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Icebreakers: Warming Up the Family

by Edith Wagner
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Getting the Party Started
Even though reunions are all about family, getting your relatives to interact can sometimes be a challenge, especially if you've gathered together many far-flung branches of the family tree. Reunion expert Edith Wagner gives you some tips on fun ways to get people introduced and enjoying each other's company.

One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is how to introduce and mix relatives who've never met or haven't seen one another in years. Ice Breakers! Silly Games! Activities to loosen everyone up! Many of these can be arranged easily and quickly. Others require time, effort and collection of supplies and materials. In this article you'll learn from the experience of others on fun ways of getting everybody to enjoy the reunion.

Ice Breakers — Getting Started

A goal for reunion organizers who expect extended family to attend is to have people talking and enjoying themselves as quickly as possible, because there is so little time to do it. It's not just shy kids — even some adults find it hard to strike up a conversation with someone that they don't know well.

There are a few easy, straightforward steps to take as a matter of course:

  • Reunion committee members should circulate, say hello and instigate conversations. In no time, everyone's talking and having a good time.
  • For those members who are still uncomfortable or feel they don't fit in, give them a job. Ask them to help hand out awards — any job that helps them feel involved.

The person who facilitates ice breakers and introductions at your reunion must be enthusiastic and able to sell everyone on the fun to follow. One family asked the oldest generation to introduce themselves, their families and share special events that occurred since the last reunion. Then, they read letters and shared pictures from members who could not attend.

Karen Robertson, California, Bropra Family Reunion, suggests an icebreaker where each person writes little known facts about themselves. The facts are listed on a paper and the object is to find the person who matches the fact and get their signature. People get acquainted and learn interesting information about each other this way.

Another idea is to distribute a list of questions as members arrive. To get answers, they must circulate and talk to people. Suggest questions specific to your family. Include one question about each branch of the family so everyone can feel like an expert. This encourages people to seek out distant relatives. These questions could cover current information like, "Who just got engaged in the Radtke branch of the family?" or "Who is retiring and moving to Arizona?" Also include questions about family history. People will need to ask older relatives for answers or check the genealogy display. If some family members still speak in the family's native language write a line or two to be translated. Those who don't speak the language must find those who do. Post photos of ancestors and ask members to identify them.

Bob Snyder's Kauffman Family Reunion soon had strangers laughing together with their version of Whoppers. Each member in groups of five or six wrote four alleged facts about themselves — three true but hard to believe and one false but believable. Others in the group tried to identify Whoppers as lists were read. They awarded points for people fooled or for every fact correctly guessed. Discussion of real and bogus "facts" continued throughout the reunion.

More Tried and True Icebreaking Ideas

  • Doris A. Phillips, Indianapolis, Indiana, says the Phillips-White-Wilson Family Reunion gave their over 100 members each a get-acquainted list of thirty questions. Find someone who sings in the shower. Find someone who's left-handed. Find someone who's a Crazy Hat Judge (they wore ribbons on their name tags).
  • For an icebreaker, Rosa Thomson asked every family group for "This Is Our Life" photos showing their home, yard, activities, sports, hobbies and pets. Her son made a display for everyone to get to know one another!
  • A genealogy display, lots of family photos and special remembrances quickly get members of the Guidon/Yandeau Family Reunion mingling.
  • The Deschaines tried a humorous twist on the "Identify the Picture" contest, often done with baby pictures or portraits of ancestors. They took a series of torso shots of men holding beer cans next to their navels, to be posted the next year. Identification was not easy since some of the men lost or gained weight.
  • At Karen Naedler's Cousins Connection, everyone taped baby pictures to a huge poster labeled Beautiful Babies. The fun was trying to guess who was who and marveling at family resemblances. A sister-in-law spent hours making a word-find puzzle using all the cousins' names. It was a tremendous hit. They also filled a fishbowl with peanuts for everyone to guess the numbers. The prize was a live "family tree" to be re-planted.

Maurice and Florence Krueger, Mina, South Dakota, shared these successful Polt Family Reunion icebreakers:

  • Ancestor Search — Takes 15 minutes and requires three volunteer judges and parent/child teams. Each team receives a list of ancestors and has fifteen minutes to collect signatures from ancestors' descendants. Winners gather the most correct signatures.
  • Young Children's Ancestor ID — Each girl gives her name, her mother's and grandmothers' names. Each boy gives his name, his father's and grandfathers' names. Don't forget rewards for each child.
  • Compliments — Ask everyone to face the person to the right and give him/her a compliment.

