?
  • Simplicity is important. It needs to be easy to explain, understand and do.
  • Guard strong or sensitive egos and try to temper extreme emotions or an overly competitive tone.
  • Keep people focused on the stated objectives and on the pertinent subject.
  • Don’t require participants to touch each other.
  • Don’t insist participants reveal too much personal information, (if needed, discourage it).
  • Don’t put people on the spot, without an “out.”
  • Consider debriefing at the end of icebreaker activities (or any activities) by asking your students what the value of an icebreaker activity is and sharing your rationale for the activity. This is also an opportunity to remind them that their fellow students are valuable resources.
  • Timing is everything. Schedule your ice breaker at a moment that will have a positive impact on your meeting.
  • Practice makes perfect. Work with the concept until you are confident in your ability to employ it.

It’s possible that a participant could embarrass himself by offering too much information in games such as “finish the sentence.” Develop a friendly technique for interrupting a participant if he starts telling a story that really isn’t suitable for work. Keep a small air horn nearby, and give it a short blast if someone begins to talk about things that are not appropriate. Make the air horn a part of the icebreaker gags, and have fun with it.

Have you ever been to an event when the ice breaker session went badly? Just as a great ice breaker session can smooth the way for a great event, so a bad ice breaker session can be a recipe for disaster. A bad ice breaker session is at best simply a waste of time, or worse an embarrassment for everyone involved.

As a facilitator, the secret of a successful icebreaking session is to keep it simple: Design the session with specific objectives in mind and make sure the session is appropriate and comfortable for everyone involved.

If your course or workshop is going to require any amount of peer interaction, an icebreaker is absolutely necessary.  When using an icebreaker, make sure it helps to get people settled in, creates a sense of welcome, and establishes an atmosphere of collegial cooperation.

Icebreakers and Maslow Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs (1)

If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Icebreakers can help learners to feel safety, to know they can participate, speak and share without fear of ridicule.  Renner (2005) states that most adults function best in an atmosphere of respect and support, and icebreakers can set this environment.   The icebreaker can also speak to the learner’s sense of belonging, toward creating a community of learners.  It can begin to move learners along the continuum towards esteem, and their need to feel valued, and finally, self-actualization, which identifies our inherent need and desire to learn and grow. An icebreaker done correctly can begin to satisfy all of these needs, and move along Maslow’s continuum.

Icebreakers and Knowles 

Ice Breakers are also known to call on learners previous experiences, and they can bring learners together to equip them with a readiness to learn, or focus them and oriented them to begin learning.

Icebreakers and Kolb

Icebreakers also speak to Kolb’s Learning Styles as they allow the learners to interpret and participate in ways that best match their own preferred style of learning. Because icebreakers don’t generally last more than 10 minutes, and often incorporate a variety of techniques, they can support the audio, kinetic or visual learner.

Positive Reinforcement Cards

Consider the following: Whenever a learner arrives to class on time from breaks, lunch, etc. give them one playing card. You can also hand out cards to people who volunteer for activities, are helpful, answers a difficult question, etc. At the end of the day, play one hand of poker. However, the only cards that are used are the ones that were given out throughout the day. Give a small prize to the best hand (you can also pick the top two or three hands if you are able to give away more prizes). Note that the more cards a person has, the better the chance of winning.

Simple Icebreaker Examples

7735754_orig_Client-team 3

  • Ask participants to introduce themselves using the game “Two Truths and a Lie”: Each person tells “Two Truths and a Lie”; other participants then guess which is the lie
  • Ask participants to identify themselves with a current celebrity or historical figure and explain why
  • Ask participants to identify themselves with an animal and explain why
  • Familiar & unique: Break off into small groups (ideally by counting off). Each small group must come up with 5 things that the group members have in common. Then they asked to share something really unique about themselves individually. The group shares their familiar and unique features with the rest of the group.
  • Questions: Have each student write a question they want answered about the training seminar on a post-it note. Have them introduce themselves and their question. Then post all questions on the wall, during or at the end of your meeting answer the questions or have the group answer them.
  • The Little Known Fact:  Ask participants to share their name, department or role in the organization, length of service, and one little known fact about themselves. This “little known fact” becomes a humanizing element that can help break down differences such as grade / status in future interaction.
  • True or False:  Lead this exercise by telling a story about yourself that could be true or false. It’s the group’s responsibility to determine if the story you have told is legitimate. Participants may guess the correct answer based on your body language, so try to keep them guessing. After you have demonstrated how the game works, have each participant make a true or false statement about himself. Each participant who makes a false statement should finish by describing something about them that is true.
  • Finish the Sentence:  Ask each participant to finish a sentence such as, “The riskiest thing I have ever done is…” Or ask a participant, “The best job I ever had was…” Make up questions designed to get participants to tell something interesting about themselves.
  • Word association: This ice breaker helps people explore the breadth of the area under discussion. Generate a list of words related to the topic of your event or training.  For example, in a health and safety workshop, ask participants what words or phrases come to mind relating to “hazardous materials”. Participants may suggest: ‘danger,’ ‘corrosive,’ ‘flammable,’ ‘warning,’ ‘skull and crossbones,’ etc. Write all suggestions on the board, perhaps clustering by theme. You can use this opportunity to introduce essential terms and discuss the scope (what’s in, and what’s out) of your training or event.
  • “The M & M Breaker” When students enter the classroom, they take an M & M. When they introduce themselves, what they share is dependent on the color of their M & M. For example, a red one might mean they share what they hope to get out of the course. On the lighter side, a red one might mean they share a recent accomplishment or success.
  • “Marooned” Break class into groups of 4-7 and tell them “You are marooned on an island. What five (you can use a different number, such as seven, depending upon the size of each team) items would you have brought with you if you knew there was a chance that you might be stranded?” Note: they are allowed five items per team, not per person. Have each group report their five items and briefly share why they selected those items. This activity helps them to learn about another person’s values and problem- solving styles and promotes teamwork.
  • “My Slogan” Explain that many companies have slogans or “mottos” which reflect their values. For example, Ford Motor Company uses the slogan, “Quality is Job One.” Ask each student to write (or borrow) a slogan to describe him or herself and share that with the class.



Icebreakers can be a powerful tool for keeping your target audience energized, focused and receptive to learning. They help you and your participants cope with the natural stresses of getting to know, and accept, one another as team members, as well as deal with the pressure of absorbing information in a finite timeline.

Although icebreakers tend to be short and simple (recommended), you should commit reasonable time and care to select and plan the administration of the Icebreakers you will use. How you frame your icebreakers and when you interject them into your training has a great influence on their effectiveness.

Carefully crafted, icebreakers can be a powerful aid for effective learning and retention of information.

People learn better when they’re engaged and having fun, and an ice breaker should be FUN!