Explore! Life on Mars

Ice Breaker Activity: Is it Alive?

Adapted from “Clap Around” and “What’s in the Box?” Improv exercises, Museum of Science + Industry, Chicago, IL, 2012 (http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/tools_guides/improv_exercises).


This 15-minute activity can be used to open any of the Explore: Life on Mars? activities for ages 6–13, but is especially recommended as an introductory activity to this module. Children get to know each other through an icebreaker activity that introduces them to one another, fosters positive group energy, and brings out their ideas and previous experience with living versus nonliving things as a preparation for later explorations into how scientists define and look for life in worlds beyond our own — like Mars!

What's the Point?

  • Living things have certain recognizable properties.
  • There are characteristics that almost all living things share.
  • Scientists use a set of characteristics of life to conduct their research, and Explore:  Life on Mars? participants will likewise use a group set of characteristics to conduct later activities in the program.
  • Icebreaker activities are one approach for allowing girls and other underrepresented groups an entry point into science. 
  • Icebreaker activities incorporating improvisation exercises help to facilitate a positive learning conversation with participants in order to prepare them for later science activities.


For each child:

  • 1 printer label with “living” or “nonliving” printed on it (standard mailing labels)
  • 1 pencil/pen
  • optional:  2–3 markers or colored pencils

For the facilitator:

  • background information
  • shopping list
  • an area where the children can move around and interact with each other, either indoors or outdoors, including a wall where Post-It® notes or index cards can be attached
  • Post-It® notes or index cards
  • 1–2 permanent markers
  • optional: 1 cardboard box (approximately 12"W × 18"L × 12"H)
  • optional: a variety of props or pictures representing characteristics of living things
    • fake food, mom and baby stuffed animals/dolls, plastic insects or reptiles, etc. Use your imagination! Use items to represent the children’s ideas.


  • Review the activity (game) instructions and prepare to lead the group. It may be useful to practice the games with co-workers, friends, or family ahead of time.
  • Prepare an area where the children can work comfortably. You may choose to provide an area on the floor where the children can spread out or you could find an area outdoors.
  • Prepare the living/nonliving printer labels (one for each child).
  • Optional: Wrap/decorate the box and label it: “Characteristics of Life.


1. Welcome and introduce the topic/module. Explain that they are going to start out by playing games to get to know each other better and to explore how we know something is living or not, as a preparation for learning about Mars and the possibility of life there.

  • These games involve improvisation — that means using your imagination to act out and communicate imaginary items to another person — it involves some acting! 

2. Establish ground rules for participation in the games.

  • Remain appropriate.
  • Support your partner and the group as a whole.
  • The game is about the group succeeding, not the individual being funny.
  • Say “yes-and” to each other and the ideas shared.
  • Be positive.
  • Give 100%.
  • Have fun!
  • Ask the facilitator for help if you need it.

3. Give the whole group a brief overview of the first game. Explain that they will be playing the first game in large groups. Each group should have 8–15 participants. Note:  If two or more groups are needed, make sure to have a facilitator to lead each group. Ask each group to form a circle.

  • Explain that Person A will turn to the person on their right, say their name, and clap their hands once.
  • Person B will then pass the clapping around the circle by turning to their right, saying their name to the person on their right, and clapping their hands once.
  • Each person will continue this pattern around the circle until one complete loop has been made.
  • Demonstrate the process once for the group.

4. Play the first game. Make sure that everyone understands the game and their role in it before proceeding to play as a group. Reassure them that they can ask for your help in the process, if needed, as the game is played.

  • Facilitators are a part of the circle and begin the first round (take part as active participants).
  • Praise the group for the first successful loop and explain that they are going to do it again but this time they will have to say their name and clap in unison with the person to their right.
    • This means that Person A turns to the person on their right, Person A says their name, and then Persons A and B clap their hands in unison once.
    • Person B then turns to the person on their right and repeats the process with their own name.
    • The pattern repeats until the loop has been fully completed.
    • If the clap is not done in unison, Persons A and B must try again until they get it right. This should be fun for the children.
    • The goal is to do it as quickly as possible while staying in unison.
  • Once a successful loop has been completed, repeat the process 2–3 more times. Try to pick up the speed and complete the loop as quickly as possible.

    Note:  Encourage the group to cheer each other on as they work together to successfully complete the game.
    Model this behavior to the group by offering praise and cheering them on as they play.

5. Explain that they will be playing another game, this time with a partner. The object of this game will be to think about what they know about living versus nonliving things. They keep in mind how they tell the difference between living and nonliving as they play the game. To play, do the following:

