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Financial Literacy > How to Energize Financial Education Training: Icebreakers, Energizers, and Openers

How to Energize Financial Education Training: Icebreakers, Energizers, and Openers 


Financial education material can be dry, complex, and even emotionally challenging for some participants. Skilled facilitators can be essential to making financial education engaging and accessible. Becoming a skilled facilitator involves understanding what works in a financial education setting and for your particular participants. This starts with understanding your target audience through a needs assessment, but also involves being able to use a mix of methodologies to make the material accessible to a broad range of learning styles.

Most trainers can learn a set of methods to incorporate into their financial education sessions that will enliven even the driest material and more effectively communicate its content. This article explores three such methods, all of which are important at different times during a financial education session: icebreakers, openers, and energizers.

Having a range of these methods ready to use during any financial education session is like having a toolbox full of different tools. These training methodologies can help to :

  • Create a relaxed training atmosphere
  • Enliven the group
  • Change direction if participants are confused or materials are too simplistic.

Including the methods among other teaching methods and techniques will not only animate financial education course material, but will help to more effectively convey the financial topics being taught. This article provides practical guidance for financial education trainers to learn why and how to include such techniques in a curriculum, as well as when best to apply them. While the methods described are not the only effective teaching tools available, implemented correctly, they help to create a learning environment that encourages dialogue among participants, maintain a good energy level, and keep participants interested in the subject matter.


In participatory training approaches, icebreakers can be used for warming up a class of participants, no matter the subject area.  Used most often in the early sessions of a multisession course, icebreakers can help participants get to know one another and the facilitator, and create a relaxed and trusting atmosphere. They help develop group cohesion and trust while lessening learner anxiety.1

Most often, icebreakers are content-free activities, meaning they are not tied to the specific session objectives. Besides being fun and interactive2, they can:

  • Set the tone for the training—“This is going to be fun after all.”
  • Indicate the responsibility for the learning—“It looks like I'm going to have to get involved.”
  • Communicate what kind of training it will be—“This is going to be an engaging and participatory experience.”

The following guidelines can help you plan for using icebreakers in a training session:  

  • Use icebreakers that are positive and set people up to succeed; conversely, avoid icebreakers that might cause people to become embarrassed or fail at the task.
  • Start with icebreakers that do not push people too much beyond what they are comfortable with in the beginning of training.
  • Ensure the activities are unbiased from cultural, gender, age, and socioeconomic perspectives.
  • Make sure the directions for the icebreakers are clear and concise.
  • Use humor judiciously. Humor can be a great tool for helping participants relax; however, facilitators should remember that what is funny and in good fun to one person might be offensive and alienating to another. Jokes as icebreakers, therefore, should be avoided altogether.
  • Even though icebreakers are content-free, there should still be transitions from these to the core of the training. Facilitators can ask participants to reflect on the icebreakers and share the reasons the training session began with such an activity.

Finally, while icebreakers can help get training off to an energetic start, it’s important that they do not take up too much time relative to the content that is planned. Icebreakers that drag on too long lose the energy they were intended to create. Also, many adult learners will view icebreakers as a waste of time regardless of the amount of fun they and others have. For these reasons, set some limits when selecting or developing icebreakers for a training session.

Many books and other resources contain training ideas that can be used as icebreakers. Here are a few that have been used in financial education classes:

Icebreaker Name

General Description of the Activity and Instructions for Facilitating

And Now I’d Like To Introduce…3

Materials Needed: Pencils/pens and note card or paper for taking notes

About the Icebreaker: Each participant pairs up with another whom they do not know. The facilitator explains that instead of people introducing themselves, they will introduce their partners.

1.       Instruct partners to interview each other. Explain that the notes from the interview will provide the foundation for the introduction of the partner.

2.       The facilitator should provide a list of questions that people should be prompted to ask, such as:

  • Name?
  • Where are you from?/Where do you live?
  •  IDA goal?
  •  What is interesting about you that not many people know?
  •  If all your living expenses were paid for, how would you spend your time?

3.       The facilitator should give the group 5 minutes for the pairs partners to interview each other (the facilitator should instruct participants to switch interviewer/interviewee status after two and a half minutes).

4.       Facilitators should ask partners to volunteer to do the introduction and instruct them to start by saying “And now I’d like to introduce…”

5.       After everyone is finished, ask people to share what they learned about the other participants in the group.

Three Truths
And a Lie

Materials Needed: Half a sheet of flip chart/newsprint paper and a marker for each participant.

About the Icebreaker: Participants introduce themselves by stating their names and then three truths about themselves and one lie. They do not share which statements are true or which is the lie. The other participants then guess which statement is the lie.

