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Proven icebreakers for the first day of school.

While the first day of school is full of rules, expectations and seating arrangements, it’s important to take some time for icebreakers. Icebreakers that are actively engaging can turn up the fun while helping you learn a bit more about your new students. We’ve collected these K-12 tried-and-true activities from fellow NEA members:

Elementary school

For most early elementary teachers, the first few weeks is about making young students comfortable in the classroom and the larger school building. Most kindergarten teachers spend several weeks working with their students to just be comfortable in the classroom and with all the new people in the school. Most five- and six-year-olds simply can’t remember all the new names and faces on that first day.

  • Kristin Jardine, a kindergarten teacher at Moscow Elementary Center in Pennsylvania, sends a letter to her students before school even starts. She introduces herself, tells them she is going to bring in something about herself for the first day and invites students to bring in something about themselves to share with their new friends. Mrs. Jardine brings in a family picture while students bring stuffed animals or photos or a souvenir from a summer vacation. According to Mrs. Jardine, a successful first day of kindergarten is “keeping the tears away, getting everyone to eat their lunch and getting everyone on the correct bus to go home.”
  • Tracy Winslow, a fourth-grade Spanish Immersion teacher at the Memorial Elementary School in Massachusetts, uses several icebreakers to get to know students, as well as give her an idea of their comprehension levels. She has found that activities in which students work in teams are a favorite for her and them. In one such team activity, Mrs. Winslow places several copies of a children’s story around her classroom. Students are paired up and choose one to be the “runner” and another to be the “writer.”  The runner goes to a copy of the story, reads a few words, and then returns to their partner who transcribes what the runner tells them. After five minutes whoever has correctly written most of the story wins a prize.

Middle school

  • On the first day of school, Donna West, a seventh-grade math teacher at North Pocono Middle School, has students write down two fun facts about themselves. The students then go around the room sharing their facts out loud. Mrs. West says she holds on to the cards and reads them again several months later when she knows the students better.
  • When Robyn Babina taught fifth grade in New Canaan, CT, icebreakers were vital since the school started at fifth grade and most students did not know each other. Mrs. Babina says the school spent two full days helping students get acquainted, starting with name games and ending with team-building activities. One of the best activities to help students learn names is “Pass the Ball.” To play, students stand in a circle and pass a ball around with each student reciting the next student’s name. For example, Katie would pass the ball to Cole saying “Here you go Cole.” Cole replies, “Thanks Katie” and then passes the ball to Mia saying “Here you are Mia” and on around the circle. Mrs. Babina says scavenger hunts are also a great way to have students work together while learning about a classroom or an entire school building.

High school

  • Kathy Gilbride from Moscow, PA, had her students write down three interesting facts about themselves on the first day. For the second day of school, this former geometry teacher turned high school librarian would create a worksheet listing one fact for each student in the class. Students were given 10 minutes at the beginning of class to interview their peers and match one classmate to each fact. Mrs. Gilbride said even students who’ve been together for years usually learn something new.
  • Brian Jardine, an English teacher at North Pocono High School in Pennsylvania, makes it a point to learn every student’s name before the end of their first class together, even making a game of it. He allows students to switch seats to try and throw him off. “Students of all ages appreciate the fact a teacher knows their name.”

Don’t forget, most importantly the first day of school is your chance to make a strong first impression. You want to be sure to start the year with your students knowing where you stand on attendance, grading and classroom rules. Mrs. West’s advice for new teachers is to “be firm and consistent beginning with day one.” Start off the year as strict as possible so later you can reward good behavior by loosening up a little.

So go ahead and find a fun icebreaker activity or two. It will inject a much-needed break for you and your students into the first day of school routine.

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