With autumn comes the beginning of school and all the fun and anxiety that goes with it. Even young children—toddlers and preschoolers—are often transitioning into new classrooms at this time of year. It can be a stressful time for everyone, but it certainly doesn’t have to be! Starting the first day in a new classroom with fun getting-to-know-you exercises can build pleasurable anticipation for the school year to come.
Sometimes “ice breakers” get a bad rap. Teachers often shy away from them because if done without sensitivity, the wrong ice breaker game may do more harm than good by accentuating a child’s natural shyness, pressuring a child to reveal information that is uncomfortable for him, or singling out a characteristic that another child can poke fun at. Therefore, it is important to monitor the energy in the room when playing these games. Is everyone having fun? Does any child look apprehensive? Is there a particular child who appears to be trying to run the show? Educators need to pay attention and intervene when necessary.
It is helpful to think of ice breakers as an opportunity to build a classroom community rather than as a chance to learn specifics about a child’s likes/dislikes, individual interests or family stories. Those unique stories will reveal themselves as time progresses. First-day team building games are your opportunity to create an environment that says, “We’re all in this together!”
Here are some good community building exercises that you can try with toddlers and preschoolers:
• Introduce yourself with photos—especially photos of yourself as a child. This can really get a conversation started! It’s okay to ask children if they want to bring their own pictures in, but be on guard for a child who may not have any to share. A taking-turns type of show and tell could be excruciating for a young child with no family photo.
• A tried and true game that young children love: have each child take one shoe off and put it in a pile. In a scramble, every child grabs a shoe and tries to find the owner.
• A twist on the classic “show and tell” is to give each child (or let each child choose) a book or toy in the classroom and then ask them to describe to the others what it is and what they like about it. Bringing favorite toys in from home may work for you, but again, be aware of a child who has no toy, or one who has brought in a toy that may cause more harm than it’s worth. These might include very expensive toys that can get lost or broken, a “rare” toy (think Cabbage Patch or Tickle Me Elmo at the height of their popularity,) or one that might not be appropriate for school, such as a toy gun, knife, etc.
• Young children can have fun painting a self-portrait. Allow each child a turn in front of a mirror with a paintbrush and array of colors. The child can paint her own face onto the image reflected by painting hair, eyes, nose, mouth, etc. right on top of her own. This exercise can be preserved by carefully running your hand over a sheet of plain white paper you’ve placed on top of the painted image.
• Give the children a category and allow them to play “If I Could Be Any _______.” For example, in the category of “cars”: “If I could be any car, I would be a…red one…a Cadillac…a truck, etc.” You can do this with animals, foods, superheroes, or whatever you think the age of your group can handle.
• Tangle and untangle a human “knot.” Have three or more children face one another holding hands. Each child in a turn goes under the arms of another. Then untangle, all without letting go of hands. The more children, the bigger and better the knot!
• “Round ‘em up!” Choose a category and let the children create groups of themselves based on similar answers. For example, if you asked about favorite pets, the dog children can seek one another out, the cat children can group up, and the fish kids can find each other. Similarities and differences both within and among the groups can be discussed.
• “Finding a Friend” is another fun game that can be endlessly adapted. Find a friend wearing something red…wearing brown shoes, having blue eyes, etc. You might even give two descriptions—wearing jeans and having brown eyes, for example—to enrich the game.
• For the rowdy classroom: Place questions or funny directions written on small pieces of paper into balloons and blow them up. Let each child choose a balloon and pop it to reveal the question, funny demand (hop on one foot), or prize.
• The “Mrs. Mumbles” is another great first-day activity. The classic version of Mrs. Mumbles goes like this: Form a circle and begin by directing a child to ask the person sitting to the right, “Is Mrs. Mumbles home?” The child answers, “Who?” Response: “Mrs. Mumbles!” To which the second child then responds, “I don’t know, let me ask my neighbor.” The fun of this game is that all of this is done without showing teeth. Obviously, the exact dialogue can be changed to reflect the age and interest of the classroom.
• Another fun and easy ice breaker to spark student interaction is a no-laughing contest. This requires two people to sit face-to-face, very still, until one of them cracks…and guaranteed, one of them will!
Games like these can encourage camaraderie and team-spirit among children and teachers who don’t know each other very well. Take advantage of the “first day” butterflies and excitement by giving the children an outlet that builds their confidence in one another and themselves. They’ll likely be too excited to sit still anyway, and with sensitivity and creativity, you can channel that energy into building a positive classroom community from day one.
Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 Educational/Funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children.