1.       Instruct participants to write on their papers: their names at the top and then four statements about themselves. Explain that three of the statements should be true and one should be a lie.

2.       Tell participants they should keep secret the statement that is not true.

3.       Explain that they will introduce themselves by showing their papers and stating their names and then the four statements.

4.       Explain that the other participants should then guess which statement is not true.

5.       The facilitator should ask for more information—“tell us more about the time you hiked in the Grand Canyon”—for a couple of them.

6.       Provide an example to get going:

My name is Ana Martinez.

  •  I am the oldest of 5 girls.
  • I have been on a 500-mile bike ride to raise money for MS.
  •  I have seven cats.
  • I used to sing and play tambourine in a garage band.

(The seven cats statement is the lie in this example.)

7.       After everyone is finished, ask people to share what they learned about the other participants in the group.


Materials Needed: None

About the Icebreaker: Participants think about what three things and what three people—known to them or not, living or not—they would want to have with them if they were marooned on a desert island (assuming there was plenty of food and water).

1.       Instruct participants to reflect individually on the following scenario:

You have been stranded on a desert island. There is plenty of food and water. What three things would you want with you on the island? What three people would you want with you? The people can be ones you know or not, living or not.

2.       After 2–3 minutes, start by providing an example. Be sure to ask people to provide both the items and people they would want as well as the rationales for their choices:

  • My name is Ana Martinez, and I would have with me: My iPod filled with music and audio downloads to keep me entertained, my cell phone so I could call for help, and a sleeping bag so I could sleep well every night and stay warm and comfortable. The people I would have with me are my grandmother because she was the strongest and wisest person I have ever known, Bill Cosby because he is so funny and would keep my spirits up, and Billie Holiday so we would have great music.

3.       Provide time for each participant to present. Ask clarifying questions as necessary.

4.       After everyone is finished, ask people to share what they learned about the other participants in the group.

Introduction Alliteration6

Materials Needed: Table tent for each participant and marker

About the Icebreaker: This is a two-part activity that also helps people learn each other’s names. First, each participant comes up with an adjective that describes him or her but also starts with the same letter as his/her name. In the second part, participants introduce themselves by first sharing the names and adjectives of everyone who has been introduced before them, and then themselves.

1.       Instruct participants to each come up with an adjective that describes how they want to handle their finances, and that starts with same letter as his/her name.

2.       Provide an example: Thrifty Thomas.

3.       Give everyone a minute to do this.

4.       Then instruct participants to introduce themselves by saying the adjectives and names of everyone that has gone before them, ending with their own names. For example, “Penny-Pinching Peter, Intelligent Irene, and I am Thrift Thomas.” [Note: This is easy for the first person to do; you could ask that person to cite everyone once the last person in the room has spoken.] 

5.       The facilitator can write down all the adjectives as people state them.

6.       When the introductions are complete, congratulate the group for finishing.

7.       Instruct participants to fill in their table tents using their new names  (adjective + name).

8.       Call attention to the list of adjectives and invite participants to write the other attributes they would like to develop during the class. Invite them to write these on the other side of their table tents.


Openers are distinct from icebreakers in that they introduce content in an interesting way. Generally they are used at the beginning of a session, often instead of an icebreaker or to introduce a new topic in the middle of a session. They can also be used to bridge to distinct topical segments of training sessions. Using different methods to open or begin segments of training sessions can create an energized and involved atmosphere; it generally signals that the training will be participatory.

Openers can take various formats and most break the traditional and expected model of the facilitator standing in front of the class making introductions and reviewing an agenda to start a training session. Instead, the facilitator can encourage participants to immediately engage in an activity, and then report out on that activity.

Openers are most effective when they are:

  • Relevant to the material to be covered during that session7
  • Thought-provoking and help participants see information differently through self-discovery rather than lecture
  • Linked to participants’ own experiences. In other words, they draw out participants’ knowledge about a topic
  • Bridged to the session through use of transitions

Openers should not be used just because they are novel.8 They should provide effective and engaging ways to introduce new topics. As with icebreakers, facilitators should be sure not to let these startup activities drag on too long.

Following are some examples of openers used in financial education sessions:


General Description of the Activity and Instructions for Facilitating


(Opener to Training)

Materials Needed: Flip chart/newsprint pad and markers for facilitator; copy of training course agenda, outcomes, and objectives for each participant

About the Opener: Participants are invited to share the knowledge and skills they expect to get from the training and compare those expectations to the agenda.

1.       Explain the importance of hearing participants’ expectations. Remind them that the program has expectations of them that were explained to them upon enrollment into the program.

2.        Ask participants to write down their expectations on their workbook or on a scrap piece of paper. Give them 4–5 minutes to complete the task.

