Zoom-Friendly Warmups and Icebreakers

Eugene Korsunskiy
May 22, 2020 · 14 min read

Back in the day, my d.school friends Tania Anaissie and Taylor Cone created the “Stoke Deck”—a collection of activities to boost energy, nurture camaraderie, and encourage creativity among students in college design classes. Since then, I’ve religiously used these activities, and others like them, to help my students get into the right mindset for creative collaboration.

But activities like these were designed for physical, in-person interaction. Today, we teach and learn in a different world.

Students in Dartmouth’s Senior Design Challenge class on “Silly Hat Day”

A changing time

As my colleagues and I scrambled to shift our in-person design classes to an online format, I posed a question to the members of the Future of Design in Higher Education group:

As we aim to create engaging experiences for our students online,

What are all the Zoom-friendly warm-up/stoke activities that we can do with our students to kick off class sessions, or add moments of delight throughout?

Below is what we came up with.

List of activities

Feel free to use these for your online classes, meetings, and webinars to infuse a little bit of extra joy into those experiences.

Name Tag

A very quick and simple way for everyone to acknowledge each other at the start of a meeting or class session.

  • Everyone needs to have their names visible on the screen (i.e. make sure that you set your name to your actual name in Zoom).
  • One person calls out someone else’s name.
  • The person whose name was called yells out “hey!” (or something else you decide on). Then, this person calls out somebody else’s name.
  • Keep going until everyone has been “tagged.”

Sound Ball

Classic “Sound Ball” game, except can be done on Zoom with one variation.

  • The premise is you’re throwing around an invisible/imaginary ball.
  • Someone starts by forming their hands as if they’re holding an invisible ball, and saying the name of the person they’re about to “throw” the invisible ball to.
  • The thrower has to make a specific sound with their mouth when throwing (it can be anything… “whee,” “boing,” “poof,” “blah,” “shayayayaya”, whatever).
  • The catcher must make the same sound that the thrower made. Then, the catcher names a new person they’re about to throw to, and throws it to them with a new made-up sound.
  • Keep going until everyone has had the ball once.
  • Tip: have everyone put their hands up to the camera if they haven’t had the ball yet, so that as the game continues, the remaining throwers know who to throw to (if the objective is to include everyone).

Pass The Love

The goal is to get everyone standing and moving around to re-energize and re-engage.

  • Ask everyone to set their Zoom screen to the “Gallery view” setting which allows you to see everyone as a set of tiled video screens.
  • Ask everyone (with video on) to stand up, and out-stretch their arms side to side. Then back up until their arms are touching the edges of their video frame (imagining you’re in a box bounded by the webcam).
  • Each person should think of something lovely/kind to share with another person and hold that idea in their hands like a ball.
  • Then everyone will “pass” that Love to a person in the frame to Left, Right, Top or Bottom of their frame…And as someone passes something to you then you will “receive” it by reaching to that side of that side of video frame, and “pass” it along to another side of the video frame.
  • So you are “receiving” and “passing” Love around the video group. Everyone is moving, and passing (and also reaching, stretching, etc).

Remember When…

This usually results in some delightful hilarity, and is a great example of collaborative creativity.

  • Pre-assign the order in which people will speak (typing out everyone’s names in order in the chat works well).
  • The first person starts telling the beginning of a fake shared memory, starting with the words “Remember when…” (e.g. “Remember when we all went surfing together in Hawaii?”).
  • The next person continues the story by adding a sentence that starts with “Yeah! And then…” (e.g. “Yeah! And then we met some talking dolphins…”)
  • Keep going with each subsequent person adding one more sentence to the story until everyone has gone.

Fun with Virtual Backgrounds

Have everyone set their Zoom “virtual background” to something fun, funny, or delightful, such as:

  • The place you wish you could be right now
  • Your favorite scent
  • A still from a movie or cartoon you love
  • Your favorite food/dessert
  • A childhood photo of yourself
  • Something that makes you happy
  • Your favorite city
  • Etc… you can even crowdsource ideas from the group

Then you can go around and have everyone talk for a few seconds about what they chose and why.

One-Word-at-a-Time Proverb

This is a classic improv game that survives the transition to Zoom very well.

