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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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