3.       Using the round robin technique, get one expectation from each person, then start again until ideas are exhausted. Write them on the flip chart.

4.       When an expectation is repeated, put a check or star next to it.

5.       Once all the expectations have been shared, discuss how the training program will meet or not meet the expectations listed on the flip chart by referring participants to the agenda, outcomes, and objectives for the entire course.

6.       Summarize group expectations and distribute to group at the next session.

Issues Census

(Opener to Training)10

Materials Needed: Flip chart/newsprint and markers for each team; copy of training course agenda, outcomes, and objectives for each participant

About the Opener: Participants are invited in groups to share the issues they want addressed during the training. Then they rank the top three issues from their group through consensus. These issues are then compared to the agenda for the course.

1.       Ask each person to write down the issues he/she wants to be addressed by the training.

2.       After a few minutes, invite participants to share their issues with one another.

3.       Instruct them to select the top three issues from all of those shared by all group members that they want to ensure are addressed.

4.       After 7–10 minutes of sharing and ranking in the groups, have each group present its list.

5.       Ask for clarifying questions.

6.       After all the groups have presented, identify the areas common to all the groups’ top three issues.

7.       Compare the issues with the agenda; point out where in the agenda for the entire course that specific issues will be addressed; identify ways to address those issues that were not planned for in the training.

8.       Keep the issues displayed throughout the training and check in periodically to see whether they are being addressed. Check off those that are addressed.


(Opener to Session on Credit)

Materials Needed: Flip chart/newsprint pad and markers for facilitator

About the Opener: This opener requires strong facilitation skills. Participants explore qualities that signal trust in another person. After developing this list, participants are invited to identify those qualities they have themselves. This is the transition point to talk about credit being based on trust and how trust is determined very specifically. The take-away point is that people might be trustworthy in many ways but not qualify for credit, as credit trustworthiness is based on a narrow set of factors.

Doctor, pastor/rabbi/imam, or any job that people judge from a trust perspective can be substituted for child-care provider.

  1. Ask people to get into pairs.

  2. Have each pair come up with a list of qualities they would look for in a child-care provider.

  1. After 4 minutes, generate a master list of qualities as a large group.

  2. Note that one of the underlying qualities is trust.

  3. Ask people to look at the list and write in the front of their IDA participant workbook which of those qualities they have.

  1. After 3 minutes, summarize—“You all have qualities that make you trustworthy.”

  2. State that credit history is only one piece, but is the one most often used in the financial world, to judge trustworthiness.

  3. Explain that the session will focus on imparting skills to improve credit scores so that they are not barriers to achieving the goals of IDAs—getting homes, starting businesses, and getting additional training or employment.



The dreaded point in a training class: The energy seems to have left the room, comments are infrequent, voices are low, and eyes are glazed over. How can a trainer or facilitator inject new energy and involvement into the class? Using energizers is one method to get people on their feet, active, and engaged.   

As the name suggests, energizers are activities designed to enliven and energize participants. To be most effective, they should be:

  • Kinesthetic. This means they should involve people doing things with their hands or bodies. Generally energizers should be more than just talking at tables.
  • Fun. When activities are fun, people become engaged.
  • Unexpected. Part of the reason energizers work is that participants don’t anticipate them.

As a facilitator, you can benefit by having a few of these energizers ready for each training. You can use the energizers when the energy in the group is waning or the direction should be changed.

Following are examples of energizers used in financial education sessions:

Energizer Name

General Description of the Activity and Instructions for Facilitating

Asset Bingo12

(See Tool #1)

Materials Needed: Asset Bingo Card and pen for each participant.

About the Energizer: Participants try to get Bingo by filling in the blanks with other participants’ signatures. To sign a card, they must either answer the question or perform the action called for on the card.

1.       Distribute cards (example in Tool #1).

2.       Instruct participants that they get Bingo by filling in the blanks with other participants’ signatures, and that to sign a card, they must either answer the question or perform the action called for on the card.

3.       Explain that participants may not have any repeats in terms of people signing a card, may not sign boxes themselves, and if the group is big enough, may not have the signatures of anyone sitting at their tables.

4.       Instruct participants to move about the room and try to get Bingo; have people come to the facilitator if they get Bingo.

5.       Allow the game to continue until five or so people get Bingo.

6.       When people sit down, ask what people learned about their peers. Also, if there are content-related question as shown in the example be sure to answer these questions.

Asset Building Pictionary13

Materials Needed: Set of 5– 6 “pictionary cards,” scrap paper, and pencils/pens for each group

Samples of terms for your Pictionary Cards: “Credit Report”, “Net Worth”, “Investment”, “Individual Development Account”, “Asset Building”, “Predatory Lending”, “Credit Scores”, “Down payment”, Etc.

