Thanks to Education World readers, we now have an archive of more than 75 unique getting-to-know-you activities for the first days of school. Use these activities to get to know your students and to help them get to know you!
Looking for a way to calm those first-day-of-school jitters -- for your students and yourself? Why not try an "icebreaker"? Icebreakers, fun activities to help students get to know one another and their teachers, can ease those first-day nerves and get the school year off to a great start.
Some teachers prefer to jump right into classroom rules and instruction. Icebreakers, they say, are a waste of good instructional time. Most teachers recognize the potential of icebreakers, though. Icebreakers can help teachers get to know their students. They can reveal who the class leaders might be, what skills and special abilities students possess, and how well students might work together.
Teacher Ellen Berg used to rush into instruction on the first day of school. Getting down to business was a good way to get kids focused on learning right from the start. Berg's ideas about the importance of the first days of school have changed, however.
"Because cooperative learning skills are essential and necessary for good community, I like to set up high-interest cooperative projects for the first days that allow my kids to practice group skills while allowing me to get a good picture of their strengths and weaknesses," said Berg, who teaches at Turner MEGA Magnet Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri.
One of Berg's favorite activities is a mini-lesson on scale drawing. After the lesson, she challenges students to work in groups to draw scaled-down maps of the school hallway. "The project allows my students to work together in small teams while it helps them learn where their core classes will be," said Berg. "It is exciting to see them with their yardsticks, heads bent together, debating measurements and how to deal with fractions."
Lessons such as this one are great icebreakers, and they are great teaching lessons too, Berg added.
Anne Jolly agrees that icebreakers can be easily slanted to accomplish academic goals. Students could compile a class book by having each subject-area teacher focus an opening day icebreaker on the subject, Jolly suggested. "In science, kids might tell about the most catastrophic natural event that ever happened to them and how they felt," explained Jolly. "In language arts, they could tell about their favorite book character and why they like him or her. In history, they could tell about a place they've visited or would like to visit or name a historical figure they admire and tell why. In math, they could tell about a time when a knowledge of math was vital to them; it will probably have to do with money!"
The students can keep a record of their responses as they go from class to class, said Jolly, a veteran grade-eight science teacher.
Icebreakers are not good activities only for the start of the school year, Jolly added. When she was in the classroom, she found ways to use icebreaker activities throughout the year to reinforce the ideas of community and teamwork.
Below you will find more than a dozen icebreakers contributed by our readers. Add to these icebreakers presented in previous years, and you've got enough getting-to-know-you activities to last until January!
A special thank you to this year's icebreaker contributors! The name of the contributor accompanies each activity below.
You will need a camera for this activity. An instant camera will work best; a digital camera will work well if you have a good printer. Take a picture of each student. Then provide each student with a prepared questionnaire that includes questions about favorite foods, books, places, or hobbies. When the questionnaires are completed, students share their responses with one another. (This can be done one-on-one, in small groups, or as a class activity.) Students examine their peers' questionnaires to find "connections" -- things they have in common with one another. Post student pictures on a bulletin board titled "Common Connections." Then students can use strips of construction paper to connect the pictures. On each strip that connects two pictures, students must describe the connection in writing. (For example, a strip labeled "We have three brothers" will connect the pictures of two students who each have three brothers. A strip labeled "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" will connect the pictures of two students who listed that book as their favorite.)
Melissa Kowalski, Schaumburg School District #54, Schaumburg, Illinois
Create and have students fill out a "time capsule" questionnaire with questions that ask about students' interests, such as favorite bands, colors, or foods; best friends; and so on. Collect the questionnaires. Keep them until the end of the school year. At that time, have the students fill out another time capsule questionnaire with the same questions on it. Then hand back the originals. Watch as the students react to their original answers. Sometimes they really surprise themselves!
Jennifer R. Cory, Keller Middle School, Las Vegas, Nevada
A Smile Goes a Long Way!
Create a giant happy face and staple it to a bulletin board with the headline "A Smile Goes a Long Way!" Gather students on the carpet and talk about how this is a happy classroom and it's going to be a happy year. Then prompt students by saying something such as, "As your teacher, I want to know what makes you happy." Then pass out smaller happy faces with lines at the bottom. Children write on the lines one or two things that make them happy. Post their work around the giant happy face.
Shelly Nitkin, Radburn School, Fair Lawn, New Jersey
A Kiss for the Kids!
