Back to School Activities — Ice Breaker Alternatives

It’s the end of July, and that means teachers in the USA (and other parts of the world) are starting to plan their first day/week activities for the school year. If you, like me, hear the words, “Let’s do an ice breaker.” or “Let’s do a get-to-know-you activity.” and want to run for the hills, then this post is for you.

If you, unlike me, love ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities, may I suggest that you consider mixing some of these alternatives into your routine as well? While I agree that getting to know our students is important, relationship building is the key to a successful classroom environment, I’m not convinced that ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities are the way to go. Some students, especially older newly arrived students (be they newly arrived from another country, state, city, or even school across town), want nothing more than to blend in and be accepted as one of the group. Many students, newly arrived and not-so-newly-arrived, need time to become comfortable with new people/groups before being able to open up, even about seemingly inconsequential things. Thus the dilemma: how do we get to know our students, build a positive classroom environment, and have a smooth/fun transition back to school? I have a few suggestions.

When I first started teaching, I couldn’t imagine “wasting” an entire day, week, or even longer teaching routines and procedures. I quickly learned this time is far from wasted and I couldn’t afford NOT to invest it in these activities. Thus, on the first day of ever class, the first thing I do is start teaching routines and procedures. I then like to start trying to get a sense of where my students are at academically. While reviewing previous grades and administering pre-tests have their value, I don’t think it gives me the best reading of students’ actual abilities. Too many students are nervous when they know they’re being assessed and this leads to inaccurate data. Instead, I prefer to get students engaged in a game or other fun activity that allows me to observe and get a sense of their speaking skills, as well as their reading and possibly even writing abilities. In no particular order, here are five of my go-to first week of school activities that allow me to practice routines/procedures with students, have some you-don’t-have-to-reveal-anything-about-yourself fun, and start to get a sense of where they are at academically.

Silly Shorts

I wrote a complete blog post about this game in April of 2021, and it is always a hit with my students. I love it as a first week of school activity because it can be used with any age or proficiency level (remember, I teach ESL) student. It doesn’t take more than one or two turns for students to start to relax, and before they know it everyone is laughing and having fun. There is no reading or writing required, but it an excellent way to get a feel for students’ speaking abilities, sentence level grammar, story formation skills, and general vocabulary.

Mr. Potato Head

This descriptive writing activity is so much fun (students frequently request to do it again) and it gives me the opportunity to assess students’ writing skills, vocabulary, and get them practicing several different classroom routines/procedures (individual work time, materials passing out and returning, handing in work…). This is also a great first week of school activity because it can take as little as one block class period, or as many as three to four classes to complete. Get the full details in this blog post from January of 2021.

Proverbs from Around the World Game

This board game is especially popular with my intermediate to advanced immigrant students, and would be great for a world history, geography, or other social studies class. The goal of Proverbs from Around the World is to be the first player to reach finish. Players advance by reading a proverb and explaining, in their own words, what the proverb means/teaches. The game includes 40 different proverbs cards, so there is no fear of students having to repeat a previous student’s answer. My students always get excited when they find a proverb from their home country/language. They also enjoy discussing similar proverbs they know to those on the cards.

Paraprosdokian Board Game

Paraprosdokians are figures of speech in which the second part of the sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, causing the reader/listener to reevaluate their understanding of the first part. They are often quite humorous as well. In this game, students read a paraprosdokian and then have to, in their own words, explain why it is surprising or unexpected. It’s a great way to give students lengthier, unscripted speaking practice and the linguistic complexity of these figures of speech provides enough challenge for advanced English language learners and native speakers alike. The surprising nature of the sentences never fails to get students laughing and talking amongst themselves.

Oreo Science & Math Madness

This is the most academically focused of the five activities, but it is so much fun my students never notice they are reviewing a lot of important skills. Many of my students struggle with creating their own graphs, as well as communicating in written form the data presented in a graph. The activity is cross-curricular and involves students in the full writing process, as well as speaking, data collection, graphing, and drawing conclusions. When we do the full activity, it takes us two weeks and they get a review of the scientific method as well as fraction, decimal, percent equivalents and conversions. If you don’t want to spend two weeks on this activity, it’s a lot of fun to simply brainstorm different ways to eat an Oreo (my students and I highly recommend actually trying each out) and then having students conduct a survey of their friends and family. You can create the graph as a class and easily complete the activity in two days.

Whatever activities you choose to use for the start of the school year, I hope you have a good one! Happy teaching, everyone.