Think back to the icebreaker games you’ve been roped into over the course of your life. We’ve all been there: whether at summer camp, workplace training, or the first day of insert-educational-setting-here. And each of these icebreakers was probably much the same.
There was at least one beginning with ‘Now form a circle and hold hands’ and left you with awkward palm sweat.
At least one calling for everyone to form two groups: boys and girls.
At least one with some sort of ‘Remember everybody’s name and their favourite fruit / colour / piece of playground equipment’ component.
At least one asking you to stand up. Then sit down. Then stand on one leg and balance three cushions on your head, or something equally ridiculous.
And at least one that caused you to feel deeply uncomfortable, excluded or singled out, with no option to leave the activity.
But wait, I hear you say. Isn’t the entire point of an icebreaker game to get people out of their comfort zones and interacting with new people? Don’t all those things do that?
Well, yes. They do.
But there’s a difference between inviting a person to step outside their comfort zone, and forcing a person to do something they physically, mentally, or emotionally cannot do.
And we need to get better at knowing the difference.
For some people, being in a new place with a bunch of unfamiliar humans is a massive challenge. We need to respect their right to not share their favourite vegetable within the first thirty seconds of entering a space, and offer an alternative or opt-out option.
We need better grouping options for our folks outside the gender binary. Long hair versus short hair. Sneakers versus sandals. Pencils versus crayons. The list goes on.
We need to remember people who are touch averse when you’re considering asking everyone to hold hands. Think about your gender balance as well – being asked to link arms with people you’ve just met when you’re one of two non-dudes in a room of is an experience I’d rather not relive, thank you very much. Ask for consent beforehand and be prepared to respect a ‘no’ response, or do something different. Please.
We need to allow choice in how people position themselves. Some might need to stand. Some might need to sit. Some might need to move. Let them decide themselves, and change at any time.
This is not everything. There will never be a list capturing everything. Humans are far too diverse for that. But it’s a start. Respect your participants and their right to decline to participate. Make alternative roles and opt-out options just as valid as participating in the icebreaker itself. And actively consider people different from yourself at all stages.
Icebreaker games still have a place and a purpose. They still are powerful tools at relieving tension and enabling connection within a group. We just need to be a lot more considerate and intentional with how we design and use them.