Reunion Trivia

Gregory Bonner, Lexington, Kentucky, shared ideas about his family's Reunion Trivia game which involves everyone from six years old to eighty years young. New questions are written for each reunion because they should teach and entertain. This is a great game, because it gives people a lot of interesting things to talk about after the game is over.

Twenty-five to thirty questions are just about right. Start with serious questions meant to inform. How many living generations are there in our family? Who is the eldest living family member? Ask the person to stand, be recognized, given flowers and accolades. Who is the youngest member present? Ask the parents to show off the child. Which couple has been married longest? Shortest? Again, ask them to stand and be recognized. How many sets of twins were born in the family? Then, more on to lighter, less serious questions. What was a grandmother's middle name? How many children did the family founders have? Name them. Introduce anything about your family you think is unique, such as: What was Uncle Jim's job in the Army? Answer: Uncle Jim was a bugler in the Cavalry.

Include some silly questions, too. What is Uncle Bubba's real name? What relationship was Aunt Kirsten to us and how? Many times we call someone aunt/uncle/cousin when they're not really relatives. Younger members don't know why. What were Uncle Ed's two cats' names?

And, finally, the bragging questions. The purpose of these is to recognize people who are doing something special or outstanding. Emphasize what's extraordinary and worth recognition. Who's attending college this year? Each college student should stand, tell the name of the college and their major. Who bought a house since our last reunion? Who had a baby this year?

Once you start thinking questions come easily and are limited only by your imagination. You don't have ask all of them at once. Remember your objectives are to entertain, educate, recall and get everyone involved. Keep comments and speeches to a minimum. Never ask a question for which you have no answer. A slight dose of foolishness is fun, but don't get too silly. People will lose interest. Be creative. Avoid negatives, such as: How many husbands did Aunt Trudy have? Or why did Uncle Lee go to jail on Christmas Eve?

Be patient, understanding and versed in crowd control. Don't play favorites, people will yell and scream from every direction if you always call on your sister for answers.

More Variations of Reunion Trivia

Organize teams that include members from each generation and each branch of the family. Set out paper bags and ask relatives to deposit questions. Categories can include anything you choose; sports, geography, education, family history, special events. This is an opportunity to share. Welcome family stories that often interrupt the game. This also teaches youngsters that family history is fun.

Adapt historical trivia to the generations of your family. Start with the oldest person present and say, when Oma Wenzel was born in 1903:

  • The price of gas was ___ per gallon.
  • First class postage was ___.
  • Bread cost ___ per loaf.
  • The ballpoint pen was not yet invented.
  • Credit cards did not exist.
  • The Zip Code was ___ years in the future.
  • Life magazine was ___ per copy.

Then use the same trivia: Oma Wenzel's oldest child, William, was born in 1934, They had a car and the price of gas was ___.

Franklin Buser, a member of Kimmel Cousins, developed Kimmel Geography for Trivia Collectors. Consider the possibilities. Buser found Kimmelton, Kimmel Township and two Kimmel churches in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania; Kimmell, Indiana; Kimmel School, Illinois; Kimmel Hall at Syracuse University, New York; Kimmel Roads in Eldorado, Ohio, Somerset, Pennsylvania and Redford, Arkansas. How about trivia for your family name? Michele Beckett, Loveland, Colorado, says Newtons chose sides to play the Newton Trivia Game, a rollicking way to share family history. Everyone sent in exploits and stories which were compiled into questions.

The Berry Family Reunion hands out questions on cards as people arrive encouraging everyone to talk and ask questions immediately. "Which family member was born at 8:02 AM in a hospital hallway?" "Which aunt attended five different grade schools?"

What does your family do to warm the crowd? How do you get everyone involved and participating eagerly?

Trading Time

Another way to break the ice is with trading. This way, people from different areas are encouraged to get together and talk. For example, ask teenagers to come prepared to trade school t-shirts. It may mean buying a couple of extras but you'll be giving extra support to your kids' schools. Best are shirts that include not only the name of the school but the city and state for out-of-state cousins.

If your reunion includes members from everywhere, trade souvenirs. If everyone brings one, then trading time should start as early as the first mixer/welcoming party. Encourage people to trade and re-trade. As a final activity ask everyone to show what trade they've ended up with. They'll still be trading in cars or at the airports on their way home!

The Barnett Family Reunion has a special trading tradition. Each child digs into his or her toy box for something to take to the reunion. Toys are piled on a picnic table or blanket. Each child's name is put in a bag and pulled one by one, to pick a 'new' toy from the pile.

Whatever the ploy, fun is always the result at reunions!

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How-To Article: What Should We Do at the Reunion?
How-To Article: Ideas for Activities and Themes
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