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Breaking The Ice: putting a little fun into working with groups

By Andrea Bodkin, HC Link Coordinator

This is the third blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches that will be written by various HC Link staff over the next little while. This particular segment focuses on ways to use icebreakers and active games when working with groups.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love icebreakers and games. I have dozens of them ready to go, ready to whip out at a minutes notice. I’m often asked not only to lead icebreakers at events, but also for help from others who must lead them. While icebreakers can be (and should be!) fun, they are not child’s play. It takes a bit of work to make icebreakers meaningful and well as fun. In this post I’ll talk about a few of the things to keep in mind when planning icebreakers and active games, and I’ll also list out a few of my favourites.

Be clear on the purpose. It’s critically important to think about the reason that you want to include icebreakers or active games into your community processes, meetings or events. Understanding the purpose of including these types of activity will help you to select the appropriate one. While fun is definitely one reason, an icebreaker can actually help to deepen the participant experience, introduce content, and even illustrate concepts. In my experience, I’ve found three basic categories of icebreakers and games. At the end of this post I’ll give some examples for each category:

  1. To get to know the group, or for individuals within the group to get to know each other
  2. Physical activity and fun!
  3. To introduce, demonstrate or apply concepts that will be explored in the meetings

Know the personality and preferences of the group. All groups- like all individuals- have personalities. Some groups are formal and like to get down to business, other groups like to have fun and enjoy experiential learning. It is very, very important to understand the personality and preferences of the group (and the personalities within it) when selecting your activities. For instance, I probably wouldn’t play Musical Chairs with a group of business leaders or executive directors, but there are groups that would enjoy it! To help with selecting the icebreaker, ask yourself:

  • Are you working with an established group, a newly created one, or individual participants who do not know each other? If they know each other, how well? What is the level of trust that exists? Are there any group dynamics that you should be aware of?
  • What is the participants’ previous level of experience with ice breakers and active games? Is this experience likely to be positive for them or will there be any resistance?

Always make it optional. There are icebreaker lovers, haters, and those who will participate without having strong feelings one way or the other. Forcing icebreaker-haters to participate will not convince them to love icebreakers (I know, I’ve tried). Make it very clear that no one has to participate in the activity. If the activity that you’ve selected is a very active one, also give other participation options to the group to allow those with different preferences or levels of activity to participate.

Debrief. In my opinion, this is a critical step and one that’s often missed. Having a debrief makes the difference between a game being fun and being a part of the learning/participatory experience. If the purpose of the activity is to have fun, you don’t have to debrief. If however you are using the activity to further the objective of the overall session, you will need to have a debrief with the full group.

Get to know you games

Group juggling: a fun way to get to know the names of people in your group. If your group already knows each other well, you can use favourite vacation destinations, summertime activities etc. instead of names. TIP: I found that using balloons works really well--easier to manage and less likely to injure people or the environment! Be sure to fully explain the safety features of this game to your group.

thats meThat’s Me!/ Have you ever……I often use one of these games if I’m doing a workshop with a large group and I want to get a sense of who people are, what they know, and what they want to get out of the session. Customize your questions according to what you want to find out about your group.


Inner/Outer Circle: Have your participants arrange themselves into two circles, one inside the other, so that participants are facing each other. Take 1 minute to talk with the person who is directly in front of you. Then they take one minute to talk to you. After each person in the pair has shared, the people in the outer circle shift 2 people to the left. You then repeat the exercise with your new partner, and so on. Sample questions/topics to discuss during the one minute interval (choose only one. Use the same question for each interaction). Sample questions:

  • What do you hope to get out of today?
  • What is a challenge that you’re currently experiencing in your work?
  • What do you LOVE about the work that you do?

Repeat about 5-8 times

Walk and Talk: Similar Very similar to Inner/Outer Circle, but rather than being in circles, play music and have people walk (or dance) around the room. When the music stops, participants find a person next to them and talk with that person, using the same types of questions as above.

Musical Chairs: This variation of musical chairs is a way for each individual to introduce themselves to the group. Arrange chairs in the center of the room. Make sure there are fewer chairs than people! Play music and have folks wander around the chairs. When the music stops, participants try to find a chair. Those left standing introduce themselves to the group, sharing their name and one other thing (eg what they love about their work, what they hope to get out of the day etc). Repeat until everyone has introduced themselves and there are no more chairs!

Physically active and fun games

Human Rock Paper Scissors: Rather than just using our hands to select rock, paper or scissors, participants use their bodies. It becomes a fun group activity when people begin in pairs, and the person who does not win the round stands behind the person that does. Each pair then plays against another pair, with the non-winners standing behind winners and so on, until eventually there two huge teams left. Hint: be sure that you can quickly and easily explain this activity (practise ahead of time) and you’ll want to review, or perhaps even post, the order of which beats what.

Musical Chairs: with or without the questions as described above!

Reflective activities

objectsThe Object Game: This is one of my absolute favourites. I’m not sure where it comes from (I was first introduced to it about 12 years ago by Nancy Dubois) but you can play it for a variety of purposes. It does make a great introduction piece, or you can use this as a way for participants and the group as a whole to reflect on their work.

  • Place a variety of miscellaneous, ordinary household/office objects on a table (be sure you have 1 for each person plus a few extras and try not to have too many repeats). Items like tape, salt and pepper shakers, a stapler, oven mitts, a lint roller, sticky notes, a coffee cup etc
  • As each person enters the room, have them select an object at random (usually people will pick the object that resonates with them in some way)
  • Sample questions:
    • Have each person introduce themselves and use the object to describe the work that they do.
    • Use the object to describe something that the group has accomplished over the last year, a barrier that’s been overcome
    • Use the object to describe a hope for the future or a vision for the group


Impromptu Networking: This is a variation of Walk and Talk that provides space for participants to start thinking big and creatively.

Looking for more ideas?

There is no shortage of icebreakers and active games thanks to the internet. The above is hardly a complete list but rather a collection of some of my favourites that I’ve done several times with groups. Here are a couple of websites with lots more options!

Do you have a favourite icebreaker or game you’d like to share? Use the comment box to tell us about it!

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