10 Fun Back-to-School Activities and Icebreakers

​As an extremely shy student, the beginning of a school year filled me with angst. My heart raced before the first bell ever rang. I’d wonder if the teacher would be as nice, or as mean, as I’d heard.

I worried whether I’d make any new friends, and I would literally hold my breath waiting to hear how the teacher would mangle my name. In a 1970s world filled with Annes and Kathys, it was tough being a shy kid named Eugenia Hajduk on the first day of school. Until the fourth grade.

Fourth grade was the absolute best start I’d ever had to elementary school. The teacher didn’t take attendance by calling our names. She let us tell her and everyone else our names by playing The Name Game.

I was able say my own name (pronounced Geena High-duke), and the weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders. For the next week, we played Get to Know You games as she called them, every day. My shyness faded quickly that year just because of those daily, just-for-fun, games.

I tell you the story above because I truly believe our own childhood experiences help shape the teachers we become. I’m especially sensitive to those children who are shy, and I make sure I learn the nickname and pronunciation of each of my student’s names before school begins. And I do get-to-know-you activities and icebreakers the first week of school. Scholastic Teachables has some dandies — from a reader’s theater play that brings a new class together to seating cards with sharable jokes — that are ready to print and run with.

Who’s in Our Room Word Search

Arrival on the very first day of school is different than any other day of the year. It normally takes about 20 minutes for my whole class to assemble due to late buses, parents who needed just a few more photos, and students who accidentally found themselves in the wrong room. This is the perfect activity while we wait for everyone to arrive. 

When students come in, they find a seat where this word search and a newly sharpened pencil are waiting. My third graders always enjoy searching for their own name along with those of their new classmates. After 10 minutes or so, students naturally begin helping each other, opening those very first lines of communication. Try making a Who’s in Our Room? puzzle at Discovery Education’s Puzzlemaker.


Divide students into groups of 4–6 students and give each group one die and a copy of the D-icebreakers printable. (To save paper, display the sheet on the interactive whiteboard.) Students take turns rolling the die and answering the question that matches their roll. My students like when we do this as a “speed round” with a three-minute timer running on our whiteboard.

Skit-tell Us About Yourself

With students seated in a circle, I pass around a bag of Skittles, telling each student to pick two. Once everyone has their candies, I turn around the Skit-tell us About Yourself board.

Going around the circle, students share information about themselves based on the color candy they have selected. If you only have enough time to go around once, students can choose between their two colors. If someone has two of the same color, they can give two different answers to the same question or trade with a classmate. This activity can also be done with any other assorted colored candies.

Autograph Scavenger Hunt

Pass out the scavenger hunt sheet and watch the students swing into action as they try to find a different classmate for each box. This activity gets loud (in a good way!) as students go from one to another, but conversations get started that definitely break the ice!

Beach Ball Introductions

Students sit in a circle and toss a ball to a classmate in the circle. Students share information about themselves using the sentence stems their left and right pointer fingers are closest to. To prepare the ball for this activity, I used a permanent marker to write the first part of the sentence on one half of the ball while the words I write on the opposite side call for further explanation. 

For example, the student’s left hand might land on This summer I ______ , while their right hand lands on the word during. They might answer, This summer I went to visit my grandma during the month of July. In another variation, I use a ball that has several different ideas for sharing information. On that ball, the student responds to whichever prompt their left pointer finger is touching.

Back to School “Survival” Bags

Each year I make treat bags for my students to give to them on the first day of school. This activity helps students understand that the classroom they have been assigned to for the next year is a warm and caring environment. I place the bags on desks before school, so as soon as my students walk in the room they see the bags tagged with their names and the words “Your Third Grade Survival Kit.” 

Excitement builds throughout the day and they can hardly wait to find out what is inside. Shortly before going home, we take all of the items out of our bags one by one and discuss their meaning. The items I have chosen for the bag let the students know they are in an encouraging environment where we will all look out for each other and where effort is expected and rewarded.

Silent Line-Up

This is a good icebreaker at the start of class, or just when the kids need a break. I tell my students that I want them to line up by the day of their birth, in chronological order from January 1 to December 31. Then I tell them they can’t talk while they do it! Students use a combination of sign language, charades, and all ten fingers (and sometimes toes!) to line themselves up in order. With third graders, this can sometimes take a while. 

Once they have achieved the task, I have them do it again but in opposite order, from December 31 to January 1. This time, however, they are allowed to talk to each other. The same task that allows talking is always finished more quickly. Afterwards, we discuss how a team task can be completed more quickly when people communicate with each other.

This activity can also be done with first or names in alphabetical order, height, shoe size, etc.

Time Capsule

One school year is a pretty big percentage of an elementary student’s life and a lot can change from September to June without your boys and girls even noticing. Creating a time capsule the first week of school is a great way to reflect on the changes when it gets revisited during the last week of school. You can create one big time capsule or individual student time capsules that you store. Potato chip canisters work particularly well for individual time capsules. Here is what I plan to put inside this year:

  • first day of school picture
  • biography that includes current height, favorites, and three goals for the school year
  • a letter each student writes to their future (end-of-the-school-year) self
  • any trinkets students want to put in that represent themselves at the current point in time. This often includes pictures of best friends and boy bands, sport medals, little toys, etc.

What Do We Have in Common? Card Towers

I found this activity last summer and it was a big hit on the second day of school! Students were broken randomly into groups of four. Each group was given a stack of index cards and a challenge: Build the tallest card tower in the class! The catch? 

Before you could add a card to the tower, you had to write something on it that every member of the team had in common. As more cards were added, the commonalities tended to stretch a bit (we’ve all had water to drink), but it was all in the name of teamwork.

The Name Game

There are so many variations of this classic game! The version I play with my third graders involves everyone sitting in a circle and the first person to go says their first and last names, then something they like that starts with the same initial as their first name. The next student follows with their name and what they like, but then needs to repeat what the previous classmate(s) said. For example:

  • First Student: I am Kaitlin Smyth and I like kangaroos. 
  • Second Student: I am Sungat Patel and I like s’mores. She is Kaitlin Smyth and she likes kangaroos.

The game continues around the circle until one student cannot remember the previous classmates’ declarations. The next student begins the cycle again until everyone has had a turn. This is also easily done with names and alliterative places, names and animals, etc. Older students might enjoy playing the rhyming name game using this name game generator.

What do you think of these icebreakers? We would love to know what you use in your classroom. Let us know in the comments below!

First published on https://www.scholastic.com

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