How to Break the Ice Without Being a Polar Bear

Icebreakers are a tried and true part of student affairs work.

They help bridge gaps between students as they come onto campus for the first time and help create strong teams to rely on throughout the year.

They can be fun, awkward (in a good way), and developmental all at the same time. They help create traditions and memories within a group they’ll fondly remember as they get to know each other.

It can be difficult to come up with fresh and engaging activities to plan with students and staff, so we decided to build off our previous teambuilding post. Here are our top icebreaker ideas are woven in with our viewpoints on what makes icebreakers so great!

Why Breaking the Ice is Important

A great icebreaker is both fun and fruitful. By this, we mean that it isn’t just a silly game: Icebreakers serve a deeper purpose to help humans get to know each other and break through the awkward energy that’s prominent when you meet someone new.

Peeling the Onion

You may cry, but not from literally peeling onions. Onions are used metaphorically to describe getting to know humans on a deeper level. For example, throwing a beach ball around with various questions on it helps to peel away that first layer to get to know a group initially. This can be both engaging (throwing a physical object around) and fun (answering miscellaneous questions). Activities help bridge gaps, especially when you realize someone across the room loves The Office as much as you do.

the office


Transitioning to Meet New Humans

Coming to college can be hard. Students may not know anyone, and they’re also faced with the opportunity to build a new identity and starting to figure out who they are. It’s important for students and staff to establish a social safety net — like having friends or colleagues to laugh and vent with or identifying key support structures to make the most of their experience. Student affairs teams need to rely on each other and start off the year with strong, personable working relationships to manage the ebbs and flows of the academic year.

fresh prince


Including Everyone

The ultimate goal of icebreakers you’ll implement at new student orientation or with new staff members, for example, will be to help create a more inclusive campus community. Identify a range of icebreakers to help build common ground between students of diverse backgrounds, and as a facilitator, reflect on ability levels and varying comfort levels within a group (introverts, extroverts, etc).

When students feel they’re in a friendly, safe space, they’ll be more likely to open up versus holding onto feelings of isolation. A fun icebreaker can turn into a conversation with a classmate down the road, reminiscing about the fun memories they made at orientation. Removing formal introductions and bringing in a fun aspect helps to make everyone feel more at ease in their new environment.


While some of us bemoan icebreakers at times, planning and implementing the right ones, in the right way, at the right time, make for amazing resources to help your students shed any preconceptions and make some genuine connections on campus with their peers.


Icebreakers are our favorite way to bring a group together for a lighthearted time, get to know peers quickly, and prep for more intricate team builders down the road. Specifically, icebreakers help people build common ground within a few minutes and help participants buy into the main purpose of the event or program.

1. Face the Cookie

Originally seen on the Minute to Win It competition, “Face the Cookie” has been popular among television shows and friendly competitions among friends. It encourages a little competition and only requires a quick trip to a neighborhood pharmacy or grocery store.

Purpose: Helping a group reach outside their comfort zone

Group Size: Small to medium size teams work best (6 – 15)

Materials: Oreos or other tested favorite cookies

Time: 5 – 10 minutes

Description: A group starts with one Oreo (or any kind) of cookie on their forehead with their head tilted back. The participants have to get the cookie from their forehead to their mouth without dropping it or using any other body parts to move it to their mouth. If your group thinks this is an easy task to accomplish, step it up a notch by timing this delicious icebreaker.

2. Secret Handshake

Handshakes have been popular due to movies like The Parent Trap and they bring us on a trip down memory lane. Although they’re often seen as an activity for children, creating a secret handshake helps with breaking the ice on a one-on-one setting inside a larger group and helps to reconnect participants later.

Purpose: Starting new relationships

Group Size: Medium to large groups work best (12+)

Materials: Just the humans participating!

Time: 10 – 15 minutes

Description: First displayed by performers Koo Koo Kanga Roo at a NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) conference, these handshakes are great to use with participants who will be working together and getting to know each other further. This icebreaker involves touching of the hands and possible limbs, so it’s best to implement it after a few icebreakers or with an established group at a meeting.

3. Share a Cup of Success

Coffee and tea shops are known for meeting new people, building connections, and sharing stories. Holding a conversation over a favorite beverage often makes humans feel more comfortable opening up to a complete stranger. This (again yummy) icebreaker helps people understand what makes others tick and helps to support individuals in new endeavors and interests in their life or career. The original idea of sitting in a huge coffee cup was created by our favorite people at SoulPancake and we found this was a great icebreaker to adapt for professionals at colleges and universities.

Purpose: Starting new relationships, continuing relationships

Group Size: Small to medium size groups

Materials: Coffee, tea or other favorite beverage

Time: 30+ minutes

Description: Create questions ahead of time for these one-on-one conversations. In a larger group, encourage rotating people every 5-10 minutes. Some example questions include: What’s your latest success? What makes you feel successful in your career? When were you most proud? If you had to write the first line of my autobiography what would it be? Offer to snap a picture of some of the dynamic duos in the room and share with the participants to remind them of a newfound campus connection after the icebreaker is over.

Bonus! We’re also sharing a compilation of team builders crowdsourced from student affairs professionals all over the country, originally shared by educator Cindy Kane.

Here’s to your success with helping all of your students and staff feel included and welcomed on campus!

What’s your favorite go-to icebreaker to use with a group?

Tweet us your thoughts @HelloPresence! Thanks for reading.

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Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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