All students start this activity in a seated position. Then the teacher will give the following, or similar, instructions for students to follow:
At this point in the activity give a (chocolate) kiss to all those who are standing and say, "We all need a kiss a day!"
Marisa R. Dawkins, St. Bartholomew Catholic School, Miramar, Florida
The Name Continuum
Put a sign that has a large A on it on one wall of the classroom. Put a sign that has a large Z on it on the opposite wall. Then have all participants arrange themselves in alphabetical order between the letters. You might do first name order first, then repeat for family name order. Variations: See whether students can do this without saying a word! You might have them organize themselves in order by birth date, height, or another piece of orderable information.
Cliff Lightfoot, Nunthorpe Youth Centre, Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England
Getting-to-Know-You Venn Diagram
Gather groups of three students. Supply a prepared three-circle Venn diagram for each group. Students talk in their groups about themselves and the things they like to do. After a brief discussion, the students must decide on three ways in which they are all alike; they write those things in the intersecting areas of the diagram. Then each student must write in his or her circle three facts that are unique to him or her. This activity helps students recognize and appreciate likenesses and differences in people. It also introduces them to Venn diagrams on the first day of school. This type of graphic organizer might be used many times throughout the year.
Rene Masden, Sixth District Elementary School, Covington, Kentucky
Thanks for the Memories Postcard
The teacher might begin this activity by drawing on one side of a 4- by 6-inch unlined white index card an illustration of a fond memory of the summer vacation just completed. The teacher shows the reverse side of the card, which has been set up to look like the back of a postcard. A vertical line appears in the middle of the card; on the right side of that line the teacher has written her mailing address and on the other side a short note telling about the memory. After the kids see the teacher's model postcard, have each of them transform a blank card into a postcard that includes a thank you to the parent(s) or other person(s) who provided the memory. Then mail the postcards. This activity enables the teacher to see quickly which students know their home addresses and are able to follow directions. The teacher can also assess students' writing abilities, identify artists in the class, and learn about the people who make students feel important. For older students, the teacher might draw a straight horizontal line about an inch in length in the center of the front of the postcard. Students must transform that line into some part of their drawing!
Donna Richardson, Silverhill Elementary School, Silverhill, Alabama
Have a Ball!
This activity is ideal for very young students who are not able to write about themselves on the first day of school. Students sit in a circle on the floor. The teacher holds a large rubber ball and tells his or her name and something else about him or herself. Then the teacher rolls the ball to one of the students. That student tells his or her name and something about himself or herself. The activity continues until everyone has taken a turn. Teachers might focus the activity by asking students to share specific information, such as the names of pets, favorite books, or favorite foods. This activity is an excellent tension reliever for young students, many of whom are separated from their parents for the first time. Follow up the activity by singing a song that will challenge students to observe things about their peers. For example:
"Angie's wearing a white shirt, white shirt, white shirt;
Angie's wearing a white shirt
All day long."
Instruct each child to stand as classmates sing about him or her. Even shy students will enjoy participating.
Angie Stringer, Seminary Elementary School, Seminary, Mississippi
Teach Your Best Lesson!
While all the other middle school or high school subject teachers are going over class rules and handing out books, make your class the one students remember at the end of the day! You can do that by teaching your best lesson on the first day of school. Choose a lesson that requires some previous knowledge but is something most students will be successful at. When they leave class on the first day, the kids feel positive about the subject you teach and they are excited about returning to class tomorrow. Add a homework assignment -- one that will excite and motivate them that they'll be eager to complete. Save those class rules, expectations, and syllabus for the second day of school.
Julie Deppner, Chelsea High School, Chelsea, Michigan
Meet Your Classmates BINGO
Prepare a BINGO sheet that contains the same number of squares as there are students in the class. Have each child write her or his name on a small piece of paper and place it in a fishbowl or another container. Then give each child a prepared BINGO sheet. Students walk around the classroom and gather their classmates' signatures, one signature per square. When all sheets are filled in, play BINGO. Reach into the bowl, and pull out a student's name. Call out the name. Students mark off that name on their BINGO sheets. The first person to get a full row of names calls out BINGO and wins the game. That person can be the one to call out names in a second round of the game.