  • Pre-assign the order in which people will speak (typing out everyone’s names in order in the chat works well).
  • The first person starts by saying the first word of a (non-existent) proverb.
  • Continue around the group with each person adding one word (e.g.: He… who… slices… radishes… loudly… must… always… etc.);
  • Once the group feels that the natural end of the sentence has been reached, everyone nods and says “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
  • You can go around the group several times and come up with several proverbs.

Yes, Let’s!

Another “oldie but a goodie” that works really well online.

  • One person says “let’s ____” and offers a suggestion to the group for something everyone can to together (e.g. wave our hands in the air, give ourselves a high-five, do 3 jumping jacks, etc.).
  • Everyone else replies with “yes, let’s!” and does the suggested action for a few seconds.
  • The person who just went picks the next person who will suggest a new action.
  • Keep going for as long as you want—approximately 5 total suggestions is good (no need to go around and have everyone in a large group suggest an action… that might start feeling tedious).

Where Are We?

The summary is: you average out the coordinates of everyone’s current location (latitude + longitude), to determine the geographical “center of mass” of the group.

  • Set up a Google Spreadsheet like this one. (You need to have automatically-averaging formula for latitude and longitude, and you need to make sure everyone can edit this shared spreadsheet.)
  • Have everyone go to latlong.net and look up their latitude and longitude.
  • Have everyone go to the spreadsheet and enter their name and location.
  • Once you have the averages, facilitator does a reverse-lookup by going to latlong.net/Show-Latitude-Longitude.html and enters the averages, to see the place name.
  • Facilitator enters the resulting place name into the spreadsheet.

Bonus points if you then look up something about the place where you landed. When I tried this, the class’s average was in Shelton, CT. Turns out it’s the birthplace of the original Wiffle Ball!

Story Spine

Everyone comes up with a story together, one sentence at a time. Start by pre-assigning the order in which people will speak (typing out everyone’s names in order in the chat works well), and post the text of the bullet points below on the screen. Then, have everyone go around and build the story, with these phrases starting each subsequent sentence:

  • Once upon a time…
  • Every day…
  • Until one day…
  • And because of that…
  • And because of that…
  • And because of that… n*
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day...

* You can have as many of these as you need to, given the size of the group.

Gift-Giving

This is another classic improv game.

  • Start by “handing” one person an invisible/imaginary gift. (It’s helpful if you have a TA or confederate for this first step, so they can demonstrate the proper response). Be as expressive as possible with your body language to indicate something about the size / weight / potential contents of the gift. As you hand it over, the only thing you’re allowed to say is “Here, [person’s name], I got you a gift.”
  • The person to whom you handed it has to receive the gift and name it, responding to the body language. (“Wow, thanks for this… bicycle! It’s such a pretty hot pink color!”)
  • And then they give a gift to the next person, and so on, until everyone has gone.

This can work well in a session in which you’re teaching interviewing and empathy-building because the “receiver” is like the interviewer and has to respond to what the giver/interviewee puts out there.

Jamboard Playground

Google has an extension called “Jamboard,” which is basically like a shared whiteboard.

  • Open a Jamboard and share the link with everyone that is on your video call.
  • Choose someone to share one thing that they are obsessed with that week or day.
  • When that one thing has been chosen (ex: watching Netflix, sending mail, dinosaurs), that becomes the inspiration for your communal art piece.
  • On Jamboard, the tools on the left hand side give everyone the markers, adding images, etc. to help create a single image inspired by that “obsession”.
  • It helps to have a time limit (like 5 minutes) and everyone is encouraged to participate. The best part, the image at the end is a hodgepodge of interpretations that have been built off each other.
Students in Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership create collaborative art on Jamboard

Breakout Room Charades

  • Randomly assign people to breakout rooms and ask them to determine a short list of design principles or class concepts (or anything else!).
  • Bring the groups back and with mute on. Have one person act out the concept while the other team guesses.

Musical Guess-Who

This works best with small groups (less than 10).

  • The facilitator asks each participant to submit the title of their favorite song, or the name of their favorite artist. This can be done ahead of time (via email or Google Forms), or in real-time via Zoom private chat. The important thing is not to let other participants know what each person said.
  • The facilitator plays ~30sec of each person’s favorite song (looking it up on Spotify or YouTube Music, etc.), and everyone has to guess which person picked which song.
  • (For a fun/silly bonus, throw in 30 seconds of random/weird/strange song that no one listed, just to add a note of delightful unpredictability).

