Icebreakers and name games

Games for UU kids and adults
Compiled and written by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper

The Balloon-mobile
Don’t Touch Me
Friends and Neighbors
Grocery Store Game
Knots Game
Ocean Wave
Zip Zap Zoop

Note that for younger children, “Duck, Duck, Goose” works well as an icebreaker game!


Grocery Store Game (age 8-adult)

Here’s how I play this game:

“Pick an item that you can buy in the grocery store,” I’ll say, “the name of which begins with the same letter or the same sound as your name. So I’m Dan Dogfood.”

We go around the circle and players chose grocery store names for themselves: Sara Saran Wrap, Zach Zucchini, Melissa Marshmallow, Dori Doughnut, and so on.

“Now one person stands in the middle of the circle with a pillow,” I say, demonstrating what I mean, “and one person, let’s say Oliver Olives, starts us off by saying ‘I like…’ and then someone’s grocery store name. So for example, Oliver might say, ‘I like Bill Berries.’

“At this point, I will try to tap Bill Berries with the pillow before he can name someone else.” Which causes Bill Berries to say hurriedly, “Ari Asparagus,” who in turn says, “Heather Hair Spray,” who doesn’t respond before I tap her with the pillow, so she goes into the center of the circle to start the next round.


Ocean Wave (age 8-adult)

Set up a circle of chairs, with one less chair than there are players. One player is in the center of the circle. The player in the center calls out: “Shift right!” or “Shift left!” All the other players have to shift to the right or left without allowing the player in the center to take their seats. Whoever allows their seat to be taken goes in the center next.


Friends and Neighbors (age 10-adult)

Players sit in a circle of chairs; there is one less chair than players. “It,” who doesn’t have a chair, goes to the center and thinks of something about themselves she might have in common with other members of the group. She says something like, “I want to see all my friends and neighbors who…” and then she adds a statement that is true of her, e.g., “…who are wearing blue!” — “…who have ever eaten sushi!” — etc.

All the people for whom this statement is true then get up out of their chairs and find another chair (but, if you have more than 10 people playing, not the chairs on either side of them). The person remaining after all the chairs are taken starts the next round by saying, “I want to see all my friends and neighbors who…”

Optional additional rule — the Eye-contact Rule: Seated members can make eye-contact with each other across the circle and switch seats before “It” has made their statement. If “It” perceives this happening, s/he can quickly try to steal a vacant seat, leaving a new “It” in the center.

Optional additional rule — the Story Rule: In groups that are well-bonded and have achieved a high level of intimacy and trust, the statements will move beyond surface-level statements such as “…who are wearing blue!” and move into more personal statements such as “…who have ever participated in a political rally.” With the Story Rule, after “It” makes his/her statement, and everyone has exchanged seats, anyone in the circle can shout out, “Story!” upon which play stops while the former “It” tells a little bit about the personal statement s/he just made, e.g., “It was a rally in opposition to Prop 8 in Sacramento, and I went with [etc. etc.].” People always have the option of saying “I pass” instead of telling the story.

Optional additional rule — the Jello Rule: Pretend you are stuck in a giant vat of Jello (vegan Jello, of course). All players must play as if they are moving through Jello, and when moving all players when moving are required to make suitable noises that you would make if playing in actual Jello, e.g. “splurp, slllck, fllrbbb.” The Jello rule can make this game more accessible to persons who are differently abled, or who have other mobility issues.


Zip Zap Zoop (ages 7 to adult)

(N.B.: There are many variations on this game. Before you start playing, make sure that everyone is playing by the same rules!)

Everyone sits in a circle. Now explain the basic moves of the game:

To Zip, you can use your right to point to your left, or your left hand to point to your right (one way to remember this is that you always point across your body), while saying “Zip!”

How to Zip

To Zap, you hold up your right hand to stop a Zip coming from your left, or vice versa (one way to remember this is that you always hold up your hand across your body), while saying “Zap!”

How to Zap

And to Zoop, you touch the top of your head like this:

How to Zoop pt. 1

…and then point to someone across the circle while saying “Zoop.”

How to Zoop pt. 2

Now here’s what to do with these moves:

Zip: If someone Zips you, you can pass the Zip in the same direction to the next person. The Zip is the most basic move, so you should practice this by having everyone send a Zip all the way around the circle.

Zap: If someone Zips you, you can send the Zip back in the other direction with a Zap. To deomnstrate this, ask one of the people next to you to Zip you, then Zap them, and coach them to now send the Zip in the opposite direction. Note that you can only Zap a Zip (you cannot Zap a Zoop, you cannot Zap a Zap).

Zoop: If someone Zips you, or if someone Zaps your Zip, you can send the play across the circle using Zoop. Whomever you point to when you Zoop must then Zip to one of the people on either side of them — or they may Zoop someone else in the circle (but they may not send the Zoop right back to you).

If someone does one of the moves wrong (e.g., if you use your right hand to point right on a Zip, if you say “Zip” when you are Zapping, if you try to Zap a Zoop, etc.), then everyone who notices the error is supposed to make a sound like one of those buzzers they have on TV game shows when someone gets an answer wrong: “Ehnnnnn!” Then play starts over with whoever made the last correct move.

Optional Funky Chicken Rule: When an error is made, the person who makes the error has to do the Funky Chicken, i.e., has to make some sort of chicken-like activity ranging from saying “Buc, buc” in a listless voice, to doing a whole-hearted chicken dance with thumbs tucked in armpits to make wings, wings flapping madly, making chicken sounds, and dancing. (Some people will make errors on purpose just so they get to do the Funky Chicken.)


