Activities to Get Them Moving, Talking, Reflecting, and Keep Them Engaged

I am passionate about helping teachers and group facilitators blend information from the field of educational neuroscience and experiential learning principles into their practice. These fields offer important insights into how people learn best, helping educators increase participant engagement, buy in, and retention in classrooms, training sessions, team-building programs and therapeutic groups. Current brain research validates the experiential education philosophy that educators will increase attention, motivation, and learning outcomes when they weave in opportunities to get learners away from their desks or boardroom tables and move, interact, discuss, and reflect with their peers.

Many educators and group facilitators have a repertoire of favorite introduction activities they regularly use to build rapport at the beginning of a program or school year. In recent posts I have explored how these ice-breakers or rapport builders can be upcycled or re-purposed as active review or reflection activities throughout a program or classroom lesson.

Here are some of my favorite multi-use engagement activities pulled from the “Inspired Educator Archives”:

Handshake Mingle

This activity has been a staple of my group facilitation repertoire for many years (Stanchfield, 2007).  It is helpful for making introductions, creating connections, reviewing names, and becoming more comfortable with each other. This tried and true method is social and incrementally sequenced, and perfect for building rapport. Though it is playful, it starts with an action familiar in our culture, the high 5. Even reluctant group members find it palatable because I carefully facilitate it to enhance involvement by using low-risk greetings at first and taking the time for partners to return to each other to build connections with a few partners. I usually facilitate an object pair sharing activity prior to this activity to build comfort and a sense of choice of control before moving into the Handshake Mingle. There is choice inherent in this activity, and no one person is in the spotlight.

It also works as an active processing/reflection activity to start group dialogue on a specific experience or training topic. This activity can be used a number of times throughout a group’s experience to reflect and review.

Materials: None needed, entry-task objects can be woven into this activity

Facilitation Note
Facilitators use a variety of greetings in this activity—some of them can get pretty silly or involve touch. I tend to start simply, using greetings with minimal touch to warm up the group, increase buy-in, and observe the varying physical abilities of group members. I purposely facilitate a slower version of this activity, having people revisit previous partners so they build connections with at least four or five people in the room (a very different activity than the “quickly visit everyone” version).

Facilitation Suggestions
• First, have everyone find a partner and give each other a high 5. Have participants recognize this person as their “high 5” partner. To increase buy-in and facilitate a smooth transition from one activity
to another, this first partner could be the domino or playing card partner from the pre-group or entry task pairing.
•Next, ask participants to find a new partner, and give each other a low 5. This is their “low 5” partner. I usually give these partners a reflective,  get-to-know-you or academic review question, or ask them to share about their entry activity choice.
• After a few moments of partner conversation, have participants revisit their high 5 partner, then their low 5 partners, moving amongst the group to find those original partners.
• Then invite them to find a “fist-bump fireworks” partner (a fist bump with an explosion that brings some laughter into the activity). I often ask the group what fireworks remind them of. Inevitably someone says “celebrations.” I then ask partners to share some thing worth celebrating. I frame this around their reason for being in the group. For a group of educators, it could be “something worth celebrating about this school year: a personal achievement, a success story with a student, a new initiative at your school.”
• Continue this sequence, adding on new partners/activities as appropriate. Blend in context setting, rapport building or reflection/academic review questions. You will witness laughter, positive interaction, and fun; and participants will remember their partners and conversations.
• Have participants help you come up with new handshakes or present their own; this enhances ownership and involvement. I have integrated participant’s creativity with “rock on” partners, “butterfly” partners, and “pop a wheelie” partners.
• For a deeper introductory activity or a kinesthetic reflection or review, mix get-to-know-you, reflective or context setting and review questions into the exercise.
• Use this as a closing at the end of a class or program: Ask participants to go back through their handshake sequence and revisit their partners to reflect on their thoughts regarding the program/
lesson. Have high 5 partners share something from the program that was worth celebrating or a high point for them.
• This can be used multiple times with a group to reflect on specific questions/academic content.