Virginia Collins, Orange River Elementary School, Fort Myers, Florida
Campfire (or Pool) Stories
Before students arrive, set up a small lamp with a red light bulb. Stack up wood, sticks, and leaves (silk leaves, not real ones) until the lamp can't be seen. Close the blinds, turn off the lights, and arrange blankets around the area on the floor. When students enter the room, they will be very surprised to see a campfire in the middle of their classroom! Invite students to sit around the campfire, close their eyes, and think back over the summer months. Ask each to choose a memorable event from the summer to share with the group. Invite the other students to interact and ask questions to gain more information. After everyone, including the teacher, has shared a story, it's time to transform the stories told into published stories. Review the steps of the writing process by providing a mnemonic device, such as
Students can let their creative juices flow during the publishing phase of the activity. They can publish their stories as big books, pictures, comic strips, slide shows, plays, etc. At the end of the process, students share their stories again but in a new way! If they make books, add those books to the classroom library. (Students love to read the stories over and over again!) This activity gives students the opportunity to catch up on summer news in a structured way. Variation: Set up a kiddie pool outside and let students sit around the pool with their feet in the cool water as they share their "poolside stories."
Michelle Butler, South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Each student will need a partner to complete this activity. The students will interview one another. At the lower grades, teachers can provide a list of possible questions; in the middle grades, the class might brainstorm good interview questions; upper grade students might make up questions as they go along. As the students conduct their interviews, the teacher uses a camera to take pictures of each pair of students. Students write or type their interviews. Then they mount the two interviews on a large strip of construction paper. The photo is mounted between the two interviews. Laminate the interviews, and create a hallway display headlined Friendstrips. When it's time to take down the display, the interviews and photos can be turned into a book for the classroom library.
Jan Troy, Lincolnwood School, Evanston, Illinois
Two Truths and a Dream
The teacher models the activity by telling two things that are true about herself or himself and one thing that is a dream -- one thing that she or he wishes was true but is not! Everyone will learn interesting, surprising, even sad, things about students. Notes from the contributor: "One 13-year-old student told the group that she had moved 12 times. Most of the kids guessed that that was a dream, but it was a true fact. It was obvious from further discussion of the topic that she found it difficult to belong anywhere. I shared with her how I had moved three times during my high school years and how difficult it was for me to always be making new friends and then leaving them. We had an immediate bond on the first day."
Kathy Jones, West Cary Middle School, Cary, North Carolina
Students work in pairs to complete this activity. Ideally, they should work with a partner they don't know well. Provide each student with three 5- by 8-inch index cards. Direct students to fold two of the index cards in half (hamburger-style); the third card is left unfolded. Students write the number 1 in the top, left-hand corner of the inside of one of the folded cards; they write a 2 in the top right-hand corner of the same card. They do the same in the other folded card with the numbers 3 and 4. The unfolded card is numbered 5. In section 1, students generate five questions that will help them gather information they want to know about their partner. They record answers to the questions in section 2. Then they circle the one answer in section 2 that is most intriguing and generate five new questions about it; they write those five questions in section 3. The responses to those questions will be written in section 4. Card 5 is for the final report of the interview. Challenge students to create a zippy opening to hook the reader and a strong closing sentence. The author signs his or her name and creates a title for the piece. As a homework assignment, ask students to bring from home one photo of themselves; the photo can be recent or a childhood photo. Combine the brief bio and photo in a hallway display that parents will love to see at and open house.
Jacqueline Petrosky, American School, Lima, Peru
Each student folds a large piece of construction paper in half (the long way) and places it on the desk. With the fold nearest them (the open part on top), students then write their names in very large letters so that their names stretch across the entire paper. Children with short names should leave larger spaces between the letters in their names. Then students outline the letters of their name with a pencil, making sure not to bring the outlines all the way to the bottom (or fold) of the paper. When they are done outlining, they cut along the outline and then unfold their name to create a unique "name creature." Students can add designs to their name creatures that reflect their own interests or personalities. They present their creatures to the class and explain what their creatures represent.
Jean Carmody, P.S. 9, New York City, New York
Create a list of scavenger hunt questions that relate to the classroom environment. Those questions might include
The questions should challenge students to be good observers of the classroom environment. This activity helps familiarize young students with the classroom while giving teachers the opportunity to observe which students can read questions with no problem, who writes without assistance, who takes charge and gets to work, who holds back and waits for help, and more.
Mary Robert, Radio Park Elementary School, State College, Pennsylvania
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