Rapid Fire Teams

A great way to quickly build intimacy and community, by giving pairs of people something unique to bond over.

  • Round 1: Create random breakout rooms with 2 people in each. Give them 2 minutes with the following task: tell each other about where you are from; then together create a “secret handshake” (set of air gestures over Zoom) somehow inspired by that information.
  • Round 2: Recreate random breakout rooms with new pairs. Give them 2 minutes with the following task: tell each other one of your earliest childhood memories; then together create nicknames for each other, inspired by that information.
  • Round 3: Recreate random breakout rooms with new pairs. Give them 2 minutes with the following task: tell each other about one recent failure (big or small); then together create a life motto, inspired by that information.
  • Round 4: Recreate random breakout rooms with new pairs. Give them 2 minutes with the following task: tell each other about one recent success (big or small); then together create a touchdown dance, inspired by that information.

High Five

  • Have everyone turn on “Gallery view.”
  • Air-high-five your neighbors.
  • Air-high-five your diagonal neighbors.

30-Second Dance Party

There are two variations of this one:

  • You can share your audio and play a song for everyone (and you can choose whether to allow people to turn off their cameras to do the whole “dance like nobody’s watching” thing, or leave everyone’s cameras on and enjoy each other’s silliness together).
  • You can encourage everyone to play their own song and dance to it, while keeping their microphones on mute — so you’re simulating a “silent disco” situation.

That’s Not Krumping

A game to get everyone on a video call to do a synchronized movement from the waist up.

  • Person 1 starts by doing a movement, such as shrugging their shoulders.
  • Person 2 jumps in and asks “Hey [insert name]! What are you doing?”
  • Person 1 responds “I’m krumping!”
  • Person 2 responds: “That’s not krumping. This is krumping.” Person 2 now does a new movement and Person 1 mimics.
  • Person 3 jumps in and asks Person 2 “Hey [insert name]! What are you doing?” etc. starting a new movement so all three people are doing a new movement.
  • This continues until everyone on the video call is doing one similar movement, one person at a time, with the movement changing with each person.

Getting in Touch with Touch

The goal of this exercise is to get everyone out of the cognitive for a few minutes and in touch with tactile and sensory experience.

  • First, ask everyone to notice their current mood. Notice how you feel.
  • Second, get up and move around your space touching lots of objects in your space. Notice how they make you feel when you touch them. Pick one that feels like it matches your mood today. If it is small enough, bring it back to your Zoom.
  • Third, share. Depending on group size, everyone can share or can do breakout rooms in small groups.

Instruction and note to give to your group: “If you an accomplished cognitive thinker, it will be easy for you to pick any random object and make up a reasonable-sounding story (narrative) of how that object matches your mood. Try not to do this, but instead really notice how you feel and then how objects make you feel when you touch them.”

Grab and Share / Show and Tell

  • When on a video call, have everyone grab something that is within arm’s reach.
  • Take turns telling a story about that item: Where/when did you get it? Is it meaningful?
  • If you’re on multiple calls with similar people and choose this activity, make sure to grab something new to share each time.

Bonus variation: you can also have participants tell completely fantastical, made-up stories about the objects, for extra delight and creativity.

Scene Change

Everyone moves out of the frame (but keeps their cameras on). The facilitator instructs everyone to come back to the shot as though they _______ (insert mood / situation / facial expression here). You can do several of these back-to-back. Some fun prompts include:

Come back as though you…

  • walked into a room and realized everyone else is throwing you a surprise party.
  • had the world’s most ground-breaking idea.
  • just found $20 in your pocket.
  • Etc.

Shape Shift

This is a quick and easy game that is sure to bring smiles to faces.

  • Everyone turns off their camera.
  • The facilitator announces that everyone will have a short and specific amount of time (~3 minutes is good) to complete the activity and return. (The facilitator may also share their screen with a countdown timer on it).
  • During “cameras off” time, everyone has to go and find a disguise/costume for themselves. They must also change their Zoom “display name” to a new name, which corresponds to the disguise/costume.
  • When time is up, facilitator counts down 3… 2… 1… and instructs everyone to turn on their cameras all at once. Hilarity ensues as everyone sees everyone else’s silly disguises.