Facilitation Tips: Be thoughtful and observant and use handshakes that are appropriate, taking into consideration space, touch, physical abilities, setting, cultural norms, and the background of your group. Some of my favorite handshakes are “fishing” partners (one is the fisher with reel/rod and the other the fish) and “ankle shake” partners. BUT, I am very careful about when to introduce sillier handshakes, if at all. If I use an ankle shake partner I always demonstrate a few different levels of ankle shaking and have them choose their own level or version.
The repetitive visiting of partners is one of the most important aspects of this activity, allowing participants to create a connection with the people who are their partners and learn and reinforce names. When facilitators skip this part and focus on quantity of partners versus quality of interaction it takes away from the activity and can turn a positive, rapport-building activity into an intimidating icebreaker.

Resource/Reference: I learned this as a community building activity years ago from my colleague Aimee Desrosier Cochran and it has developed over time from what I’ve learned from participants over the past 15 years.

Concentric Circles

This kinesthetic, partner-sharing activity can be used as an icebreaker, a discussion starter, an active reflection approach, or a closing activity. It’s an effective method to break up direct instruction in a training or teaching situation and get participants away from their desks to review academic material or topics for discussion. Each person is only asked to converse with one person at a time, and everyone has the opportunity to participate. This activity can be adapted to most age or size groups. It works especially well with large groups.

Facilitation Suggestions:

  • Divide the group in half, and two circles are formed, with the participants facing each other in an inner circle and an outer circle.
  • Ask the participants to greet each other and then converse about the topic at hand. You could have very specific questions about the material prepared for the partners to discuss. You might also initiate a less structured conversation inviting participants to share their reactions to, or key takeaways gleaned from your lecture, or in the case of a team-building session, the group’s experience.
  • If you are discussing current events you might have the inside circle represent one point of view and the outside circle another.
  • In academic or training settings, the inside circle could quiz the outside circle as a formative assessment or data gathering exercise. You could give the inside circle index cards with questions and golf pencils to take notes.
  • Depending on the group, I sometimes incorporate a fun partner cooperative activity such as “finger fencing” or “gotcha” or “one handed, partnered shoe tying” prior to the reflection or review discussion. This brings a little fun into the classroom or boardroom and helps participants create social connections (another brain-friendly method of teaching).
  • After completing the partner activity, participants are asked to share their thoughts about the group experience, lecture, lesson, or reading. One teacher I work with started to use it in her language arts class. She had the inside circle take the perspective of one character in a play and the outside circle another, and then asked them to answer questions “in character”. My colleague Marci Charles shared that she used this method to increase inter-department communication in a corporate team-building day. She had the administrative team form the inside circle and the IT team form the outside circle for a reflective discussion on company communication.
  • After a few moments, or when the conversational energy diminishes, have one of the circles rotate a few places. Partcipants form new partnerships, greeting those they bypass along the way.
  • Invite the new partners to greet each other,and provide another topic to discuss or cooperative activity.

Reference: I was first introduced to this activity many years ago as an ice-breaker facilitated by my friend Hutch Hutchinson (Cain, Cummings, Stanchfield, 2005). I have repurposed it over the years as a reflection and review activity with great outcomes. Concentric Circles works especially well for large groups and in classroom situations.

Whether you are an adventure educator, a primary or secondary classroom teacher, a college professor, corporate trainer, or counselor, you will find that incorporating movement into your presentations and reflective group discussions will increase participant engagement and potentially help learners better retain and synthesize information from your lessons. Look for more ideas to keep them moving, talking and reflecting in upcoming posts.


Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Ratey, John. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Sousa, David. (2006). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Stanchfield, Jennifer (2007). Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation. OKC, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing

Willis, Judy. (2006). Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: (Judy Willis’ website)


  • Vishwas Parchure
    Posted at 19:32h, 24 May

    I was wondering if you could help me with more large group, simple prop stuff for a group of 60. Get-to-know-each-other stuff.

  • Jen
    Posted at 02:24h, 05 August

    Hello Vishwas,
    I finally posted another article on this topic yesterday. I hope you find it useful.

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