From Summer Camp…
I was a camp counselor during the summers between my college years. I still remember my first Staff Training in June before campers arrived. We had nearly 2 weeks to get to know one another as a staff. I tended to be that person who hated icebreakers and “stupid” games. When we started learning some games, I was less than enthused; however, I loved these games! I had no idea that community building activities could make me laugh out loud and bond with others so well. I had not done activities like this before.
To Morning Meetings…
Then, I went to a Responsive Classroom training after my first year teaching. I fell in love with morning meetings. You might think that because I taught 6th graders I didn’t do games as much. It’s all about picking the right games for the right group of kids. Mind games (explained here) were always a hit with the older ones. I also think my background in working with kids from rising 3rd graders to rising 12th graders helped give me some perspective on what different age groups enjoyed. The atmosphere and your enthusiasm as a leader makes all the difference.
To Improv Games…
As a teacher, I’ve taken many professional development courses. Some have been painfully boring, but one class I took was pure joy: Improv Techniques. The teacher of that class was a middle school drama teacher, and he was awesome! He’d had a wide variety of experience from helping with morning meetings in elementary school to teaching drama to working with older students to acting himself. I also really loved that there were K-12 teachers (and specialists!) in that class so I heard a wide variety of applications. Some of those I discuss here in my post on 12 review games.
Below I’ll share some of my favorite games I’ve learned from these environments.
One caveat – I fully believe that kids need unstructured play, whether that’s wandering the track outside and chatting to a friend, digging in the dirt with a stick, sitting on a bench in the quiet, dancing like crazy people…they need time to just be. That said, there are a lot of restrictions on free play right now in schools due to social distancing. What I love about many of these games is that they allow for creativity while it’s still a structured activity. I hope they help you as you plan indoor or outdoor recess activities or brain breaks for your socially distanced classroom. Most of these will work better if you are outside, especially considering the restricted set up of classrooms this year. If you need ideas for students to be at their desk, see this post.
1. Whoosh Ball
(Full disclosure: I thought this was the weirdest game ever when I first played, but kids LOVE this game! On picture day, this easily keeps kids entertained as they wait for classmates. It fills bits of time when I’m in a meeting at the end of the day. It’s a life saver, so give it a chance. I’ve had classes BEG to play anytime we have 5 minutes of waiting to go to an assembly, etc.)
This is a fast paced game. Students pass an invisible “whoosh ball.” One student starts with the ball and holds their hands as if holding a ball in front of them. They can pass the ball to the right or left by saying, “Whoosh.” If Student A passes to the student on the right (B), they can continue passing the ball by saying “Whoosh” to the student to their right (C.) At any time, a student who is being passed the ball can refuse the ball by saying, “Woah!” and putting their hands up in front of them in a “hands off” kind of position. If student B says “Woah!” to student A, student A can turn to the left (student Z) and say, “Whoosh” to pass it to them. If that student also says, “Woah!”, student A can turn back to student B or they can “Zap” the ball to someone across the circle by clapping their hands together in the direction of the intended recipient. Any student can “Whoosh,” “Woah!,” or “Zap” at any time when they have the Whoosh ball. When a student “Zaps” the ball, they must be able to make eye contact and point their hands towards the intended recipient. A student MUST accept a Zap; in other words, you cannot “Woah” a “Zap.” The whoosh ball continues to move around the circle. You also cannot “Zap” a person to the right or left of you; it needs to be someone across the circle. If a student misses their cue to receive a zap or does not respond to a Whoosh or Woah, Zaps someone next to them, or does not do the right hand motion with the correct word, then they are out. This is a fun, fast paced, silly game. Be sure to restart before too many students have left the circle. Students who get “out” can also start their own new game.
Variations/when social distancing doesn’t have to be a thing: Anytime a student has the Whoosh ball, they can surprise students by bouncing up and down with their hands above their head and say, “Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing!” Also, anytime the student has the Whoosh ball, they can put their hands in the air, wiggle their fingers, and say, “Mingle! Mingle! Mingle!” At that point, all students must change places in the circle. The student who declared that everyone Mingle still has the Whoosh ball and will start as soon as everyone is mostly in a circle again. The point is to be fast, so both Boing! and Mingle! are meant to disrupt the flow of the game and catch people off guard.
This is similar to Whoosh Ball but much simpler. Slide your hands against one another in opposing directions (one straightening out in front of you and the other moving towards your body) and clap them so it creates a clapping noise. You want there to be a noise and to have a clear indication of the direction the forward hand is pointing. One person starts and says “Zoom” at the same time as they do the motion. Whoever they are pointing to receives the zoom and can clap and pass it to another person. This just moves around the circle quickly.
