One of the hardest things about teaching kids isn’t the teaching itself, but trying to teach in a way that’s engaging and sure to keep students’ attention from wandering. Which is why, regardless of which age group you teach, games can be an incredibly useful learning tool. Having such young students meant I personally experienced a bit of a language barrier, but you definitely don’t need to be fluent in Mandarin to teach in China! The games I go on to mention were tried and tested on kindergarten age students, but can easily be adapted to a suitable difficulty for whatever age your students are.
1. Musical Chairs
For such a simple game, this one really turned out to be a secret weapon to quickly get my students’ attention. Whenever I would step away from the whiteboard to come back with a stack of chairs, everyone would excitedly start whispering and sit as high as they could to show what a model student they were in hopes of being picked. Before class, I would prepare cutouts of the animals or objects we were learning about that day, and would give one to each student who was participating in the game. If you’re unfamiliar with musical chairs, the basic premise is that there are more players than there are chairs, and as the music plays the players must circle around the chairs in hopes of getting one when the music stops, at which point the last one standing is out. Instead of just sending the unlucky straggler back to their seat though, I would ask them to tell me what cutout they were holding. For example, if they were holding a yellow giraffe, I would ask them “Are you a blue lion?” at which everyone would giggle and shake their heads. I’d ask them a couple of questions and then finally ask “Who are you?”, hopefully eliciting a correct response which would earn them a coveted high-five. This might be too simple for older students, but can easily be adapted by swapping in more complex materials. I also liked to keep my students on their toes by giving false stops and starts, pausing the music for a split second to see them start to scramble, but then realising that they had to keep going. Always a crowd pleaser.
2. Hide and Seek
For this one, I’d prepare several cutouts related to whatever we were learning at the time, and ask for two volunteers. They would turn around with their eyes closed and I would set to hiding the cutouts around the classroom. The rest of the class would watch me hide them, finding the whole situation hilarious. When they had all been hidden, I’d tell the two volunteers to open their eyes and on the count of three, they had 30 seconds to find as many cutouts as they could, and whoever found the most was the winner. Once the time was up, they’d come back and they would have to tell me how many they had and what each cutout was, testing their memory and comprehension. My only tip is try to remember where you hide them, as I would occasionally find an errant kangaroo or stowaway fire truck tucked away somewhere weeks later.
3. Reverse Hangman
This one I mainly only used for my older classes, just because they had a better comprehension of spelling. Pretty simple concept: after teaching them the topic of the day, I’d bring out the whiteboard and with a word in mind, draw the corresponding number of dashes to represent the letters. Instead of asking them to give me letters, I would slowly add a random letter at a time, waiting for it to click for one of them and erupt in a chorus of “BASKETBALL!! IT’S BASKETBALL!” A very simple game, but very effective in getting those mental gears going.
As part of my teaching materials, I had to work from a series of educational picture books about a goat called Mimi introducing us to a new topic every lesson. These picture books were beautifully illustrated, so I thought I could integrate them into a game somehow. I made good use of the office photocopier and carefully cut the copy into different sized segments, making a puzzle. For my small classes, I cut them into large pieces to make it easier, but my older classes loved a bit of a challenge, so I’d cut theirs up a lot smaller and in different shapes. To make this a game everyone could participate in, I’d get out the whiteboard and put up all the pieces on the board with magnets. Then I’d say the magic words of “I need a volunteer” which everyone loved to hear, and I’d pick someone to come up and assemble two pieces of their choice, that way everyone can partake. Sometimes they’d come up to the board with undeniable swagger and instantly move two pieces together, met with cheers and shouts from their cohort. Other students would come up with a pensive look on their face, hands hovering over one piece but then changing their mind at the last minute as their classmates would watch in silent tension, occasionally stage whispering advice to assist them. Who knew that puzzles, often a solitary activity, could be such a masterclass in teamwork?
5. Bag of sharks
For this game you’ll need several chairs set in a circle facing outwards, a small bag filled with relevant cutouts from your lesson, and a few cutout sharks in among them (bear with me on this). This game is sort of a mix between musical chairs and duck, duck, goose. I’d recruit 5 or so volunteers and ask 4 of them to each sit on one of the outward facing chairs, with one of them being the Runner. Then I would ask the first student to close their eyes, put their hand in the bag, and pick a cutout. If they picked an item from today’s lesson, they would have to say what it was and remain seated as I moved on to the next participant. If they picked out a shark, they would have to quickly stand up and run a lap around everyone else, racing the Runner back to their seat. If the student is too slow, they become the new Runner. This goes on until all the items have been taken from the bag. I chose to play with a small group of 4 or 5, but this can easily be adapted to involve the whole class, and you can add as many sharks as you deem necessary!
I loved using all of these activities in my classes, and games can be such a great way to make your lessons memorable for your students. I hope these can be as helpful to you as they were to me!