Whether you’re starting a new school year, or simply starting a course with new students, it’s always handy to have some activities up your sleeve to help you and your learners get to know each other and, like the overweight polar bear, break the ice!
In this two-part series, we’ll be suggesting a total of eight tried-and-tested activities you can try out with new groups. All of them will work with a range of ages and levels.
But first, what makes a good ice-breaker activity? Well, the aim should always be to create a positive and safe learning environment where each student feels they belong in the group so the best ice-breakers have the following features:
- They help create connections and a sense of community, where no one is excluded
- They increase learners’ desire to interact with their classmates
- They never make learners feel uncomfortable (“Oh no! Please don’t make me do a “Find someone who…”)
- They give learners control over how much they reveal about themselves
- They include a language learning focus, not just a getting-to-know-each-other one
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the first four of our eight incredible icebreakers…
1. That’s so boring!
We often ask our students to think of “interesting” facts about themselves to share with their classmates but this can put learners under a lot of pressure, especially if they don’t know anyone yet (“What if they don’t think my facts are interesting?”).
Ask them instead to write down 1-3 facts about themselves that they think are boring. Once they’ve written them, they can share their facts with the other students in a mingle-type activity and find people who have similar facts, or maybe who have facts which are actually not very boring at all!
2. How much have we got in common?
Helping learners to see how much they have in common with each other is a great way to build connections and rapport, so for this activity you need to give students a time limit (e.g. 5 minutes) to find out how many things they have in common. For example, they may all have brown hair, or they may all like pizza.
If you have a large class, you can put the students into groups of 5-8 and see which group can find the highest number of things in common. If you have a smaller class, or prefer not to have competing groups, you can give them a target number of things to find in common before the 5 minutes end. At the end, they report back to you and the class to list all the things they have in common (e.g. “we all have…” , “none of us are..”). With younger learners, you could also follow this up with an activity where they make a poster about the things they have in common.
3. Unique You
Just as important as showing learners how they’re similar to each other is celebrating how they are different to each other, therefore creating a climate of acceptance and appreciation of diversity. For this activity, learners should try to think of facts about themselves that they think would not be true about anyone else in the class. You should tell them they can’t choose obvious things like names or anything related to appearance, but they might choose things like, “I hate chocolate” or “I’m afraid of butterflies”.
When they’ve had a few minutes to think about their uniqueness, ask learners to read their facts and the rest of the class should listen and, if the fact is also true for them, stand up and say “me too” or “same here”. The winner is the student who shares a fact for which no one stands up.
4. Ask me about....
Quite often, topics for ice-breaking conversations are imposed upon learners by teachers or coursebooks, but students may not feel comfortable revealing information about, or answering questions on, the topics chosen (family is a classic example).
In this activity, students choose 3 topics they are happy to speak about (e.g. food, my summer holidays, Billie Eilish) and write them on stickers which they put on their shirt, or, if they’re on Zoom, for example, changing their Zoom name to the topics. The learners then approach each other and ask about one or more of the topics the students have chosen. This can be a good way to practise the “Tell me about..” questions so often seen in exams. At the end, you can wrap up by asking the students what new facts they learnt.
If, like the polar bear, your appetite keeps growing until you finally break the ice then keep an eye out for part 2 of this series, where we’ll be sharing another four fantastic first lesson ideas!