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Inclusive icebreakers

Quote fromthe article: "A fun challenge to one person might be an impossible task to someone else"

By applying some Universal Design principles to your workshop or event, you can create an experience where everybody feels comfortable.


This blog post was edited on 10 August to remove references to ‘celebrities’, which turned out to be problematic for some neurodivergent people in particular.

I’m departing a bit from talking about web content this week to discuss an important issue: icebreaker activities.

What is icebreaking?

To ‘break the ice’ is a metaphor for dissipating tension in a group of people who don’t know each other very well.  Word Histories gives a bit of background behind the phrase, which seems to be hundreds of years old.

However, there are still some common activities being used that have the opposite effect for some people – making them feel even more disconnected from the rest from the group.

Here are three I’ve seen, and some suggestions of alternatives.

1. Tell us your favourite 80s movie!

Asking someone to name their favourite thing within a particular category means everyone gets to share a little bit of information about themselves that is personal but not too personal. Research shows that sharing information helps with bonding.

However, it’s important to be careful about cultural touchpoints here, and consider which experiences are universal and which aren’t.

Using the category of ‘80s movies’ as an example, there may be people in the room who:

  • have never seen an 80s movie
  • have seen movies from a different culture or language, which they feel uncomfortable sharing
  • simply don’t have a favourite

At that point, the bonding effect won’t work – they’ll just feel a bit sad and alienated.

What’s the alternative?

There are two approaches I like, though I’m interested to hear other people’s views.

The first is to be imaginative, with questions asking ‘What if?’:

  • If you won the lottery, what’s the first thing you’d buy?
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be?
  • If you could have tea and cake with anyone in the world, who would it be?

With this last one, stress that this could be a famous person, or someone they know. Some might choose celebrities, others their mum. The important thing is not to constrict the answers to a particular category.

This bring me to the second option, which is to be incredibly broad with the category, to the point of silliness. (Remembering that research shows laughter helps with bonding, too.)

Ask for everyone’s favourite thing that:

  • smells good
  • feel spiky
  • is triangle shaped

These categories are so open to interpretation that you’ll get a wide range of answers, so everyone can make it their own.

2. Jump around!

There are lots of icebreaker activities that involve various kinds of physical challenges, on the basis that moving around can help to change the energy in the room.

However, a ‘fun challenge’ to one person might be an impossible task to someone else.

For example, I can’t run, hop, skip or even walk well. It’s a major energy sapper to be asked to push myself like this, especially at the beginning of what is probably a physically demanding day.

What’s the alternative?

It’s very difficult to find a physical activity that isn’t going to exclude someone, so my advice would be to not try and cover this in an icebreaker.

Instead, provide a opportunity for everyone to have their physical needs met. At an in-person event, provide plenty of room – space at the back for people to get up if they need to, and space around the venue for people to have room for things like mobility aids and assistance animals. Keep the room well-ventilated.

Whether in person or online, give more breaks that you think you need. Online, don’t make people turn cameras on.

Then think about icebreakers that don’t involve physical exertion.

3. Show us a baby photo!

I’ve saved the worst until last; please challenge this one wherever you see it.

The idea here is that everyone sends in a photograph of themselves as a baby, and the members of the group get to know each other by trying to guess who’s who, making observations about the photos, and hopefully all having a bit of a laugh.

But this is alienating for so very many different groups of people. The most common complaint I see is when there is only one non-white face in the group. Theirs is easily picked out and immediately that person feels even more othered than they already did.

What is othering? – VeryWell Mind

It’s also very traumatic for:

  • transgender people, whose photo might be misgendering them
  • adopted people, who might not even have baby photos (or if they do, they carry traumatic associations)
  • blind people, who can’t see the photographs

What’s the alternative?

Try asking people to create a representation of themselves using whatever medium they like – perhaps a pencil drawing, a tactile portrayal, a Lego figure, an abstract photograph – encourage people to be as creative as they want. Once finished, make sure there’s a text description of this. Depending on logistics, people could write their own, or you as the facilitator could write everyone’s.

This approach allows people to highlight elements of themselves they want to highlight, and doesn’t ask for any specific skill set.

What not to do

When I’ve seen people challenge these kinds of icebreakers, I’ve heard a very common response:

“It’s ok, you don’t have to join in.”

People mean well when they say this: if someone’s struggling with an activity, and it’s causing them pain (physical or emotional) they shouldn’t feel that they have to complete it.

But you’ve no idea how devasting it can be to hear this when you already feel uncomfortable in a given situation. Essentially, it’s what disabled people are used to hearing all the time: We can join in on someone else’s terms, or we can choose not to join in.

That’s not a fair or kind choice to present someone with. Saying it’s ok not to participate because you didn’t think about someone’s needs is really just excluding them on the basis of those needs.

Designing for everyone from the outset is always the best approach.


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