Updated: May 24
If you could walk into a classroom from 50 years ago, I imagine it would look something like this: Wooden desks are aligned in tidy rows. Uniformed children sit stiffly in their tiny chairs, necks craned, heads bent forward towards a sheet of lined paper on which they are copying words in cursive. A stern gray haired teacher wearing horn rimmed glasses stands menacingly in front of the blackboard, surveying her pupils. There is total silence except for the tick, tick, tick of a wall clock and the faint scratching of pencils on paper. No one gets up. No one speaks. A little girl sneezes a tiny mouse sneeze and then looks around, terrified, as the teacher narrows her eyes through the horn rimmed glasses.
Right, so this might be stereotyping. I mean, I wasn’t alive 50 years ago. This is purely my imagination. But then, there are photographs like this:
So how far off can I really be?
Walk into a classroom today and you are greeted with a very different scene: A brightly colored bulletin board catches your eye and informs you that students are learning about fractions. Beneath the bulletin board, under the string lights, students are sprawled out on rugs and floor cushions playing a card game. One student takes a card from his opponent and throws his head back with a laugh. Desks are grouped together in clusters where you find other students immersed in an engaging conversation. They are comparing blocks of various sizes to find equivalent fractions. Other students are walking around the room with clipboards, stopping every now and then to pick up a card off a table or the floor, jotting down an answer and then moving on. The teacher moves around the room, stopping periodically to check in with each group, asking questions to make them think, push them outside their intellectual comfort zones. Soft music plays in the background. The room is abuzz and children are smiling.
A lot has changed in the past few decades. We know more now than we ever have before about how children learn – and when I say learn I mean genuinely understand and can apply, not just rote memorization. What we have discovered is that children need movement. Watch a child for any amount of time and you will notice how much he moves. Sitting still, for a child, is a painfully difficult task. Worse, studies show that when many children are forced to sit still and complete lengthy assignments at a desk, in silence, they lose the ability to focus. Their minds wander because their bodies cannot. They may appear to be working on the assignment, but their minds are elsewhere, far, far away – perhaps running through an imaginary field full of rainbow colored flowers.
With this new research into the minds of children, we have seen an increase in the popularity of alternative seating like wobble chairs, bumpy cushions, and exercise balls:
These have proven effective, especially for children with particular disabilities and disorders that make sitting still almost a complete impossibility. However, they are absurdly expensive. Like, think about how much you think something like that should cost and then double or triple it. Also, in my personal opinion, they can lead to behavior issues and become more of a distraction than anything.
Well, how are we supposed to incorporate movement in the classroom if we aren’t buying ridiculous looking $200 plastic stools with our own personal money? Here are some activities that I’ve found effective, not only for incorporating movement, but for teaching content in an engaging (that’s teacher talk for fun) way.
Idea Number One: Paper Snowball Fight
Um, fight? Did you say fight? I know, it sounds like a behavior management nightmare, but you can pull this off with some basic ground rules. First, tell your class that they are going to have a snowball fight. Give them a moment to cheer. Then, lay down the ground rules. Here are some suggestions: no face shots, push all the chairs in and be careful not to trip over anything as you move around the room, no screaming or someone will think something is wrong, you have to stop when I say stop. Tell them: “I think you guys can handle this but we’ll see. If you can do this the right way and make good choices, we will be able to do more fun activities like this. I’ll be watching.” The snowball fight should only last a minute or two. If it goes on for too long, it might turn nasty. Be prepared to cut it off with some kind of signal when you feel the time is right. This doesn’t have to be a random, meaningless movement break. Here are two ideas for giving it purpose:
As an icebreaker activity – I did this with my class on the first day of school as a way of introducing ourselves to one another. I gave each student a half sheet of paper and had them write down an interesting fact about themselves. They were not to write their name on the paper. Then, we crumpled up our paper into snowballs and had a snowball fight. When I rang a bell, students grabbed a nearby snowball. We made sure everyone got one. We took turns reading what was written inside our snowball and trying to guess who the fact was describing. In this way, we got some much needed movement and learned a little about each other.
