How Thick is the Ice?

This article originally formed part of the "Off with a Bang" workshop run by Sam Moore / Totem

The purpose of an Ice Breaker is to:

“satisfy the participants' needs to establish an appropriate social relationship with other participants, with the facilitators, and to preview the style and content of the programme”.

At the very beginning of a programme every participant is likely to be insecure about his or her place in the group. They want to be acknowledged in an appropriate way and they want to be invited into the group. They also want to know they will receive an appropriate level of respect from the others in the group and from the facilitators. The vast majority of people want to be liked.

By using an ice breaker you provide people with the opportunity to;

As well as introducing the group to each other, the icebreaker can be used to introduce;

The ice breaker creates a feeling of what kind of programme is being facilitated, what is important in the program and what kinds of roles are expected from the participants.

The content of the ice breaker can introduce the themes of the programme, is it about trust, leadership, team work, communication?

Your style in leading an ice breaker should be similar to the style you will use for the programme.

What is the 'Ice' to be Broken?

When choosing your ice breaker you need to think about its purpose, what is the ice to be broken? If you are bringing together keen, motivated, like-minded people you may simply have them “get-to know” each other.

If you have participants that know each other but perhaps don't work together or are reticent you may need to choose an activity that helps them set expected behaviours.

When your participants come from very different backgrounds and cultures you may have to choose an icebreaker that allows them to work out their place in the group and to understand the others better.

If your participants are nervous about the programmes or the upcoming activities you may need to get them used to working together, accepting mistakes, building confidence and taking on challenges.

What ever you do, choose carefully. A well chosen icebreaker can make the participants laugh, smile, be pleased to be in the group and excited about what is coming up. A poorly chosen one can leave them feeling awkward and scared!3

How Long?

No hard and fast rules apply as to how long you spend ‘breaking the ice’. Ultimately, it depends on how long you have with the group, how well they know each other already and what ice needs to be broken.

Some Ice Breakers to Try

Four ice breaking activities for you to try.


Spread a large collection of postcards, or other images, on a table and ask participants to choose up to three that they feel will tell the group a little about themselves. Alternatively, in a group that already know each other fairly well, get each person to secretly select three and place them together on a table and ask them to work out which pile belongs to who.

Get Knotted

The group are presented with a tangle of ropes with the same number of ends as there are team members. They each hold one end of a rope and must untangle themselves without letting go of the rope.

You will need half as many ropes as you have group members, each about 2m in length with a wrist loop at each end.

Tangle the ropes up, a series of knots and twists works well. Ensure that all the ropes are well entwined and that the tangle is roughly in the middle. Make sure this is done in advance as it takes some time.

Ensure there is plenty of space around the group. Have the group stand in a circle about 2m across. They should then put their left hands through a loop and grasp the rope.

Tell the participants;

  1. The must untangle the ropes so they are only attached to one other person.
  2. They must not remove their hands from the loop at any point.
  3. They should not pull on the rope at any point.

Once they untangle themselves they will be attached to one other person, with whom they share relevant information.

Shoe Factory

Have the group stand in a large circle shoulder to shoulder. Then have everyone remove their shoes and put them in the centre. After the group has formed a pile with their shoes, the leader has everyone choose two different shoes that are not their own. They should put them on their feet, as best they can. The group then needs to successfully match the shoes and put them in proper pairs by standing next to the individual wearing the other shoe. This will normally results in a tangled mess.

Screaming Kangaroos

Line the group up along a start line on some flat ground. Have them practice a few screams, emphasising loudness and duration. Once they are screaming well, check that all of them can hop on one leg.

Once they can all scream and hop, get them to combine the two by hopping as far as they can from the start line, but they can only hop while they are screaming, once they run out of breath they must stop where they are.