About the Energizer: Participants try to guess terms—without using words (written or spoken)—drawn by a team member. The team that gets through its stack of cards first is the winner.

1.       Make a set of cards for each group (see ideas in sample list above). Each set can have the same cards (Credit Report, Net Worth, Investment, Individual Development Account, Asset Building) or different cards (Set 1: Credit Report, Net Worth, Investment, Individual Development Account, Asset Building; Set 2: Predatory Lending, Credit Scores, Down Payment, Small Business Loan, Financial Literacy; etc.).

2.       Stack a set of cards (there should be no more than six cards) in front of you (facilitator) for each team.

3.       Instruct each team to select a member to pick a card and draw what is on it.

4.       The drawer from each group comes to wherever you have the stacks of cards and views the first card from his/her stack.

5.       The drawer then goes back and draws the item for his/her group. The group has to guess what item is. The drawer cannot speak or use words. He/she may write down a word in a multiword phrase that has been spoken.

6.       Once a team guesses the item correctly, the same or another drawer from the team comes to the facilitator for card #2 from the team’s stack.

7.       The team that gets through its stack first is the winner.

Simon Says14

Materials Needed: None

About the Energizer: Participants try to act out whatever “Simon” says by themselves or in teams of two, three, or four. Participants not able to team themselves are invited to sit down as this is an elimination game.

1.       Explain that this is just like the game Simon Says, but a little different.

2.       Explain that there are four things they will act out:

3.       Making a budget – one person (do the actions of making a budget)

4.       Making a deposit into an IDA – two people (one person pretends to be counting money to another person acting like a teller receiving the money).

5.       Conducting a home inspection – three people (one person doing the inspection, one acting like a realtor, and one acting like an inspector).

6.       Celebrating a business opening – four people (everyone jumping up and down and cheering).

7.       Invite participants to stand up in a relatively open space in the room.

8.       Start calling out instructions: “Simon says make a budget,” “Simon says celebrate a business opening,” etc.

9.       As people are unable to join a group, ask them to sit down.

When there are a few people left, declare game over and have participants sit down.

American Idol—Money Songs Edition15

(see Tool #2)

Materials Needed: American Idol Money Songs Edition Worksheet (can be found in tools section of this document); a couple of toy microphones are optional.

About the Energizer: In teams, participants try to come up with as many songs relating to money as they can. After a brief brainstorming period, they compete with each other to see who is standing after a few rounds of singing.

1.       Organize participants into teams. Try to have no more than four or five teams.

2.       Give the teams 1–2 minutes to brainstorm lists of songs about money.

3.       Instruct the teams to keep their brainstorming to a whisper because they don’t want the other teams to hear them. Instruct them to use the worksheet to document their ideas.

4.       Using the round robin technique, go around the room asking each team to sing a part of one of the songs it has listed. Tell participants that if another team has already performed a song on their list, they cannot use it UNLESS they sang it incorrectly—words or tune.

5.       The winning group is the last group singing. (Note: If after four times around there is still more than one group standing, have them share their lists and the group with the most remaining songs wins.)


Last Revised: January 2010

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1 Your Values, Your Choices, Your Money: Facilitator’s Guide, by Inger Giuffrida and Rita Bowen for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans®, 2006.

2 Ibid.

3 Adapted from Finding Paths to Prosperity: Facilitator Guide Session 1, by Inger Giuffrida and Peter Genuardi, 2001.

4 Adapted from Finding Paths to Prosperity: Facilitator Guide Training Appendix, by Inger Giuffrida and Peter Genuardi, 2001.

5 Marooned—Who Would You Take With You? Deb Peterson,

6 Adapted from Finding Paths to Prosperity: Facilitator Guide Training Appendix, by Inger Giuffrida and Peter Genuardi, 2001.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Adapted from Finding Paths to Prosperity: Facilitator Guide Training Session 1, by Inger Giuffrida and Peter Genuardi, 2001.

10 Developed by Inger Giuffrida for the IDA Training Institute. The Assets Alliance. 2004.

11 Adapted from Finding Paths to Prosperity: Facilitator Guide Training Session 7, by Inger Giuffrida and Peter Genuardi, 2001.

12 Developed by Inger Giuffrida for the IDA Training Institute. The Assets Alliance. 2004.

13 Adapted by Inger Giuffrida from exercise created by Vickie Oldman John.

14 Adapted by Inger Giuffrida from exercise outlined in Building Native Communities Appendix.

15 Developed by Inger Giuffrida for Making Financial Education Effective and Engaging: A Training for Facilitators. The Assets Alliance, 2006.

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