I Have Who Has – I Have Who Has is a great math game that can be used to help students practice many different math skills. It typically goes like this: the teacher hands out an I Have Who Has card to each student. One of the cards will say “Start.” The student with that card begins by reading their card which may say “I have Start. Who has 3 times 4?” Whoever has the answer to that equation reads their card next, “I have 12. Who has 5 times 6?” “I have 30. Who has 8 times 4?” and so on and so forth until the last card “I have 32. The End.” Why not turn I Have Who Has into a snowball fight? Print the cards on half sheets of paper and ball them up. Hand the paper balls out and let the students fight for a minute or two before grabbing a ball, opening it up, and beginning the game!
Idea Number Two: Quiz, Quiz, Pass
Quiz, Quiz, Pass is a great movement game that can be applied to many different topics across subject areas. In this game, each student gets a Quiz, Quiz, Pass card which are essentially flash cards with a question on the front and the answer written on the back. Students walk around the room quizzing each other. To do this, two students partner up and show each other their cards. They must each state the answer to the question on the partner’s card. If incorrect, the partner gives them hints to help them figure out the answer. Once both students have answered correctly, they swap cards and carry on moving about the room to find another partner. Here are some suggested uses for this game:
Mental Math facts – Equation on the front, answer on the back. The multiplication cards pictured above can be purchased at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store for $1.50
Vocabulary – Word on the front, definition on the back.
Basic trivia – great for science, social studies, or reading comprehension. For example: What type of rock is formed by volcanoes? Answer: Igneous rock.
Idea Number Three: Silent Ball
It is an understatement to say that my students love this game. This is my go to for indoor recess because they simply can’t get enough and… it’s peaceful! Win, win! To play silent ball, students sit on top of the desks or tables (already fun!). The number one rule of silent ball is that players cannot talk. If they talk, the are out and have to sit down in their chair. A ball is thrown around the classroom. If a player fails to catch the ball, they are out and must sit down in their chair. If a player throws an uncatchable throw, that player is out and must sit down in their chair. The game continues until only one player remains. That player is the winner! To speed the game along, you can add extra challenges. Some that I use are: players must throw the ball within 3 seconds of catching it, players cannot throw the ball back to the player who threw it to them, lights off, and, finally, the dreaded one handed rule: players must throw and catch the ball with only one hand. This game is great for indoor recess or just a quick movement break between lessons or even as a reward. It could also be adapted as an activity for teaching. Here’s one idea I came up with:
Story Ball – Get a small beach ball like the one pictured here. On the beach ball, write questions or prompts about a story that students are reading. For example: Characters, Setting, Beginning, Middle, End, Conflict, Theme, Favorite part, etc. These story balls can be purchased from education retailers but are super easy to make with a small beach ball and a permanent marker. Each time a player catches the ball, he answers the prompt under his right thumb before throwing the ball to the next player. The game is no longer silent but students can get out for incorrect answers or for talking when they do not have the ball.
Idea Number Four: Secret Piece of Trash
This “game” is awesome for so many reasons. I know, it sounds like a bad rock band name, but hear me out. If your classroom is like mine, the floor looks like a confetti fight has broken out by the end of each day. I’m not sure how all the little bits of paper, wrappers, erasers, and pencil shavings accumulate, but they do. It’s inevitable. Asking students to pick up the trash as they are gathering their things to leave for the day often falls on deaf ears like “Huh? What trash? I don’t see any trash.”
Here is a brilliantly devious way to disguise cleaning your floor as the funnest game ever. In your mind, choose one of the pieces of trash on the floor as the secret piece. Tell students that there is a secret piece of trash on the floor and that whoever picks up this particular piece of trash will get a prize. Say “Ready, set, go!” and watch as students scramble around the room picking up trash faster than you’ve ever seen them move. Pay attention to who picks up the secret piece. In no time your floor will be spotless and students will have gotten a movement break. Finally, reveal the secret piece of trash and who picked it up: “the secret piece of trash was that crumbled up blue paper over by the computers that So and So picked up!” Be sure to have some sort of prize ready for that student.
