I talk about games for fun in this post on 17 Active Games for Social Distancing, this post of 12 Active Review Games that all have an educational avenue, and these 20 morning meeting ideas for staying at your desk, but in this post I’m going to explore games that are educational AND appropriate for a socially distanced classroom. These are all intended to be used within content areas. These will get your students moving and thinking when they might be stuck at their desks throughout the school day.
1. Stand Up/Sit Down (This or That)
There are so many ways to use standing vs. sitting, and this is my go-to if I feel like I need a little movement. Studying two different people? Stand up if the fact is about George Washington. Sit down if it is about Abraham Lincoln. Studying different sounds for phonological awareness? Stand up if the word has a blend. Sit down if it doesn’t. Stand up if it’s a short e sound. Sit down if it’s any other vowel. I sometimes will do more complicated, planned versions of this. For instance, I compared metric vs. customary units in this slideshow for my sixth graders. I also compared customary units of measurement with my second graders in this slideshow. You can make a copy of these slides and just swap out the comparisons for whatever you wanted. You can change the comparison or question more easily each time with slideshows like these since the left vs. right determines the standing or sitting not the content itself.
2. Human Calculator
For this game, instead of students standing or sitting completely, they can treat all the way on the floor to standing up tall as a scale. You can give students chances to respond on a 1-10 scale for a variety of things (how much they understand, how much more time they need, how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement).
You can also have students literally calculate numbers. If adding numbers up to 50 where 0 is at the ground and 50 is standing tall, say, “Show me 10. Show me 45. Show me 30.” You can also go the other way around if students can see your whole body. Crouch to show a number and have students guess what that number is. Students can take turns being the “presenter” and showing a number then having students guess what number they mean. This could work well in partners at a distance as well.
Another variation of this is Human Protractor if you teach angles. You can use vocabulary such as “acute” or give specific degrees (60).
3. Reader’s Theater
While you may not be able to act out everything as desired, some aspects of reader’s theater can definitely remain! Students can still have a lot of fun with a few props they might bring from home to dress up. They could stand at their part and act out in their desk spot. This is a reading activity that could really add some liveliness to your class. If your class is concurrent, students can turn on their mic for their turn. If you have an A group and B group in person, students at home can watch a whole performance for fun so they’d get the benefit of being an audience member and a participant.
4. Freeze Dance
Have students all stand up and dance. You can have quiet music in the background, but make sure they can still hear you. Then, you’ll have students listen for something specific, at which point they need to freeze. For example, you can list the Bill of Rights, but if you say one that doesn’t belong in the list, they have to freeze! They need to stop immediately to show they’re listening. You can list numbers, and any time you say one that is even, they have to stop! You can list things that are living, and if you say something that is nonliving, they have to freeze! Each time they freeze, you’ll want to cheer on those who got it and encourage others to try again, but you’ll want to give away the answer each time.
5. Simon Says
While Simon says in and of itself is not an academic game, you can turn it into one. My favorite version of this was an idea I got from a colleague that I elaborate on over time. I actually called it “Sun Says” and it was for astronomy. I was the sun, but later I chose students as the leader. My sixth graders begged me to play this! The directions were all specific to our astronomy unit: rotate was spinning around yourself, revolve was walking in a little circle, rotate and revolve was doing both, day was facing me, night was facing away, tilt was showing me the tilted earth, etc. I also taught them seasons, so I had them tilt their body and show how the northern hemisphere was in summer if it was tilted towards me or it was fall or spring if they were flat towards me but still tilted. I also added in sunrise and sunset. You can build off of this idea to create your own Simon Says game. All you need are a few movements that relate to specific words for your topic of study. A teacher in a class of mine did this for architecture terms related to his tech ed class. Once you teach the movements, just play Simon Says as normal.
6. Flip It with Whiteboards
One of my favorite ways to use whiteboards is to have students flip their board to me and show me their answer. I do this with mental math, phonics work for words, drawing for things that can be visualized (triangle, acute angle, something alive, something that weighs more than a pound, a closed figure, etc.). I like to keep it quick and simple so that students can quickly show their work, get feedback, and move on to the next one. I just give students a thumbs up if they’re good or I’ll spin my finger in a circle to say “try again.” I keep this to a quick activity so I don’t run out of things to say and start pausing too long or let the kids get tired of it. Open ended prompts work well for this too (an ordinal number, a president, a word with a blend, a word that rhymes with play, etc.).
7. Heads Up
I love the app Heads Up, by Ellen on my phone. It’s so much fun. I write more about how I use it for math in this post, but it could be used for tons of things. I did this as an icebreaker at a professional development where the cards were celebrities. People, events, dates, vocabulary words…so much could be on these cards.
8. Pictionary or Building in Partners
Instead of having students flip a whiteboard to you, they can flip to a partner. As long as you have a decent list of words, you can give Person A the first set of words and Person B the second set and have them share with one another.
