Guide on the Side – Ice Breakers and Other Related Activities

Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Ice breakers are cool. They really do break the ice and create a warm ambience. Try to include them in the design and delivery of your training. They unleash surprising energy, improve group dynamics and help learners develop new competencies.

Novice trainers sometimes mistakenly think trainees need to be totally serious to learn. They see group activities, characterized with laughter and other expressions of fun, as a frivolous waste of time. The opposite is true. When people are comfortable with their surroundings and peers, they are more likely to grasp new ideas.

If you doubt that the emotional landscape is important to learning, observe how icebreaker activities occur naturally. When people gather at meetings and social functions, without any prompting, they greet each other, update activities, detail gripes, make personal inquiries and introduce themselves to strangers. The impulse to establish group connection is strong. Plus ice breakers promote peer interaction, a major element of adult learning.

Researchers have studied group behaviors and educational psychologist, Bruce Tuckman posits five phases of group evolvement. Awareness of group topology can help you design activities appropriate to the group stage and speed up the process of getting a group to a performing level:

Forming (members gather impressions, avoid serious issues, stay social)

Storming (members attempt to organize, friction or fear of failure may arise)

Norming (communities are built, ideas about members change, feelings shared)

Performing(functioning group, interdependence, able to problem solve)

Adjourning (termination of the group creates sense of loss and mourning)

Group activities can be used throughout training but are especially useful at the beginning or forming stage. They immediately involve and relax people, open the lines of communication between the trainer and the trainees and develop a sense of trust. People often come to training tense from a prior activity. Some don’t think they need training and resent the time spent. Icebreakers relieve tension and signal that the training environment is “safe.” Used throughout training, group activities promote content flow, revive failing energy, stimulate creativity and get the trainees to look at the world in new ways. Also, they can equalize differences among learners with different job types or status.

There are many types of ice breaker and group activities. Match your objective for a particular segment of training with the relevant type of activity:




New Topic Lead In

Feedback and Review


Wind Ups


Use an introducer at the beginning of a program, especially when the people don’t know each other and need to become acquainted. This can be a simple as self or partnered introductions. It helps to ask people to include some specific detail on attitude, experience or learning style. You can prompt them by having them complete sentences:

“People say I have…”

“When I am tired, I am apt to…”

Ask people to tell three things about themselves, two of which are true and one a lie. The group tries to guess which one is the lie. Example: I asked people to write three such sentences in a business writing class. They read the sentences to the group and the group guessed which was the lie. People learned about each other, there was humor and it was an unobtrusive way for me to collect samples of their writing skills.

The length of the ice breaker activity should be in proportion to the length of the training program. Avoid a half hour icebreaker for a program that is only one hour. A two-day workshop can begin with 30 to 45 minutes of group activity, such as the trainer welcomes the audience and then asks people to assort ourselves by birth year. “All the people born before 1970 go in left corner, all the ones born before 1960 to in the right corner” and so on. Then the groups are asked to discuss these questions among themselves:

Who was your political hero in high school?

What did your mother tell you about sex?

What do you remember most about your first true love?

You can add more questions but you get the idea. Each group reports the answers received by people in their group to the whole group. When the exercise is complete, you have a generation by generation social history that helps to form a learning community and to create a functional backdrop for the training on a communication topic.


Use energizers to emphasize a point, transition to a new topic or revitalize the group when energy is low, such as the end of the day. Energizers tend to be loud and physical so be sure you have space and can make noise without disturbing others.

Have trainees change seats or re-arrange the room

Change the format of delivery to more audience active

Do aerobic, stretch or breathing exercises

Have a Tarzan and Jane yelling contest

Hold a short triathalon consisting of hops, skips and jumps

Simple lead ins

Find out what learners already know via discussion or informal quiz

Use theme music to call people back from breaks and to announce mood

Get volunteers to role play a problem related to the next topic

Ask people what questions they hope to have answered by the next module

Distribute magazine pictures and have people tell what is happening re the topic


Chant the important principles learned accompanied by clapping and rapping

Arrange everyone in a circle, facing each other. First person throws a nerf ball to a person and they tell what was the most important thing they just learned. Then that person tosses the ball to another. Continue until everyone has caught the ball.

Form groups of two to discuss the most valuable information and report findings to the group in rhyme.


These can be used to calm people down after exuberant or emotional sessions

Are appropriate for a reality check after an imaginative brainstorming

Reflect for five minutes with head down. (Reflection is a powerful learning tool.)

Enhance with soothing music or sounds of nature


You may never need a Diversion but if an unexpected interruption or delay occurs you will be prepared to occupy the time. Example: Some years ago I arrived at the convention hotel in San Francisco at the same time as several hundred others. The lobby was packed. It looked like we would be there for hours but the hotel staff was prepared. They went up and down the lines passing out Ghiradelli chocolate, maps of the city, coffee and food samples from the hotel restaurants. A diversion made dead time came alive.


I like to end training with an activity that offers closure and connection. Individual action plans are an excellent way to end and so are team action plans if the training involves team skills. Brief individual summations are another way to end.

The guidelines for using ice breakers and related activities are straightforward:

Keep them simple

Explain clearly

Make sure everyone understands

Try to relate the activity to the competency or principle

Be non-judgmental with responses

There are dozens of print and online sources of icebreakers and games but some of the best group activities are the ones you create and customize to fit your group and material. Well known games can be easily modified and have the benefit of being familiar. In the meantime, explore these:

The Big Book of Icebreakers by Edie West, McGraw-Hill, 1999

Encyclopedia of Group Activities: 150 Practical Designs for Successful Facilitating, by J. William Pfeiffer, University Associates, 1989

Encyclopedia of Icebreakers: Structured Activities that Warm-up, Motivate, Challenge, Acquaint and Energize, by Sue Forbess-Greene, University Associates, 1983, San Diego.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills, Training