3. Human Protractor
Everyone stands in a circle (better to see one another) with hands reaching towards toes. Students will gradually move their straight arms from their toes to the sky/ceiling with 0 representing the floor and 20 representing the sky. Encourage children to notice where 5, 10, and 15 are so they have benchmarks. Once you count for each number, then call out random numbers between 1-20 and everyone tries to go to that spot with their arms. You can do this for 0-10 or 0-50 once they have the idea. For students who have studied angles, use degrees between 0 and 180 and have students estimate angles with their body. For a math game, call out a math problem where the answer is between 0-20 (or whatever benchmarks you’ve chosen for ground to sky). For example, say “ten minus three”. The group says, “seven, “ and moves to the position of seven. Or you can say, “four plus ten,” and they say, “fourteen” and angle their body to where 14 out of 20 would be.
For this game, students will stand in a circle. Students “pass” an invisible “cha” back and forth across the circle. The first student raises their hands with palms together above their head and says “cha.” Then, they lower their hands towards the person they are “passing” to and say “cha” again. That person “receives” the “cha” by raising their arms with palms together above their head and says “cha.” The people on either side of the receiver will turn towards the receiver and “chop” the receiver at the stomach level. Students SHOULD NOT actually need to touch the student (even in normal times, because you don’t want to actually hit people ever). The goal is that the people on the right and left of the receiver try to be first to get their hands sideways and say “cha.” If the person on the left is slower than the right (and vice versa) the other person is out. If a student does not respond when their neighbor receives the cha, they are out. This is a fast paced game where students should be saying “cha” one right after the other. Students that miss a cue are out. Restart the game once the group has dwindled by a bit. This game can get loud as students shout “CHA!”
This is just a song and dance activity (same as Pop-see-ko on Go Noodle; I just knew this version years before I heard Pop-see-ko).
Students will need to think of a simple dance move that can be copied by anyone (example: a disco move, a twist, a jump, etc.). It’s a good idea to demonstrate a couple of those ideas.
Here are the lyrics:
- (Wig-o-lo-o, wig-wig–o-lo-o) x 2 start with both hands on knees, then clap, repeating as emphasized
- Hey (name).
- Hey What?
- Are you ready?
- Ready for what?
- Ready to wig.
- Wig what?
- Well, my hands are high (student raises hands over their head), my feet are low (student reaches hands to toes), and this is how I wigolo. (student does dance move)
- His/her hands are high (all students raise hands over heads), his/her feet are low (all students reach hands to toes), and this is how s/he wigolos. (classmates copy dance move)
- (Wig-o-lo-o, wig-wig–o-lo-o) x 2 start with both hands on knees, then clap, repeating as emphasized
Note: If a student takes too long to think of a dance move, just initiate copying whatever move they are currently doing (shrugging shoulders or crossing arms) to keep it lighthearted and moving along.
6. Chicken Goggles
For this game, all students sit or stand in a circle. Everyone makes “chicken goggles.” Students will make circles with their index finger and thumb and place them around their eyes. The other three fingers can fan out like feathers. The point is that the peripheral view is obstructed. Students “pass” to the right by dropping their right hand to their knee and make a chicken “ba-ac” noise. Students “pass” to the left by dropping their left hand to their knee. Students can skip one person if they drop both hands to their knees, in which case it keeps passing in the direction it came. Students can choose any of the three moves when it becomes their turn. Students are “out” if they do not skip when they were skipped or keep passing right when their neighbor passed left, etc. I would encourage a variety of “chicken noises” because it’s hilarious. This is a silly game and causes quite a bit of laughter, so be prepared for the noise level.
This game is best done outdoors. You need a pool noodle or some other replacement item for the “samurai sword”; you could also just use your arm if desperate. All students stand in a circle around the “samurai” in the center. The “samurai” can be a student once demonstrated. The samurai can make three moves: swiping the sword horizontally by lifting it across the top by people’s heads, swiping the sword horizontally along people’s feet, or swiping the sword vertically in between people. The samurai must show a distinct start and end while spinning around the circle and swiping the sword. When the samurai swipes at heads, anyone in the circle who would reach the sword must duck to avoid “getting their head chopped off.” When the samurai swipes at feet, anyone in the circle who would be touched by the sword must jump to avoid “getting their feet chopped off.” When the samurai swipes vertically to “cut someone in half,” people on either side of the sword must jump away to the side. If someone doesn’t move and would have been cut by the sword, then they are out. It’s important that the “samurai” clearly separates between the high horizontal movement and the low horizontal movement by bending knees/learning down/angle of the pool noodle.