Play-doh is another way to have students create a 3-D object. This would not even have to be a guessing game. Have students choose a word to represent in a sculpture, then they can share with someone nearby. Aluminum foil is also cheap and great for building.
A favorite purchase of mine for the classroom (that luckily was bought by my school with some STEM money that I get to keep in my room!) was Exploragons. Magformers are another favorite which stay together in shapes much better than Magna-tiles. All of those are somewhat expensive, but they are super cool for Geometry. These are fantastic for showing specific shapes to partners. I handed these out to my students and had them show me “right, isoscles triangle” or “2 similar squares” or “a right trapezoid.” You can be really specific with Exploragons in building shapes, and I think I would have been over the moon in high school geometry if I’d had these at my fingertips. They also come with protractors so you can specify “a scalene triangle with one angle at 120 degrees”.
9. Actable Characters
When students read books in a series that develop a specific character, they can start to learn how that character might act. A fun game to play is to have students act like a character from a book they’re reading and talk to a friend. This can happen from a distance just as two people can talk from a distance. They can stand up and pretend to do certain activities. If doing this with COVID precautions in mind, make sure to tell students that their character cannot suddenly break those rules even if it is something their character might do (ex. Junie B. Jones or Joey Pigza). It’s great to have students be forced to guess which character their friend is. If you’d like to narrow the playing field, you can select characters from a read aloud and give students a specific person to “play.”
10. Barrier Games
Barrier Games are something that help students learn better oral or written communication skills. A quick google search will give you tons of specific ideas, most of them related to speech therapy. If you have testing shields and desks are already spaced and facing the same direction, this would be easy to play where the person behind you gives you directions. Give 2 students each a small set of materials to mess with. Make sure they have the same materials. This might include, mini marshmallows, a toothpick, a coffee stirrer, a red pipe cleaner, a small paper plate, a large paper plate, a blue pipe cleaner, a pencil, a colored pencil, a couple of 2-sided math counters. One student can create a scene with these things. They might make a heart out of the blue pipe cleaner. They might connect 2 mini marshmallows with a toothpick. Then they can place the toothpick inside the heart and on top of the small paper plate. Once they have their scene, they can describe that to someone else. They try to give as specific directions as possible. You could have students write this for a “how to” writing exercise or just do it verbally. Then, the other student will follow the directions and try to recreate it. Afterwards, they can compare and the speaker/writer can realize, “oh, I didn’t say I used the blue pipe cleaner, and you used red. I should have said to use the small plate! I didn’t tell you to flip the counters to yellow instead of red.”
If you have heard of Science Olympiad before, it’s a national science competition that includes multiple events. Some are building events where you create a tower to withstand weight. Some are labs where you do an experiment and write a report. Some involve test taking. One even that I’ve written and graded before was Write It Do It, which is really similar to this process. One partner writes directions for how to build a model. Then, the other partner receives those directions and materials for the activity. There might be distractor items that are not needed or will be confusing if the writer didn’t specify a color, a type of wooden stick, or a size. This is a great activity to think about word choice for writing, observation skills in science, measurement comparisons in math, and just communication skills in general. It’s also kind of fun!
I had one class of sixth graders that loved to play charades as a whole group for indoor recess. Many of them hadn’t played before, so when they learned how, they just latched onto it. Like many things with sixth graders, this also was dismissed as stupid a couple of months later. Still, we embrace all positive vibes while they last!
Give charades an academic spin by acting out vocabulary words, people you’re studying, characters from books, geometric shapes and symbols, shapes of letters, etc. One person can be the presenter to share from their desk area or they could perhaps move to the front of the room. This can be really fun, and it would not have to take a long time. I like games that are almost ongoing or available to be picked up at any time. If we have a 5 minute buffer, someone can act out an idea, people can guess, then we can move on to the next activity. It might be the perfect break between classes that can still be academic.
12. Step Forward, Step Back
First, you’ll want to set a parameter for if students move to the left or right of their desk while standing in person in order to maintain distance. Then, you’ll want to decide what constitutes stepping forward or stepping back. This can be used to build connections such as “step forward if you like the color blue” but this can be translated to content area tasks. I love numberless story problems because they force students to consider operations often without a key word, so it truly builds number sense and comprehension of word problems. You can have students step forward if they are using addition, step backward for subtraction, step forward for multiplication, step backward for division. If you get bored of stand up, sit down comparisons, this will allow for another alternative as well.
13. Mini Four Corners
Similar to stepping forward and back for 2 choices, you could also have students move within a square to the right of their desk or move to corners of their desk for a Four Corners activity. Typically, four corners takes place where students move all around the room. Of course, this would not work well with social distanced classrooms. The game works where students move from corner to corner and one is “out” each time. The way I play this academically is essentially for multiple choice questions. It’s also great for the Which One Doesn’t Belong? number sense routine which does not have a “correct answer” so that lowers the pressure of movement a bit. Here is a template you can use in google slides.
