Top 8 Times To Use An Icebreaker - And Which Ones To Use

Best Icebreakers for Jewish Educators you love them or hate them?

I personally know educators who have the full spectrum of reactions to these bonding introductory activities. Some people are completely gung-ho, ready to share the ice cream flavor that best describes their personalities, or to untangle a human knot at the drop of a hat. Others, however, send me things like this:



I'm an icebreaker fan, because I see them as more than the name games and fun facts used to kill time or to go through the motions of getting to know each other at the beginning of the year. Icebreakers are content goldmines for me and for my learners in all ages/environments, so for this first post I figured I'd answer two big questions:

When should I use an icebreaker, and which one should I use?

  1. With your staff - Icebreakers aren't just limited to people who are meeting for the first time. Shaking things up in a staff meeting can give faculty and staff a chance to loosen up and learn something new about each other, as well as model activities that they can take with them to their classrooms or other constituent groups that they meet with. For staff and other groups who already know each other, I recommend icebreakers that enable them to update their colleagues in ways they might not otherwise. My favorite thing to do is ask everyone to share a 'humble brag' from the last week of their personal or professional lives. Reassure them - they don't have to have cured cancer or won a medal to have something to brag about. My latest humble brag is that my niece told me I'm a good twirler. 

  2. At a Shabbat dinner -  I think we've all been in the situation where we're at a dinner or other small-group social event and we're not quite sure who everyone else at the table is. While the hosts ideally provide information and points of connection about our dining companions, an icebreaker can give everyone a great starting point for conversations with new and old friends. For diverse groups in social situations, I suggest icebreakers that provide context to who you are. Ask everyone to share their favorite food memories (Shabbat or otherwise!). Who was their favorite chef growing up? What's their 'signature dish' to cook or eat? Food stories always get the ball rolling for good conversation! 

  3. When you have a clique problem - It's always a tough experience for an educator to have a clique in the classroom, or an in-group and an out-group in any setting. In these cases, I see icebreakers as an opportunity for participants to learn more about each other and engage in the breaking down of barriers between members of different social circles. For times when you need to break up groups, I recommend pairing up participants from different preexisting circles and giving them a shared challenge. A personal favorite - give them a little time to get to know each other, and then ask everyone to introduce their partner to the larger group by sharing what their theme song should be. A twist on a classic that always gets interesting!
  4. To connect participants with content - As Jewish educators, one of our main missions is always to help our learners relate the meaning of our lessons to their own lives. It can be hard to do that in some contexts, so icebreakers can do a great job of setting the stage for meaningful discussion in a low-barrier way. When I teach about Shabbat, I like to frame the conversation by asking participants to share one thing they do for self-care, or to relax. Even if it has nothing to do with Shabbat or Jewish content, it puts us into the Shabbat mindset to get things started!
  5. With a one-off group - Lots of times, I meet with a group that I know will only be getting together once. I might be there as a guest speaker, or it might be a group of people coming together for a specific purpose that will not be repeated. It can be tempting to skip the icebreaker portion of the evening, particularly if group bonding isn't a top priority under the circumstances, but I encourage you to still use your icebreaker to get to know the group, which can set the tone for the whole session. You want to use something low barrier and generic, while still being engaging. I recommend going a bit out of the box. With adults, ask everyone to take out their keychains and tell the group something about them that we can learn from the keys they carry - this usually leads to great stories about keychain origins, grocery stores of choice, or the many symbols keys can mean for people.
  6. With millennials - This generation is often jaded when it comes to icebreakers, having done far too many trust falls and games of two truths and a lie in their time. So with them, it's best to break down resistance to the whole concept by making them laugh with nostalgia. One icebreaker that always hits a sweet spot with millennials is asking them to tell the story of their first email address/screen names. Laughter and stories of AOL abound.
  7. When a group needs to connect - We've all been in groups that don't necessarily bond from the beginning, and a mid-point icebreaker can be a great way of getting a little bit deeper and encouraging sharing in a fun way. When I'm leading a multisession program, I like to use personal content-based icebreakers that allow for sharing and community building. I would rely on some classics here - human bingo is always great, particularly if you have time to create options that give participants a chance to learn things that they may have in common.
  8. When a group actually has to learn each other's names - the most classic use of an icebreaker is embracing its intended purpose and doing some name games. I like to embrace multiple intelligences in these cases, and to use both physical and verbal skills. I recommend an icebreaker where each participant says their name while demonstrating a gesture (bow, salute, dance, etc.) that everyone will repeat. I don't know how or why, but people are more likely to remember names when they have a physical connection to associate with them.

So there you have it! My favorite icebreakers, and my favorite circumstances to liven up the room with them. Please share in the comments - what are your favorites? When do you like to use icebreakers?