8. Evolution Rock Paper Scissors
This is a funny game that includes rock paper scissors. All students start out as “eggs” where they crouch on the ground and walk in a squat. They find another person and play rock paper scissors. Whoever wins, “evolves” and becomes a baby bird. The baby bird still squats but flaps their wings. A baby bird will find another baby bird and play rock paper scissors. When they win, they “evolve” again. An egg needs to find another egg to play rock paper scissors and must win (or be the last one) to evolve into a baby bird. A baby bird must play with another baby bird before they can evolve. The order is as follows:
- Egg (walk in a squat)
- Baby Dinosaur (walk with bent legs and flap “wings” – bend arms and flap elbows)
- Pterodactyl (walk while flapping”wings” – whole arms out to the side)
- T-Rex (stomp around and roar)
Another version of the evolution sequence is:
- Egg (walk in a squat)
- Chicken (walk with bent legs and flap “wings”)
- Dinosaur (walk with short arms like a t-rex, stomp, and roar)
- Gorilla (stand up and pound chest)
- Human (stand up and act like normal)
9. Follow the Leader
In this game, one person leaves the circle who will be the detective. One of the remaining people is the leader. The leader starts with a basic movement (snapping, clapping, stomping, touching arms or thighs) and repeats that movement for several beats. Everyone else follows the leader as quickly as possible. The detective enters and stands in the center of the circle. The leader is the only one who can change the movements. It is everyone else’s job to follow the leader’s movements as quickly as possible so that it’s hard to tell who the leader is. The detective gets 3 or so guesses before a new detective and a new leader is chosen.
Two games that remind me of “Follow the Leader” that are popular kids’ games are “Signs” and “Froggy Murder.”
In Signs, each person has their own “sign”. The first person makes their own sign, then “passes” to Person B by making their sign. Person B “receives” it by making their own sign, then makes Person C’s sign to pass to them. The passing is random; the game is meant to be fast-paced and focused. If you miss your sign or make a mistake, you’re out.
In Froggy Murder, one person is the detective and leaves the area. One of the remaining people becomes the “murderer” and they can “kill” people by sticking out their tongue. When you “die,” you literally fall over or sit down (if standing). The detective is trying to find the “murderer”. I find that kids enjoy dramatic fake deaths, so I tell them “2 second deaths only.”
10. Red Bouncy Ball
This game requires some imagination. Each person is going to pantomime their own action. Person A will go up to Person B and say, “This is a red bouncy ball” and act out playing with a bouncy ball. Person B will respond, “Thank you for the red bouncy ball.” Person B will move on to someone else and keep passing that red bouncy ball around. Simultaneously, Person C is going to Person D to say something like, “This is dirty diaper,” and act out handing a dirty diaper to them. Person D may not want to say “Thank you” in this case, so that line is flexible. Different things will be passed around to different people, so it might be a good idea for you as the teacher to facilitate a few people starting with “This is a….”. This video from Ford’s Theatre showing Pass the Pterodactyl is pretty similar.
11. Captain on Deck
There are MANY variations of this kind of call and respond with action game. This is like Simon Says in some ways except the phrases have meaning on their own. The teacher/leader calls out an action, and everyone has to respond to that action. The trick to this game is that when you say “Captain’s coming!” everyone has to stand at attention (feet together, hand in salute). They must stay that way until the leader says “At ease.” If someone moves and does a movement that is called out before “At ease,” they’re out. Here are some movements that would work for individuals.
- Beetle: lay on the ground with feet and hands up like a bug on its back
- Climbing for the clouds: pretend to be climbing a ladder and reaching up
- East: run east or right
- West: run west or left
- Boats: sit down and pretend to row a boat
- Mermaid: play with your hair and/or pretend to whip your tail
There are many other movements/games that require group functionality; One from Ford’s Theatre on YouTube is Elephant which is really fun. This might be too physically close for right now, but it might give you some ideas. Here’s a more traditional version of Captain on Deck.
12. Yes, No, I
The goal of this game is to have a conversation without using the words yes, no, or I. Students stand in 2 lines to start. The 2 people at the front start off a conversation. For example:
A: How are you doing?
B: It’s okay. The weather could be better.
A: It rained all week, didn’t it?
B: Yes, it did.
Person B said yes. Typically is someone says “yeah” or “nah” instead of yes or no, I still would count it as against the rules. The next person in the B line would swap out and start talking to A. The original B person would move to the end of the line. The conversation keeps going and can be complete nonsense. It often happens that right off the bat someone starts with “I” and then they just send themselves to the back. If everyone has a lighthearted mood about it, it’s really fun and encourages acceptance of mistakes.
