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Recipes for Gathering | Doodlebird Icebreaker

Do you remember when you were a kid and you would spend hours with your crayons just drawing whatever came to mind? Do you still draw a lot? Or are you like most of us and have stopped? I don’t really remember when I stopped or why. But I certainly don’t just draw for drawing sake anymore.

I do however still have a visceral reaction to the smell of a crayon. Years ago, I worked on a series of workshops with 52 Limited, NWEA and Kevin Carroll. The workshops were centered around imagining the possibilities if all kids learned. One of the exercises was to get people out of their heads and into their imaginations. We used big red crayons to try and harken back to our child-like artists. It was magical to see the inhibitions peel away.

In my work with organizations I do a lot of exercises that ask people to “draw” things to get to the heart of the matter. And most of the time, I’m hit with “oh no, I’m not an artist” or “well this is going to be bad.” One of the tools I learned to encourage the artist inside is an exercise from Dave Gray of They call it Squiggle Birds. I’ve nicknamed it Doodlebirds. I’ve been using it as an icebreaker and it’s a really simple and fun way for people get comfortable communicating with images in addition to words.

Here is how Dave Gray from Gamestorming describes it:

“Squiggle birds is a quick exercise that you can use to get people stretching their visual thinking muscles. It takes about five minutes and quickly, clearly demonstrates how little effort is really required to make meaningful, easy-to-read images. The main point of the demonstration is that our minds are already pattern-making machines, and very little drawing is actually required to convey an idea. The mind will fill in the rest. I learned this exercise from my friend Chris Glynn, a fine teacher who teaches fine things.”

Here’s a cute video created by Dave Gray that shows the process.

I’ve most recently executed this exercise with the Portland Parks and Recreation Summer Free For All team.

Doodlebird Exercise Instructions


  • Big whiteboard (if you don’t have a whiteboard you can use large sticky note pads)

  • Enough dry erase pens for each participant


  • Ask each participant to grab a pen and a spot at the whiteboard.

  • Tell them to each start adding some circular squiggles/doodles on the board in front of them. (Note: it’s best to demonstrate a couple to get them going.)

  • Give them one to two minutes to fill up the space in front of them with their squiggles.

  • Ask them to stop drawing and move one space to the right so they are in front of a neighbor’s doodles.

  • Pick one of the squiggles to show them how to turn it into a bird. Add a beak, a dot for an eye, a tail and two legs.

  • You will now instruct them that they are going to turn the doodles in front of them into birds.

  • Give them another one to two minutes.

  • At the end ask them to reflect on this process.

  • Were they reluctant at the beginning?

  • Were they surprised they were able to turn squiggles into birds?

  • What else came up?

  • Ask them to pick their favorite bird on the white board.

If you try this exercise, I’d love to hear how it worked out. And, if you have a favorite icebreaker, please share it with me.

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