A group of young people holds brainstorming in the office.

3 Ways to Bring the Outdoors In When Opening Your Training

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

You’re about to kick off a new workshop and you’re excited. But how does your audience react when you announce that you’re beginning with an icebreaker?

It may come as no surprise that many training participants hate icebreakers. This is not limited to introverts; as an extrovert, I also dislike most icebreakers. In fact, when I attend trainings and don’t like the opening activity, I do almost anything to avoid it.

Icebreakers (or opening activities, as I prefer to call them) are meant to engage participants and build group cohesiveness. Too often, they do just the opposite by placing people in awkward situations before trust has been established.

When I became an outdoor experiential challenge course facilitator, I knew I needed to quickly build trust with a group. Without trust, a group can’t progress from simple tasks to more complex challenges that require teamwork. Can you imagine, for example, a trust fall when the group lacks trust?

Here are three ways you can “bring the outdoors in” to more effectively engage your participants at the beginning of a workshop.


Start with a pair share rather than a large group activity.
Many people have negative preconceptions about icebreakers because they once found themselves put on the spot or were asked to share personal information with others too soon. It can feel intimidating to share ideas or try new activities with a large group. This discomfort can inhibit learning long after the activity has ended. In other words, a bad icebreaker can set a negative tone for the entire workshop.

Instead of beginning your workshop with a large group exercise, start with a pair share. This gives participants an opportunity to warm up by interacting with just one person. Following the pair share, you can always invite volunteers to share their insights with the larger group.


Use metaphors, objects, or quotes in your opening activity.
Neuroscience demonstrates that metaphors and symbols (such as quotes, objects, or images) are effective tools for promoting learning. Weaving them into opening activities has the added benefit of providing participants with a focal point or conversation starter. Metaphors and objects also help create a fun atmosphere, which increases attention and fosters engagement.

Be sure to tie the opening activity to the training content.
Relevancy and meaning are key components of experiential learning, and opening activities often lend themselves to an experiential format. Find a way to tie your icebreakers to the workshop content. For instance, referring to the example above, you might ask participants to select an object or a quote as a metaphor for what they hope to gain from the training. This context is helpful for all learners, especially for more serious participants who might otherwise think of the activity as a waste of time.

The next time you have an opportunity to lead a workshop and want to include an icebreaker, think about the impact you want to achieve. If you’re aiming to build connections, trust, and engagement, avoid putting people in awkward situations and look for ways to tie the activity into your content to make it meaningful.

Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition for my session Bring the Outdoors In: Adventure-Based Strategies That Engage.

About the Author

Pam Marshall Annitto is a professional adventurer at Leadership Adventure Strategies. She helps leaders and teams maximize their potential via coaching and experiential, adventure-based training. Jill's professional journey began when she joined the US Army, out of a desire for adventure and service, and discovered her passion for mentoring others. Since then, she has developed leaders and teams in a variety of organizations, including Booz Allen Hamilton, and FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority). In 2015, Jill launched her firm, Leadership Adventure Strategies. Adventure and service remain important to her. As a challenge course facilitator, Jill uses outdoor and indoor experiential activities to help people become better leaders, communicators, and collaborative problem solvers. She is also a past president of the Metro DC ATD Chapter. Jill is an International Coach Federation Associate Credentialed Coach, and holds a number of other industry certifications. To learn more, visit

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.