This is really similar to the previous game, Yes, No, I. In this scenario, students can ONLY speak in questions. For example:
A: Where are you going?
B: Why do you need to know?
A: Why can’t you tell me?
B: Do you even know what my job is?
A: Are you a spy?
B: Why would I tell you if I was?
If someone cannot keep up the questions and pauses for longer than 2-3 seconds or makes a statement instead of a question, they’re out and the next person in line takes their spot. Here’s an example of a group doing this as a performance.
14. What are you doing?
This is essentially a more complicated version of charades. Instead of drawing slips of paper to describe actions, you have to think on your feet. I love that this encourages divergent thinking. I’ve learned this with 2 people playing back and forth, but I like just one person in the center/at the front and swapping everyone out one after another pretty quickly so no one gets too stuck or embarrassed. The first person does any action. Then, the second person comes up and asks, “What are you doing?” If the first person was pretending to take a shower, they can answer by saying anything other than taking a shower. So they might say, “I’m slaying a dragon.” The second person pretends to slay a dragon. The third person asks, “What are you doing?” The second person replies with anything other than slaying a dragon and their answer becomes the direction for the third person, and so on. You can give themes to help students such as “fairy tales” or “summer activities” which can help or you can let it be totally random. You can even give kids an “out” and they can say “I’m riding a rollercoaster” each time they can’t think of something. I would really only offer this the first time you play, and after that, they’ll have more ideas.
15. Zip Zap Pop!
This is similar to Whoosh Ball and Zoom. Each word has its own movement. When you zip, you point with your hand above your head. When you zap, you point with your hand below your chin. When you pop, you clap your hands together and point them towards a person. This is like zoom in that you just keep passing anywhere in the circle at random. The trick is that you must always go in the order zip zap pop. You are typically out if you miss a pass or do the wrong movement/word combo, but you could also play this without outs. (I learned whoosh ball first, and the “pop” movement here is the same as “zap” from whoosh ball, so I actually swapped zap and pop movements with my class because it was throwing everyone off so much!) I personally learned this in a PD training, but I also found directions here.
16. Alphabet Game
A scenario is given to 2-4 people who will act out in front of others. Each person only says 1 line. Each line starts with the consecutive letter in the alphabet. You can start with A or any letter. After you cycle through all people once, it goes back to the first person. The conversation starts and ends on the same letter. For example, the scenario could be going on a camping trip. If you start with Y, it could go:
1 – You always forget to pack socks.
2 – Zzzz. There are too many mosquitos already!
3 – And I only brought one pair of shoes.
1 – Boy, I’d go for some air conditioning.
2 – Can’t we just buy socks?
And so on back to Y.
You could have lots of people participate in this game, but it probably wouldn’t be as much of a scene creation as an ongoing silly story (also totally fine!). This game can feel longer, but is fun for bystanders to watch if done well. You could also have students do only 6 back and forth conversations and not run through the whole alphabet.
17. Freeze Tag
Typically, 2 people play this game together at a time while everyone else watches and waits to jump in. What’s nice about this game is that it is entertaining as an observer. Those 2 people act out something together. It can be helpful to give a scenario to start (eating dinner, playing hid and go seek, at prom, lost in the woods). Those 2 people just talk and act as if they were in that scene. The teacher (or another person in the group if you choose) can call out “Freeze!” Then, someone will go in and swap with another person. Often, this is done by “tagging” a person in their pose, but I would suggest saying the person’s name you’re swapping with. Once someone is swapped out, they have to change the way that scene is perceived. For instance, if the people were sitting down and pretending to eat a burger at dinner. A person could freeze, swap in, and turn that “eating a burger” into playing a harmonica.
Academic Tie-In: I attended WISSIT in DC and saw Mary Hall Surface explain how you could use the thinking routine Claim, Support, Question for something like this. For example, the leader/teacher can call out “Freeze” for someone (or 2 people) acting out a movement. Ask students what their “Claim” is for that movement then ask for explanations to justify that thinking. For example, if I’m standing with my legs spread out and my arms to my side, possible claims could be that I’m doing warrior pose in yoga, going surfing, riding my skateboard, ice skating, etc. Then, you can ask questions that would clarify the pose. After that, someone can take the same position then start acting it out and transition it to another scene. I used this to introduce the thinking routine in the realm of persuasive papers. My point was that each claim you make in persuasive papers must be supported with explanations and research. Every claim can be interpreted multiple ways, and people can make different claims based off of the same evidence.
I hope this gives you some ideas for structured play in your classroom! There really are a lot of ideas out there!