Learning happens best in an accepting environment where everyone feels welcome. This can be a tall order in middle school, when students' bodies and minds are changing rapidly. Insecurity is rampant, and studies have shown that bullying peaks at this age. Icebreakers are getting-to-know-you games that help students shake off formality and uncertainty together, reducing the new school year jitters and building community.

Introductory Icebreakers

Have the group sit in a circle and introduce themselves, picking a positive adjective that starts with the same letter as their name and explaining why they chose that one: "John Williams. I'm Jammin' John, because I like to play guitar and synthesizer." "Susan Reese. I'm Smart Susan because I plan on staying on the honor roll this year."

Follow this by passing around a bag of M&Ms. Each student takes an M&M each time the bag goes around, until all are gone. Explain that the colors have meanings: A red M&M means a favorite song, a blue means a favorite place to go, a yellow means a favorite animal. Go around the circle again, with each student choosing which of the M&Ms he's received to "answer" and then eat.

Roving Icebreakers

For these games, students wander around the classroom or gym interacting with each other. To play Detective, you need to make up a sheet of simple questions: Who has an unusual pet? Who's going to try out for basketball? Who went on a summer vacation to another state? Students interview each other and write down the names of the students who fit that category under the question. They learn interesting things about each other and have another chance to practice names.

Or, ask the students to line up in order of birth dates. They need to share information and work together to get the line right.

Hilarious Action Icebreakers

These are designed to get the group laughing together. As the students sit in a circle, explain that every time they hear a word that starts with "B" they need to stand up if they're sitting or sit down if they're standing. Then, start singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Speed up on the second verse.

Or, play a variation on musical chairs called Have You Ever. One person is "it" and stands in the middle of a circle that contains one less chair than the number of students. "It" asks a question that she thinks might apply to some of the group: Have you ever been late for school? Have you ever ridden a horse? The students who have done whatever it is have to get up and scramble for a chair while "it" scrambles to find a seat for herself; whoever remains standing gets to ask the next question.

Variations on Simon Says, the sillier the better, are also good.

Small-Group Icebreakers

A number of activities build camaraderie in small groups. To play Human Knot, have students break into smaller groups of about seven to 10 per group. The group stands in a circle; each person stretches their hands into the center of the circle and grasps the hand of someone who is not their immediate neighbor to the write or left and holds on. The group then needs to untangle the resulting tangle without letting go of each other's hands.

To play Plot and Plan, you need an assortment of unrelated objects: a glove, a basketball, a timer, a laboratory beaker, a computer disk -- the odder the better. Have each student choose an item. Then, have them count off into groups of four or five. Each group must work together to plan an imaginary classroom lesson that uses all of the objects they have before them and choose a spokesperson to explain the plan to the larger group.

Icebreakers for Chilling Out

After a breathless, action-packed game or two, gather into a big circle again and play a couple of rounds of something quieter. Pass out pieces of paper and have each student write three specified facts about herself -- favorite animal, favorite car and favorite fictional character, for example. Students then read their choices aloud and tell the group why they picked them. Alternatively, have students write down the names of three people they'd hire if they were starting a company; they can pick fellow students or anyone else they know. Go around the circle and have them explain their choices.