The Secret Ice-Breaker: The Type of Play that Boosts Connection

The Secret Ice Breaker that Boosts Connection

We humans were born to connect and we were born to play. Put them both together and it can spark off a little bit of magic. When we play, we connect. When we’re connected, we get playful. Play boosts academic success, lowers stress, flourishes our innovative side and nurtures well-being, and that’s all backed by research. As for connection, we thrive when we have it and struggle when we don’t. 

There are plenty of ways to play and plenty of ways to connect, but new research from the University of Oxford has found a brilliant way to do both – join a singing group.

Singing is a powerful way to break the ice and boost feelings of connectedness between a group of people. According to the research, singing groups bond quicker than other types of groups such as creative writing or craft groups.

Every culture on the planet has its singers and the majority of people can sing, but it doesn’t mean everyone does it well. If you’re someone who can’t carry a tune (or someone, like me, whose musical genius isn’t recognised by the people in your life who don’t love your singing the way you do) not to worry – science has the answer.

New research out of Northwestern University has found that singing beautifully isn’t as much a talent as something that we learn that can decline over time if not used. So it’s not that you’re a bad singer, it’s that you haven’t practiced enough. (I knew it! There’s the voice of an angel inside me … they just need to listen to it more – or even better, sing with me. ‘Hey you guys…’)

Being able to sing well seems to have more to do with the kind of practice it takes to play a musical instrument than is does innate ability. Of course having a few good genes always helps, but if singing isn’t in your denims, it’s not a deal breaker – all you need is a bit of practice. As Steven Demorest, lead author of the study explained,

‘People need a place to sing and have fun without worrying about how good they are.’

Yes, we do – and that’s what a singing group can do.

Singing ability seems to have an element of ‘use or lose it’ about it. The research found that while school children receive music lessons at school, their singing improves. Fast forward to adulthood and the ability seems to fade if it isn’t practiced, to the point that some college students have a singing ability comparable to kindergarteners. 

Singing is a great way to play, and anything that nurtures healthy connections with others is a powerful way to keep your mental health strong.

As explained by co-author of the Oxford study, Dr Jacques Launay,

‘Given that music-making is an important part of all human cultures throughout history, we think it probably evolved to serve some purpose. Evidence suggests that the really special thing that music does for us is encourage social bonding between whole groups of people playing and dancing together.’

It seems that singing can act like a bit of a social glue when time is too short for everyone in the group to establish connections with each other.

The Oxford study looked at singing groups, craft groups and creative writing groups that met weekly for seven months. In every class, the participants felt closer to each other at the end of the two hour session than they did at the start and all classes were similarly close at the end of the seven months.

The differences came at the very beginning of the study. Singing seemed to be a better ice-breaker than the other activities as it connected people more right from the start. Singing in a group boosted the way people felt about each other from early on. It seemed to bond the entire group simultaneously. 

One to one interactions will always be critical to establishing and maintaining really close relationships, but singing in a group seems to be something a little bit wonderful, giving all of the benefits of play and supercharging social connections while you’re at it.

6 Comments

Karen

Wow!!! I just found your website today, (link from a friend about child anxiety) and 5 days ago, you posted exactly what I believe about why my office group should include singing in our team building day. I have put forward idea for the past three years, but haven’t been able to pitch an idea that flies. Are there any more specific recommendations to get adult colleagues to sing as an ice breaker on a team building day?

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you found me! Singing in front of people is one of those things that people tend to run towards with open arms, or away from with jets on their feet. My suggestion would be to sell it as play, rather than as singing. Let them know they can be silly with it and that they don’t have to use their proper singing voice. Give them permission to be dreadful – maybe make that part of the task. This will help people to feel more relaxed and will ease fears about potential embarrassment. Keep going with your idea – it’s a great one. I wish you all the best!

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Lisa Edwards

so interesting! I am a primary school teacher…Australian living/teaching in Fiji. I teach at a brilliant school called the Multiple Intelligence School, Suva..group singing is part of our regular routine. Our whole school sings together for the last 1/2 hour of the week – but that’s for the purpose of teaching ‘synergy’. We also have parent activities once per term…trying to connect people to form a community…you’ve given me an idea for next year…I have always sung in, and taught choirs…and from time to time parents come to me and say ‘maybe you could teach ME to sing’….how cool…love this article. Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

That’s wonderful! I love that your school sings together for the last half an hour of the week. There are many things that some people and cultures know intuitively what science is still discovering. I always enjoy hearing about these.

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Hey Sigmund

Debi thank you! If I could reach through the screen and hug you I would. Yours was one of the very first emails I received and it meant so much to me. It means even more that you’re still here. Hope you can be with me for the next 17k!

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Debi

I love following your blog, and your instagram. You have such a gift for making things so clear, and putting the puzzle pieces together that seem so confusing at times. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us! Over 17k followers on Facebook now…. I told you it would grow like wild fire!! You’re amazing!

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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