Idea Number Five: Task Cards
Task cards are my jam! What are task cards? Basically, instead of giving students a worksheet with questions or math problems to answer, put each question or math problem on a card. Then, spread the cards around the classroom. Students have a numbered record sheet for recording the answer to each question or problem and a clipboard. They move around the classroom to each card, solving, and recording the answer on their record sheet. I tell students they do not have to answer the questions in order, but to make sure they are recording the answer to each card beside the correct number on their record sheet.
Task cards are great because they accomplish the same purpose as a worksheet but they allow students to move around the room while they are working. They also break a potentially intimidating assignment into small chunks that can easily be tackled. They can be used across almost every subject to assess or practice countless topics and skills. I have quite a few sets of math tasks cards available for sale in my TPT store. Be sure to check out this free chalk task cards record page with directions for how to take task cards outside sidewalk chalk style!
Idea Number Six: Board Races
Another all time favorite of my students. Like many of these activities, board races can be applied to many subjects and topics. I first used them back in the days when I taught Spanish to practice vocabulary. I would project a photograph of a person’s face, for example. Then, I would call two student volunteers up to a tape starting line about 8 feet away from the board. I would give them each a flyswatter. Then, I would say a word in Spanish like "ojo.” The students would race to the board to be the first to hit the ojo, or eye, with the flyswatter. Now, I use board races in math class quite often. Most recently, we raced to practice finding factors of a number. I called two volunteers up to stand at the starting line. I said something like “Find all the factors of 18!” and it was off to the races. The first student to correctly identify all of the factors was the winner. This game can be applied to many areas. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
To practice spelling – say a spelling word, the first student to spell it correctly wins.
To identify geometric figures – say a shape (rhombus!), the first student to draw a rhombus wins (or project shapes and use the flyswatters as described above).
To answer comprehension questions – ask a question (about science, social studies, a reading passage, etc.) The first player to write the correct answer (or select it with a flyswatter) is the winner.
Board races are an easy way to practice skills across many subjects. They take little to no preparation and are a great filler if you have an awkward 5 minutes left at the end of class!
Idea Number Seven: Relay Races
Relay races are undeniably fun, but how can I apply them to my lesson? Here are some ideas. First of all, relay races take up a bit of room so you may have to take this one outside the classroom. The playground is probably best if the weather permits. A relay race can be as simple as setting up cones in a line, say, 20 feet apart. The idea is, students are positioned along the race at various cones and work as a team to complete it, passing a baton, or tagging the hand of the next runner while someone times them with stopwatch. The fastest time wins. Fun, but not very educational. Here are some ideas for applying a relay race to your lesson:
Fraction relay – I do this every year during my fraction unit. Students decide as a team what fraction of the race each runner will run. For example: John is going to run 1/3 of the race, Susie is running 1/6, and Bill is running 1/2. Then, they put their plan into action. I actually have a free worksheet for this activity in my TpT store if you’re interested.
Quiz relay – Before the race begins, each runner is given a card with a question on it (this could be a math equation, a vocabulary word, or a comprehension question for science or social studies concept). As the first runner reaches the second, he asks her the question on the card. She can only begin running when she answers the question correctly. She then runs to the next runner and asks her question and so on and so forth.
Measurement Relay – Studying measurement in math class? Great! Let the students set up the relay race. Tell them each cone must be exactly 36 feet apart (or maybe say 12 yards!) and then let them go to work with yard sticks or a tape measure. Let them calculate the total distance of the race in feet and yards or even inches! Oh, that’s good! Studying the metric system? Use centimeters and meters. After setting up the race and making the calculations, students are rewarded by getting to run it. Take it to the next level by asking students to calculate how many feet per second they ran the race, or inches per second… you get the idea.
I hope this list of movement activities provides you with the inspiration you need to get your students up out of their chairs! Research has proven that movement in the classroom not only helps students focus better, it also makes for more meaningful (and memorable) instruction!