Tips for successful icebreakers in groups

Icebreakers are a valuable tool in building group cohesion.

4-H youth and adults precariously balance on a single chair playing a team-building icebreaker. Photo by Jackelyn Martin, MSU Extension.
4-H youth and adults precariously balance on a single chair playing a team-building icebreaker. Photo by Jackelyn Martin, MSU Extension.

Icebreakers and energizers play an important role in a group setting with youth and are used often in Michigan 4-H Youth Development programs. Icebreakers are designed to relieve tension or mutual shyness among a gathering of strangers, build connections among participants, minimize barriers, maximize commonalities and build a sense of community. Icebreakers, energizers, and team building activities are considered one of the three core elements of 4-H club meeting structure. The "Helping You Help Officers and Committees" manual explains that all 4-H club meetings should include elements of business, learning and fun. Icebreakers and energizers can infuse “fun” into almost any club or group setting.

Icebreakers serve several functions in a group meeting:

  • Introduce individuals who may not be familiar with each other.
  • Energize a group and break up lengthy presentations or discussions.
  • Build trust and a team connection.
  • Build knowledge or skills around a particular topic.

Regarding their placement in a meeting, Icebreakers and energizers are appropriate throughout. When used at the beginning of a meeting, they help to familiarize and invigorate a group; in the middle of a meeting, they refocus a group; or at the end, they can serve as a recreational or social break.

Several ideas for icebreakers can be found through a basic internet search or by referencing a set of suggestions compiled by Michigan 4-H Youth Development in the “Group Building Ideas for 4-H Clubs and Group Meetings” manual. When choosing icebreakers, facilitators may need to select carefully, making sure they are age-appropriate and that they will work given your physical meeting space. Additionally, facilitators should be prepared to provide adaptations for youth with special needs or limited abilities.

In order for icebreakers to be most successful, facilitators should be prepared and completely understand the steps involved so that clear directions can be given. If icebreakers require a large group to split into smaller groups, it’s recommended to split youth into groups first, then give instructions. If done in a reverse manner, youth may be more focused on who is going to be in their group and miss the directions. If possible, encourage facilitators and adults to engage in the activities with the youth. This builds a sense of community among all participants and eliminates barriers between youth and adults.

When it comes to timing, it’s best to plan ahead. Some icebreakers can go on indefinitely. Facilitators should have a plan for stopping the activity while it is still fun, rather than boring youth while engaging in a repetitive activity. In contrast, sometimes an icebreaker activity goes much faster than anticipated. It’s best to plan more activities than you think you will need when working within a specific allotment of time.

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