  1. Divide the group in half and ask them to form two lines, a few feet apart, facing each other. One line has all of the “A” players and the other line has all of the “B” players.
  2. Hand out the printer labels. Each person should receive a label saying either “living” or “nonliving.” They should stick it on their shirt where it is visible. Explain that they will use it during the game when choosing their pretend (improvised) objects.
  3. Start at the beginning of the line of “A” players. Hand the first person in line an imaginary (mimed) box. The box can take any size, shape, or weight. Explain that the box contains a gift that they are going to give their partner, Person B, across from them. The box will begin at the start of the line and work through each pair of partners, moving down the line so that everyone has a turn.
  4. Their partner (Person B, standing across from them) asks: “What’s in the box?
  5. Person A steps forward and says: “The box is a gift” and hands it to their partner, Person B
  6. Person B, the partner, opens the box and defines the contents. They choose something either living/nonliving based upon the label that they are wearing on their shirt — and that matches the weight and size their partner indicated.
  7. Example: “It’s a tractor.” Or “It’s a whale!”
  8. Person A, who gave the gift, responds with a reason the item meets their partner’s needs, and then says one reason that they knew that the item was living/nonliving.
  9. Example: “I knew that you wanted a living thing, and I knew that the whale was alive because it moves and swims in the ocean on its own.”
  10. Person B thanks their partner, and passes the imaginary box down their line to the person next to them. 
  11. The next pair in line will follow the same steps as the first pair, although the roles are reversed for Person A and Person B. The game continues down the lines, back and forth, until every pair has participated.

Facilitator’s Note: The facilitator should write the children’s reasoning on a notecard/Post-It® note and stick it on the wall or a poster where the group can see it during the game. This will be used at the conclusion of the activity.

A player (child) can decide how big/heavy/etc. the imaginary box is and act it out accordingly. For example, if they want it to be heavy then they hold and pass the box as if it is heavy and their partner should continue to act it out in that way.

Other Suggestions:

  1. Encourage the children to be as specific as possible when giving their reasons.
  2. Side-coach to keep the statements and reasons positive. It is ok to have repeats, but you should try to develop a list of as many different characteristics as possible.
  3. Participate in the activity as much as possible and positively reinforce the partners.
  4. If children are having a hard time coming up with things in the imaginary box, you can offer specific suggestions.

6. Demonstrate/model the process of the game with the child holding the imaginary box for the group. Make sure that everyone understands the game and their role in it before proceeding to play as a group. Reassure them that they can ask for your help in the process, if needed, as the game is played.

  • Remind the group of the ground rules — in particular, that the game is about the group succeeding, not an individual player being funny (although they should have fun!).

7. Play the game.

  • Player A holds a mimed box in their hands (at the start of the lines). The box can take any size, shape, or weight.
  • Follow the steps above until each pair of children has had a turn.

In Conclusion

Gather together in a large circle as one group and discuss the game. 
Review the reasons that were given for knowing something was alive or not.  Was one way/characteristic enough? Do the living and nonliving things share any characteristics?

  • Summarize the responses that you recorded on the Post-It® notes during the game. Point out a few characteristics that both living and nonliving things can have in common and be prepared to provide a few examples.
    • Nonliving examples:  Fire consumes, produces waste, “breathes” oxygen, and grows. Icicles can grow. Robots can build more robots (reproduce).
  • Point out that it is important to use a set of characteristics to identify living from nonliving things, just one is usually not enough. Scientists use a set of characteristics to identify life!

Optional (allow an additional 10 minutes to complete):  Which items should the group add to the box labeled “Characteristics of Life?” Decide as a group and add them to your box. You may have the children work together to draw pictures or write a short description on paper/note cards and then add them to the box. If you have appropriate props on hand, allow the children to add them to the box as well. Example:  Fake food to represent eating, a toy house to represent shelter/home, etc.

  • Explain to the children that they will use these characteristics as they complete more activities related to the possibility of life on Mars.

Facilitator’s Note:  Characterizing Life
Identifying the characteristics of life is necessary to astrobiologists because they need a working definition of life — a set of criteria for something to be considered alive — to use in their work. Would you know life if you saw it? You probably have a set of criteria, whether you think about them specifically or not. Given the broad range of life, some of the characteristics of living things may be more obvious than others.

Defining life is not easy. Part of the complexity of it is caused by the fact that there are nonliving examples that display one or more of these same characteristics. How, then, do we design instruments, sensors, probes, and missions to seek out life, if we cannot even define it in a way that satisfies everyone in the scientific community? Despite these differences in opinion, scientists have worked together to develop a set of general characteristics of life.

Based upon the examples on Earth, there are several characteristics that can be agreed upon:

  1. Life stores and uses energy
  2. Life engenders more life (reproduces and/or grows)
  3. Life responds to its environment (external stimuli)
  4. Life changes (evolves and adapts) over time

All Earth life, life as we know it, is organized in essentially the same way:  It is all based on the chemistry of the element carbon; it requires liquid water, it engenders further life via DNA and/or RNA, it uses phosphate molecules to store energy, and it uses protein molecules to respond to and affect (influence) its environment. Despite differences in preferred environment or complexity of body structure, all life on this planet adheres to these basic principles and, as far as we can tell, this has been the case for billions of years.


  1. Allow the children time to work individually or in small groups to explore the possibility of life on Mars through the following interactive website.
    Mars Mysteries: www.marsquestonline.org/investigations/index.html

  2. Revisit the game after conducting some of the other activities within Explore: Life on Mars?, reframing the focus of the game so that children must pick things they would find on Mars to “gift” (within the imaginary box) to their partner in the line. The game is no longer about “living” versus “nonliving” things for this extension round, but rather it is a chance for the children to share what they’ve learned about Mars and its features. This may serve as an informal assessment for the facilitator(s).

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