I was recently invited to participate in a horse therapy session. I’ve never been part of such an event and it was really more impressive than I had expected. It turned out to be a great way to reflect on the beginning of the school year since the theme of the session was relatinships – specifically compliance versus connections.

I’ve been wanting to write in depth about the session but it’s really not my story to tell. The idea though was that one can not force a relationship. There are many small connections that must be made before trust and a partnership can be formed. Trying to immediately force compliance onto someone takes away choice and can stall a relationship. It can remove intimacy needed to form a successful partnership.

Reflecting on this session really made me think about starting the upccoming school year and the flood of “team builders” and “ice breakers” that are about to consume our social media feeds.

I hate participating in ice breakers. They almost always skip the “small connections” phase and immediately demand unearned intimacy and trust. I remember taking a diversity PD session a few years ago that began with the instructors giving each table group a big piece of post it paper and asking us to write down all the racial slurs we had ever heard. When everyone balked at this the instructor insisted it was a ‘safe space’. Nope. We all still just looked at each other. There was no development of trust. It wasn’t a safe space.

The anecdotes don’t even need to be that drastic. I still get flop sweat from some of my comments when college professors asked us to introduce ourselves and tell the class something interesting about ourselves. That was over 2 decades ago! What often gets overlooked is that trust and intimacy takes time to develop and that these ice breakers are blunt force weapons that try to coerce intimate details.

A big thing missing from most ice breaker activities is the ability to opt out. Allowing students to not participate helps let them know that the teacher respect their privacy, dignity, and choices. Also important is that there is nothing organic about ice breakers. The conversations are forced. The games are not really conducive to playing and easy fun.

I like starting my 11th student introductions by playing board games. Student favorites are Secret Hitler and Sushi Go. Usually, I lead a board game station as one of several introduction activity stations. It allows for natural conversations and a lot of laughter. The students also learn the expectations and procedures in a more natural manner. Importantly they learn about me, my personality, and the limits I will structure throughout our year together.

If you really want to do an ice breaker I suggest Fruit Basket.

This game is set of a mash up of Never Have I Ever and Musical Chairs. Start with students sitting in chairs in a rough circle. The teacher should participate and start in the center of the circle. Assign each player as one f 4 to 5 different fruits so that there are roughly 3-4 students per fruit. For example, you might have apples, bananas, raspberries, and kiwi. The teacher should also be part of one fruit group. The person in the center calls out a fruit and each student has to move to a new seat. The person stuck in the middle calls out one of the fruits and a new round begins. The center person can also call “FRUIT BASKET” and everyone has to find a new seat. I usually add the rule that you have to move at least 2 seats from your original seat.

This will lead to laughs, some crashes, maybe a bit of trash talking. It is some easy fun and leads to some organic relationship building.

After about 5 minutes of this add a “Never Have I Ever” element. Now, whenever a person is in the center the can say something about themselves and everyone around the circle that has that in common has to move a seat. It almost always starts with something obvious like “I have Brown Hair” but will eventually get more personal. The trick though is to allow the center person to continue to have the Fruit and Fruit Basket options. This will save a lot of awkwardness and acts as an opt out if things get too personal.

Important caveat #2 – the teacher needs to play and to subtly manipulate the game to ensure that they are in the center of the circle. I do this when rules need to be changed or if one student keeps ending up in the center. The teacher plays the game to guide it but also, more importantly, to tell students about themselves and to show they have some personality beyond lecturing.