Back-to-school icebreaker activities | Cambridge English

For many learners, starting or returning to school after the summer break can be a daunting and overwhelming experience. Some learners may feel anxious about not knowing anyone in the class, others may feel nervous after an extended break. Icebreaker activities can help learners get to know each other, build rapport in the classroom and foster a more productive learning environment in which learners feel comfortable participating.

In this post, we share some easy-to-use icebreaker activities for different stages of learning. As well as helping to put your learners at ease and develop group cohesion in your class, these activities also support their development of key life competencies, to prepare learners for further education and the world outside of the classroom.

Young Learners: Feelings timeline

Ask learners to think about how they spent their time over the holidays. They should draw a timeline in their notebooks, divided into sections for each week. Have them mark what they did on their timeline with a quick drawing or note.

Next, draw some faces on the board for learners to choose from (as many or as few as you think suitable). Ask them to draw faces on their timeline to show how they felt.

Finally, put learners into pairs or small groups to explain their timelines. If you’re teaching online, try having learners share their timelines in a digital portfolio such as Padlet or Bulb. Use breakout rooms for groups to share what they’ve drawn.

As well as supporting learners’ Emotional Development, by encouraging them to monitor and reflect on their own emotions, this activity can also be adapted to develop learning to learn skills. Simply ask learners to look back at the end of a coursebook unit and draw faces next to different activities to show how they felt about the task. Don’t forget to encourage learners to explain their reasons!

Young Learners: Sticky note wall

Make some space in the classroom for a ‘sticky note wall’. Write a question in the middle of the wall, such as:

  • ‘How did you spend your holidays?’
  • ‘What are you looking forward to this year?’
  • ‘What do you want to achieve this term?’

Give each learner some sticky notes and allow some time for them to write or draw their answers. Then, invite learners to add their sticky notes to the wall. Encourage them to look at each other’s notes, ask questions to find out more information, and find similarities and differences between their answers. If you’re teaching online, try using a digital sticky note board, such as Lucidspark.

Allowing learners to write or draw their answers on sticky notes can feel less exposing than having to answer a spoken question without any preparation. This activity also helps develop collaboration skills by encouraging learners to actively contribute to a group task.

Teenage Learners: Going vertical with acrostic poems

Explain the concept of acrostic poetry, in which a word or phrase is written vertically on the page and each line of a poem is built around that phrase. The vertical phrase can provide the first letter of each line or can appear anywhere, like in the example below.

Show learners an example and then write an icebreaker topic on the board. An example could be ‘my passions and interests’ or ‘what makes me who I am’. Ask learners to write an acrostic poem about the topic, then have them share their poems in groups. Whilst sharing, encourage them to ask questions to find out more information about each other’s poems. If you’re teaching online, try setting up a class blog, eg using WordPress or Blogger, for learners to share their poems. Encourage learners to comment on each other’s poems, and respond to each other’s comments.

As well as being a great way for learners to find out more about each other, this activity also helps develop learners creative thinking skills.

Teenage Learners: Fridge / Suitcase / Bin

Ask learners to think about their holidays. Tell them they are going to choose one item to put in the ‘fridge’, one item to keep in their ‘suitcase’ and one item to put in the ‘bin’. Explain and write on the board what each represents (see below) and ask learners to reflect on their holiday and choose one item for each.

  • Fridge: something you want to remember or keep to use again at a later date.
  • Suitcase: something you want to carry with you and remember or use again soon and/or frequently.
  • Bin: something that you didn’t enjoy, that you don’t want to do again, or that you may want to avoid in the future.

Next, hold a class mingle in which learners talk about their choices. If you’re teaching online, you could ask learners to create a digital file and upload photos relating to their choices.

This activity can also be adapted to help develop learning to learn skills. Simply ask learners to choose items to put in the fridge, suitcase and bin at the end of each lesson or coursebook unit. This might be a word, phrase, or grammatical structure, information from a text, or an activity they have experienced.

Adult Learners: Today,…

Write the following gap-fill sentence on the board:

Today, I feel _____, but I would feel differently if _____, because _____.

Ask learners to write the sentence in their notebooks and complete the gaps in a way that is true for them. Encourage them to share and discuss their sentences with a partner. If you’re teaching online, try inviting learners to share their sentences in the chat box. Or, to fill time, create breakout rooms for them to discuss their answers.

Encouraging learners to share their feelings with each other supports learners’ Emotional Development. It helps to develop their empathy and relationship skills, leading to a more positive group dynamic. This activity can also be easily adapted to support learning to learn skills. Simply tweak the sentence to the following…

Today, I feel _____ about learningbut I would feel differently if _____, because _____’to encourage learners to manage their attitudes and emotions to learning.

Adult Learners: What’s this got to do with me?

Give each learner a piece of paper and ask them to draw an outline of their hand in the middle. Write the following questions on the board:

  • How does this content relate to me?
  • What experiences do I have that relate to this?
  • What beliefs do I have that relate to this?

Put learners into small groups and explain that they’re each going to talk about themselves for a few minutes. Set an icebreaker question, such as ‘how did you spend your holidays?’, or ‘What are you looking forward to this year?’ Explain that while one group member is talking, the others should listen and make notes next to each finger on their hand outline about five ways in which the content relates to them.

Finally, have learners share and compare what they noted down. If you’re teaching online, try asking learners to take a photo of their hand outline at home and inserting the image in a word file to add their notes.

As well as being a great way for learners to identify things they have in common, this activity also helps develop Creative Thinking skills by finding connections.

One of the beautiful things about language teaching is that it is rarely only about teaching language. The activities we use in the classroom also offer opportunities for learners to engage with a limitless variety of subjects, learn about global and cultural contexts, or develop different skills. The activities here not only serve as great icebreakers to help your learners get to know each other, but also help develop the key life competencies they need to participate effectively in the world.

I hope you find these icebreaker activities useful. For more activities to develop life competencies, download our free packs of activity cards, here:

You can also read more about the Cambridge Life Competencies Framework on this blog.

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