What is an Ice Breaker?
Ice breakers are activities or modes of discussion used to help individuals
ease into a group setting. Some ice breakers are done in groups and some
can be individually completed. Others involve physical activities while
others can be purely mental. Any activity that suits the intended purpose
can be used.
For what are ice breakers used?
They can serve many purposes from facilitating introductions, to prior
knowledge assessment, to several other reasons outlined below and others
that have probably been inadvertently omitted. Also note that a single
ice breaker could easily fall into several of the categories. They are
not intended to be mutually exclusive and you should design or choose
activities that meet all of your intended needs.
- Facilitating Introductions - When groups first come together,
interactions and discussions can be hindered by timidness, a lack
of understanding the norms of the group, and/or simple unfamiliarity
among other possibilities. Ice breakers can be used to create familiarity
within the group and ease everyone into the group process. The desired
end result is a more open discussion forum and pleasing environment
within the group in which the group process can continue.
- Prior Knowledge Assessment - One pedagogical advantage of
using ice breakers is that they provide the instructor an opportunity
to assess student prior knowledge. They can then lead to the identification
of individual needs within the group while also introducing everyone
and helping to create a healthy group environment as with facilitating
- Environment Creation / Fostering Group Unity- The environment
has already been mentioned in each of the above uses. A primary purpose
of ice breakers can be to help create an open environment in which
all participants are willing to open up and participate. Participants
need to be encouraged to open up to one another and relax. The introduction
and the method by which the ice breaker is carried out can also be
designed to encourage a break down of status/race/gender/etc. barriers
that may pre-exist in the group. As members of the group get to know
one another for better or worse, a form of group unity develops,
especially in situations in which a common goal both exists and is
known by all.
- Topic Segues - When starting a new topic, ice-breakers can
be created to introduce the topic. Often, some form of prior knowledge
activity can be used to this end. These are also particularly useful
when the members of the group already know each other by one means
- Preparation of Participants - Many learning environments
(and this concept is particularly true in online education) require
some form of introduction in order to be fully utilized by the participants.
By structuring the ice breaking activity into the learning environment
or course management system, students can get to know one another
while getting to know the course delivery method.
- Energizers - Some ice breakers are designed simply to energize
the group of participants. Although less common in an online course
where there is unlikely to be a physical task to perform, they can
still be very useful in face-to-face workshop environments for second
day/morning activities to help wake up everyone.
When does one use an ice breaker?
Usually, an ice breaker is used at the beginning of a session or course
in order to let everyone in the course get to know one another. However,
they can be useful within a course as well. Whenever group formation occurs,
such as before a group project, ice breakers can be useful. Ice breakers
by definition occur at the start of a process. It should be noted, though,
that the ice breaker activities that one may have in his/her repertoire
need not be limited in use to the beginning of a process. For example,
ice breakers in the knowledge assessment category could be used whenever
a new topic is introduced in a course, although they would then be called
Why are ice breakers so important in an online course?
An ice breaker, though comprising only a small portion of the total time
spent in any meetings/class/group/etc., can be of vital importance to
the success of any group process. There are many small group theories
that describe the stages of group development from a collection of individuals
to a cohesive whole. Some form of interdependence is often the end result
in a successful group. But to achieve this level, the individuals in a
group must get to know one another and an environment must be created
in which everyone feels open to discussion and friendliness. Only through
this discussion can the group process evolve, especially in an online
course where text-based discussion may be the only form of communication.
In an online course, the need to establish such an environment of open
discussion where everyone can get to know one another must actively be
sought in order for it to develop in a reasonable amount of time. Ice
breakers help the instructor to develop this environment while performing
any of a number of other functions as described above.
But I thought these were just for face-to-face events.
True, many activity-based ice breakers that energize groups are designed
mainly for face-to-face environments. But there are many styles of ice
breakers, and any ice breaker that can be modified to depend mainly on
text based dialogue can be a success in an online course.
Choosing an ice breaker.
When choosing an ice breaker there are 3 questions to keep in mind. First,
what are your goals (instructional and group goals)? Second, who is your
audience (including their reasons for being there and personal goals)?
Third, is the ice breaker connected to its purpose?
The first consideration when choosing an ice breaker is the purpose of
that ice breaker. Earlier, it was noted that ice breakers can have many
purposes. Determine what your goals are, and then you can connect the
activity to the goal.
Next you have to look at your audience. If you are working with a group
in which everyone already knows one another, then a get to know you exercise
wouldn't serve much purpose other than to take up time. An alternative
activity should then be considered. Likewise, if you are working with
an audience that could potentially have a good level of prior knowledge,
the ice breaking activity might be designed to probe this knowledge so
that the instruction could be modified to best serve the students.
Finally, make sure that the ice breaker you choose is actually connected
to the intended purpose of the ice breaker. Not all ice-breakers work
for all intended ends. For example, a sing-along activity that might be
useful as an energizer would serve little function towards everyone getting
to know each other by name unless the sing-along activity also incorporated
name games. Then the activity would serve a dual purpose, with one of
those being the intended and the other possibly being beneficial in the
Additional things to consider.
How many people will participate? Some activities work better for small
groups and others for larger groups. For instance, a name game exercise
involving memorization of terms becomes difficult for the participants
when the group exceeds 9 people in size.
How much time can be allotted? Some activities take longer than others.
If you only have 5 minutes (which will rarely be enough time and 15 would
be a more appropriate minimum), then you have to plan an activity or choose
one that can be completed in the time available.
Where will the activity take place? For online education, the activity
will likely take place in some form of online discussion forum. Therefore,
only activities that can make use of a text based forum should be chosen.
O.K., I think I have it now. But where can I get ideas for ice breaker
The resources included at the end of this article contain numerous ideas
for ice breaker activities.
One might ask where one can go to find ideas for ice breakers. Well,
there are any number of Web sites out there with large lists of ice breaking
activities. While there are numerous resources that one can find concerning
ice breakers when searching the billions of pages on the World Wide Web,
the following resources were useful in the organization of this paper
and contain information that is either particularly useful or easy to
adapt to the online workshop or course.
Bartle, Phil. 2001, Ice Breakers - Breaking Down Inhibitions,
CoachVille Resource Center, 1997, The Top 10 Icebreakers for Meetings
and Training Seminars, http://www.topten.org/content/tt.AU20.htm
Dover, Kimeiko H. About.com, 2001, Icebreakers:
(3 parts), begins on http://adulted.about.com/library/blicebreakers.htm?once=true&
Itin, Christian. 2001, ActivityPage, http://www.du.edu/~citin/activitypage.html
The Leadership Center,
Washington State University, no date given, Ice Breakers, http://cub.wsu.edu/Lead/IceBreakers.htm
Missouri 4-H Youth Development Programs, Ohio State University,
1998, Tips for Fostering Group Unity, http://dldc-courses.ext.missouri.edu/umc/4h-Volunteers/secure/Lesson4/unity.htm
Nostwich, Sallie. Department of Educational Technology, San
Diego State University, 2000, Recipes & Tips for Making Meetings
Povlacs, Joyce T. Teaching
and Learning Center, University of
Nebraska-Lincoln, no date given, 101 Things You Can Do the First
Three Weeks of Class, http://www.unl.edu/teaching/101ways.html
Pilato, Donna. About.com, 2001, Breaking
the Ice, http://entertaining.about.com/library/weekly/aa032700a.htm
PopEd, Mike Gifford, 1999, Ice
Susquehanna University Campus
Center Office, 2001, Break the Ice!, http://www.susqu.edu/campus_center/book2.htm
Thanks to Iris Stovall for proofreading and Mike McNett for sharing resources.