Zoom Bingo

Ask participants a question that can be answered in one word or a short phrase. Each participant writes their response and holds it up to the camera. Anyone whose screen has a row, column, or diagonal with all the same responses wins. Simple questions work best, like…

  • What was the last thing you had to drink?
  • What city are you in now?
  • What type of animal was your first pet?

Here’s what it might look like:

Adam Royalty’s class playing Zoom Bingo
Adam Royalty’s class playing Zoom Bingo
Adam Royalty’s class playing Zoom Bingo

True or False (with Friends and Family)

Ask each student to bring a friend or family member to class. Go around and have each guest introduce themselves. Then, to play the “True or False?” game:

  • Each guest takes turns telling one fact about the student who brought them, and it can be a true or false fact (e.g. “One time Ahmed ate 15 muffins in one sitting,” “When she was little, Serena really wanted to be a pirate,” etc.)
  • Everyone else tries to guess whether they think the fact was false. (You can use Zoom polls for this, and just set up a one-question poll with the options “TRUE” and “FALSE” and re-launch the poll each time.)
  • The person who said the fact reveals whether the group was right, and expands just a little on the backstory behind the fact.
  • For extra fun, cue up a sound effect for “correct” (ding) and “incorrect” (buzzer) to play after the reveal has been made.
  • The student who was just the subject of a true/false fact nominates the next person to go.
  • Keep going around until everyone has gone.

Theme Days

Come up with a list of themes (like high school spirit days) — have students join you in brainstorming, or choose from the list below, and each day decide on a theme. You can use polls in Zoom to have students vote at the end of each day for the following day’s theme (from, say, 5 options each time).

  • Pajama day
  • Ugly sweater day
  • Funny/favorite hat day (photo at the beginning of this article)
  • Superhero day
  • Plaid day
  • Bring a pet to class day
  • Halloween costume day
  • Bring a sibling to class day
  • Primary colors day
  • Dress as someone else (your prof or a famous person) day
  • Black tie day
  • Crazy hair day
  • Funny shirt day
  • Dessert/snack day
  • Bring a stuffed animal (or other childhood toy/memorabilia) day
  • Time travel day
  • Fun/funny socks day
  • Tell a joke day
  • Bad hair day
  • Bring something you made day
  • Etc.

For each theme day, devote a few minutes at the start of class to going around and having everyone talk for a few seconds about the thing they chose/brought.

A whole bunch of great ideas from Abby Sturges:

Mural-specific warm-up games:

Further reading

Interested in exploring more fun with improv and related activities? Here are some gems to check out:

Many thanks

This list was a team effort, and I’m immensely grateful to the members of the Future of Design in Higher Education group who worked on this together, including:

Wendy Angst (Notre Dame), Kate Burch Canales(UT-Austin), Katie Clark (Swarthmore), Gray Garmon (UT-Austin), Kim Hoffmann (Northwestern), Tony Hu (MIT), Steve Krak (Denison), Fred Leichter (Claremont Colleges), Andrea Mecquel (Princeton), Jessica Leung (Princeton), Amy O’Keefe (Northwestern), Claudia Roeschmann (Texas State), Sarah Rottenberg (UPenn), Adam Royalty (Columbia), Rafe Steinhauer (Tulane), Carl Sveen (Swarthmore), and Scott Witthoft (UT-Austin).

And a great many thanks to my brave and wonderful students in the Senior Design Challenge course for letting me test out many of these activities with them! …and for contributing lots of great ideas, like options for our theme days and virtual backgrounds.

And, of course, for looking so fabulous in silly hats.

Got an idea to add?

Tell us in the comments!

Future of Design in Higher Education

New ideas about human-centered design in the classroom and beyond.

Future of Design in Higher Education

FDHE is a community of educators in Human-Centered Design who are navigating the spaces between disciplines. We share ideas and best practices for empowering future generations of empathetic, collaborative innovators.

Eugene Korsunskiy

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Eugene teaches design thinking at Dartmouth College.

Future of Design in Higher Education

FDHE is a community of educators in Human-Centered Design who are navigating the spaces between disciplines. We share ideas and best practices for empowering future generations of empathetic, collaborative innovators.