Get your students moving, mingling, and motivated.
The first day of school.
There’s nothing quite like it, especially when you're teaching elementary school. The excitement is palpable. Your students' faces are bright and eager. Anything seems possible.
Harness this unique back-to-school energy with these teacher-tested icebreakers guaranteed to put your students at ease, create community, and start to build some of the literacy skills you’ll be working on all year.
1. Common Sense
Reading and writing require students to use multiple senses, and this icebreaker gets them thinking with all of them. Give students a few minutes to think about one of their favorite tastes, smells, feels, sounds, and sights. You can hand out notecards and tell students to write down their answers if they want to. Students who might not remember their choices will appreciate this, and other students might choose not to use the notecard.
Go around the class and have students say their names and share their favorite tastes. In a second go-round, ask them to repeat their names, share their favorite smells, and so on. This activity helps students focus on positive things they enjoy, which improves learning and sets them up to do some wonderful sensory-based writing later in the school year.
Note: When I did this activity, I always asked students to pick “one of their favorites” instead of “their absolute favorite.” This takes the pressure off since students don’t have to rack their brains for that one quintessential thing.
2. Beach Ball Toss
Many of the best icebreakers combine movement, literacy skills, and get-to-know-you content, and for good reason. When kids move and have fun, their sense of comfort grows, and they are up to 90% more receptive to learning new skills.
On a large beachball, use a permanent marker to write a different question on each section. These questions should be fairly simple, like, “What’s one of your favorite foods?” or “What book or movie have you recently enjoyed?” You can accompany these questions with pictures (a slice of pizza on the favorite food section, for instance) so weaker readers will have a context clue.
Then, have students stand in a circle and toss the ball to each other. They must answer whatever question their right thumb lands on and then throw the ball to someone else. Keep playing until all students have answered a few questions.
Note: If a student’s thumb lands on the same question twice, have them toss the ball up in the air and catch it until their thumb lands on a different question.
3. It’s Acrostic!
Nothing calms hyper elementary schoolers like a deep dive into art, so pull out the markers and glitter and have fun with introductory acrostics.
“Okay,” you might be thinking, “acrostic poetry isn’t the most creative activity in the world.”
That may be true, but it’s great for elementary school kids because it:
Begin by having each student write their name vertically on a piece of paper and then ask them to choose one word that describes them that starts with each letter of their name. You can get students started by suggesting that they include not only characteristics that describe them but hobbies, preferences, and anything else that is important to them.
Some students might need help spelling words, and you can direct older kids to a dictionary, setting up the school-year expectation that when they don’t know how to spell a word, they’ll look it up.
When students finish, they can share their acrostics in small groups or with the whole class. You could also post them on a classroom wall and revisit them mid-year or at the end of the school year, asking students to reflect on which words still describe them and what words they would change or add.
4. Moo! Baa! La-La-La!
Asking students to get a little goofy can help put their nerves at ease, and this simple activity also activates basic auditory processing. Ask students to choose an animal and walk around the room making the same sound the animal makes. Listening to each other, they need to pair or triple up with other students making the same sound.
Once they have formed themselves into pairs or groups, students should find one thing they have in common. Have the groups share this commonality, and then have students choose another animal and start the process again. You can repeat the activity until most students have talked to each other.
Note: If you have a student who can't find a partner, get creative. If one student is a lion and the other is a tiger, maybe the big cats need to pair up. If there really is no logical way for every student to find a partner, you can partner up with them. Chances are, they'll pick a more common animal noise in the next round!
5. Grab Bag Story
This activity is one of my favorites. It teaches students the basics of how stories work, which will help them as they start to read more complex books and write their own stories.
Split students into groups of four or five and give each group a tote bag with 5-7 objects in it. Anything goes. Toys, maps, a spatula, a shoe, an hourglass, costume jewelry, a hockey puck, etc. Give each group 15-20 minutes to construct a short story incorporating all the objects. Each group will then tell their story to the class, holding up each object as it enters the story.
As far as icebreakers go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Students are collaborating and storytelling within minutes of walking into your classroom. The objects give students concrete ways to anchor their thinking, and twenty minutes in, they have produced a tangible product they can share with others. And the stories are usually hilarious, and all that laughter is excellent for building classroom community.
Note: While still an icebreaker, this activity is better for the second or third day of school since it doesn’t involve a “get-to-know-you” portion. Once students have done some of the icebreakers above, this activity is an excellent team builder.
Bring the Science of Reading to your Classroom
Even with the best icebreakers, returning to school can be stressful for students, especially those struggling with reading.
One way to create better classroom experiences for all students, but particularly those with reading challenges, is to incorporate science of reading best practices into your lessons. Download our free guide on the science of reading to learn what happens in a reading brain, how to build cognitive skills that aid literacy, and what practices to avoid when building a literacy-friendly classroom.
Here’s to a new school year. You’ve totally got this.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author