Knots Game (ages 7 to adult)

You probably already know the basic rules:

Ask the participants to stand in a circle. Ask everyone to take their right hand and reach across the circle to grasp someone else’s right hand. Now ask everyone to reach across the circle again, this time with their left hand, and ask everyone to grasp the left hand of someone different (i.e., not the person whose right hand they are grasping). Now you are in a big tangled know. Without letting go of hands, ask the group to untangle the knot.

Note that the largest number you can include in this game is around 12-14 people. With more than a dozen people, you can’t really reach across the circle to grasp someone’s hand. The smallest number of people that the game is worth playing is 5-6; five participants is actually too small, but it could work for younger kids.

Now to deflate a myth about this game, and talk a little about math:

Some people will tell you that this game can always be untangled into a circle of people. That is obviously false. In my years of playing this game, I have seen the following when the knot is finally untangled:
— A single, simple circle
— A circle with an overhand knot in it
— Two linked circles
— Two unlinked circles
— Three linked circles
Those are just the untanglements I have actually seen; many more non-simple untanglements are possible.

What we’re really dealing with are one or more circles which are embedded in certain ways in three-dimensional Euclidean space. These circles can be described using mathematical knot theory; see more about mathematical knots on Wikipedia. However, if you’re trying to determine the maximum number of solutions, note that human arms have limits in the number of times they can cross, so thus limiting the number of solutions (I’d guess that the practical limit is on the order of two times the number of participants in the game). It’s also worth noting that the reason it is difficult to “untangle” the knot is because humans have inflexible appendages like legs and heads that get in the way of smoothly laying out the circles.


The Balloon-mobile (ages 6 to adult)

Preparation: Blow up twice as many balloons as people you’ll have in your group. Big (8-12 in. dia.) round balloons work best. (If you want to blow them up ahead of time, you can store blown-up balloons in a plastic garbage bag, or in a clean trash bin.)

Tell the participants that they’re going to get a ride in the Fabulous Balloon-mobile! The Balloon-mobile is a kind of car that can carry everyone in the group, and it’s so much fun to ride in you won’t believe it! There’s just one important thing to remember — the Fabulous Balloon-mobile WILL NOT WORK if it is missing any balloons.

In order to create the Balloon-mobile, have the participants form a line. Now have each person putting their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them (except the first person in line, of course). Next go down the line, and gently place one balloon in between every two people in line, like this:

Now tell the group that their goal is to get from one side of the room to the other. But remember! — if a balloon falls and hits the ground, the Fabulous Balloon-mobile will not longer work, which means they have to stop moving.

OK, so what do you do when a balloon hits the ground? There are several different options:

a. Easy, and for younger children: As soon as the balloon hits the ground, you say: “STOP!” then you replace the balloon for them, and once the balloon is back in place they can start moving again.

b. Moderate: The people on either side of the balloon that dropped go to the beginning of the line, everyone works to replace the balloons, then you start again.

c. More challenging: Same as b., except the whole group has to start at the beginning again.

d. Most challenging and most fun: The group has to figure out a way to pick up the dropped balloon (without dropping any more balloons of course!), replace, and get moving again.

Optional additional rule: The Fabulous Balloon-mobile has to go over an easy obstacle course (e.g., weaving around traffic cones or other objects; stepping over a knee-high barrier; going up a step or steps; etc.)

Optional alternative rule: The people who make up the Fabulous Balloon-mobile CANNOT touch each other. That is, people touch balloons, but people don’t touch people. This is alternative rule provides some additional challenge.


Don’t Touch Me (ages 6 to adult)

Have the group form a circle. Use a a bicycle tire inner tube, a hula hoop, a rope, or something to make an Inner Circle inside the circle of people — this inner circle should be about 26-36 inches in diameter.

Then divide the group into pairs, based on who is standing opposite each other in the circle. Make sure everyone knows who they are paired with. (If there are an odd number of participants, you can have a three-way pair, but you should not participate — you’ll see why in a minute.)

Tell the group that each pair is going to change places. As they change places, each person must place one foot inside the Inner Circle. And no one is allowed to touch any other person.

Ready to start the game? You say, “On the count of three, repeat after me, Don’t touch me.” Then the group says, “WE ARE READY!” And you say, “Ah-One! Ah-Two! Ah-Three!” Upon which everyone says, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” If you do this right, it will come out as a rhythmic chant:
On the count of three
repeat after me
don’t touch me.

After this chant, as soon as you are ready to change places with the other person in your pair, you catch their eye and say, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” and as soon as they respond in turn by saying, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” you exchanges places with them. If two or more pairs exchange places at the same time, that’s fine, just make sure no one touches anyone else.

You can play this game again with different pairs.

Or try:…

Optional additional challenge: Try to exchange places with the other person in your pair as quickly as possible. And you’re going to time them. Remind them of the rules:
— In order to exchange places, you must first catch the other person’s eye and say, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
— When you trade places, you must place one foot inside the Inner Circle.
— You must not touch anyone else (if two people touch, add 2 seconds to their total elapsed time).

OK, now tell them that they can do it faster. Remind them of the rules again. And see if someone figures out how to make this go really fast (you should be able to do it in five seconds or so, even with big groups).

Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist congregations