14. Just Like Me!
The original version of this is a game for connections between people in a room.
Version 1: The teacher or leader reads out general statements such as “I like ice cream. I have been to another state. I have family that lives in another country. I like to play video games.” Students stand up and call out “Just Like Me!” if a statement applies to them.
Version 2: Each student writes down 3 facts about themselves. The first one is general that lots of people could connect to. The second is slightly more specific. The third is something really unique that might not apply to anyone else. My fun fact I put for #3 is that I have 2 brothers born on the same day but in different years. Another crazy fact is that a co-teacher of mine had the same fun fact! I had never met anyone before with the same coincidence in their family history as me!
Version 3: Make this academic by making this a guessing game. For instance, I can say to students, “Think of a number between 200-300).” Then, I can give them clues, progressively getting smaller. “The tens digit is larger than the hundreds digit.” They can stay standing if their number is still a possibility. Let those who sit down keep revising their answer to see if they can still get the answer by the end. “The ones digit is 3 more than the hundreds digit. If I multiplied the tens digit and the ones digit, I would get 25.” The answer would be 255. If someone was able to guess it correctly at the end, so fun! If everyone sat down and didn’t get it right, they can probably call out the answer at the end whether or not their guess was correct.
15. Ring Toss, Bowling, Cornhole, Trashketball
I think many teachers have played some form of trashketball with students. The idea behind this is that students answer review questions. If they get the question right, they get the chance to toss the paper into a trash can (for trashketball), bowl, toss the beanbag for cornhole, throw the ring to circle a cone, etc. If students are on teams, they can still accumulate points as team for correct answers and bonus points for the athletic scores. This can work with social distancing as long as you have clear places for students to stand. If they can use their own crumpled up sheet of paper vs. your plastic ring or ball, that’s even better. If your students are allowed to share materials in the future, keep those other options for games in mind.
16. Beach Ball Questions
This, unfortunately, requires a shared material – a giant beach ball. Alternatively, this can be done just in a line or zipping around the classroom which means no touching of shared materials and no beach ball needed, but it’s so fun to toss around!
I absolutely love using balls to toss around and interact with others. If you’re allowed to have a shared material right now, this would be the one I’d pick! This is great for pure movement and reflection. For instance, one great set up with this game is to just establish a pattern. Students pass from one to another until the whole class has been tossed to. Then, have students point to the person they threw it to. That’s what they need to remember. You can repeat the pattern with an introduction of names, a sharing of their favorite candy or tv show, etc. This is great for building community, but it can be used for a variety of things. Have students share one thing they learned that day as a closing, list one thing out of a category that you’re learning about (elements from the periodic table, Civil Rights icons and leaders, compound words, etc.). If you keep the categories broad enough, it will allow lots of students to share before you need a new category and it will also serve as an assessment tool for you. Students can also share 2 things so that the person they toss to needs to match it. For instance, I could start by saying ½. The person I toss it to needs to state an equivalent fraction. They might say 2/4. Then, they can switch to 2/10. The person who receives it after them can say 20/100. Allow students to have a lifeline if needed to reduce pressure.
17. Punch It!
If you’re really enthusiastic about prepping a game for students to do, some cups and tissue paper could be the winner. Hide a problem on a piece of paper inside a plastic cup. Cover the plastic cup with tissue paper and hold in place with a rubber band. You can set this up like jeopardy where each row or column has a theme and each cup has different levels of points, or you can just let it be open ended. Students can be in teams this way without actually communicating; they can just rack up points as a group. Once the cups and paper are lined up in a grid, students can walk up one at a time, punch through the tissue paper, and get the question. If they get the question right, their team gets points. If they don’t, they could ask a team member for help and get partial credit. There are always some downsides to individual team games that foster competition like this, but I think it’s pretty fun to have variety!
18. I Have, Who Has…?
I do a few variations of this game. I created a google form where students will get prompt based off of their student number (see my Free Resources tab). I love having students do an independent popsicle stick version of this where they line up the answers. I talk about that in this post on make-your-own math games.
I find the whole group or traditional version of this game most interesting if students have to stand or sit when they are finished. This helps to figure out who is still left to go and moves the game along. Also, I find it better if this is split into smaller groups which may make it perfect for hybrid or concurrent classes. Only ½ the normal class size will be going at once.
Don’t be afraid to play it again!
I know there are many things that I wish I could be doing this year, but there are still quite a few activities that work and can allow for fun and games and activity. Remember that students are not as easily bored as we think they are! They can play the same game multiple times and still really enjoy it. They also can play something for just a few minutes several times over several weeks and it does not become tedious because it’s always a quick activity and it’s adaptable. That’s what I love about the human calculator example, in particular. I started with adding up to 20, then I changed the numbers from 1-20 to 1-30, then I added in subtraction, then I used number strings so I did 7 + 8 + 2, then I changed numbers 1-100 and did only groups of 10 as answers, then I switched to 0-1 to do fractions. I have yet to hear a complaint!