Great classroom activities to re-engage your students
September 9, 2021
Ten start-of-school activities to energize and connect students this year
Getting K-12 students re-engaged with classroom learning has always been part of the return-to-school to-do list for every teacher. This year, of course, will be different. Although children are in many ways eager to get back into the classroom, months of remote learning have affected student’s motivation, morale, work habits, and social and emotional balance. This year may require a bit more creativity in those first few days or weeks of school to get children excited about being back in class.
Set aside traditional coursework, rules, or introductions, and consider three methods to get children excited and engaged: making, moving, and connecting. In that spirit, here are ten great activities to try this year. Although some may sound more appropriate for younger grades, many of them, believe it or not, are even used in college classrooms.
Create – each and every day
Creating and making are immediate ways to engage students. While it’s tempting to begin the school year with introductions and rules and lectures, try starting each day—even the first day—with making and doing, with a creative project unfettered from burdensome rules. Here are some ideas:
Some teachers like to begin the school year with creative projects that allow students to introduce themselves or talk about their summer using pictures. Give students two or three pieces of paper to draw something that communicates a specific idea: who they are, what they do, what they like, or what they did last week. Start-of-class drawing exercises can also be used throughout the year as review tools, letting students draw what they remember from the previous class.
Make a sculpture
Have clay or Play-Doh on each child’s desk when they come in on the first day. Before any introductions or rules, have them make something about themselves or their summer. Let them make something they like or something they did. Even older children will enjoy the project. One college professor begins all his classes with a Play-Doh project.
Distribute old magazines and stickers around the class and have the students use them to make a scrapbook or chapbook to introduce themselves to the rest of the class. They can make a scrapbook about things they like, things they don’t like, what they did over the summer, or any other subject that allows them to talk about what’s important to them.
With Legos or other objects, start the class by asking students to invent a new type of car (or another machine). They can work individually or in groups. When they’re finished, this can be followed by getting kids out of their chairs to walk around the class and view the other students’ inventions. Even better, invention time can be followed by invention playtime, such as building and testing paper airplanes or catapults.
Embrace movement in the classroom
Another proven way to increase engagement in a classroom is to get students out of their chairs and moving. In addition to providing a break from the routine, the activity gives them a different way to think about the lesson or topic. Here are some ways to get moving:
One successful strategy for getting students up and moving on the very first day is a gallery walk. Post pictures all around the classroom. They can be pictures from movies, storybooks, or lesson content. They can be spread along the classroom walls or separated into stations. At some point in the class, children get out of their chairs, walk around, and view the gallery. They can do this individually or in small groups. The gallery walk will then segue into a class discussion, a debate, a game, a writing project, a creative project, or the day’s lesson.
Another time-tested method to get kids moving and hyper-engaged is to stage a scavenger hunt in the classroom or outside. This could be a treasure hunt inside the classroom or in the recess yard, a hunt for clues to a riddle, or a hunt for answers to the lessons. There are an infinite variety of possibilities. They can be simple activities, like a treasure hunt, or they can be preludes to the day’s lesson.
There are other ways of demonstrating a concept other than explaining it or illustrating it on a whiteboard. A technique called staging, uses students as props to illustrate concepts. This technique is useful for demonstrating addition and subtraction to younger students or illustrating the alignment of the planets in the solar system and their orbits.
To jolt engagement into high gear, getting children talking is just as important as getting them moving. Nothing gets them talking better than asking them to debate about topics that matter to them. Student debates can be staged to get students out of their desks. One common technique is the “this-or-that” or “take sides” debate. One group of students representing one side of the debate should stand in one location, the opposing group in another location. The group responsible for the final decision is located in the middle. The topic could be related to topics such as government bills, new laws, a historical event or even styles of artist and musicians.
Build connections through fun
Engagement is intrinsically related to children feeling a sense of belonging and safety in a classroom. Even for shy students, interacting and playing with other children in low-stakes activities helps to create a sense of community that in turn helps to build motivation and morale. Use the first days to build teamwork and get children talking to one another while keeping the activities fun and the stakes low.
Snowball fight is a great start-of-year game to get students acquainted with each other and involved immediately in the class. Ask students to write three things about themselves, such as what they like, but without putting their names on the paper. They then crumple that paper into a ball and have, well, a snowball fight. After a minute or two of tossing these papers at each other, ask the students to pick up just one “snowball,” open it, and read the contents. They are then tasked with finding the person who wrote the paper based on what is on the paper. With each guess, they approach the student, read the paper, and either win or lose. The game can continue at the beginning of each day with each student allowed one or two guesses until everyone has been introduced to each other.
Beach ball questions
Even in advanced classes, beach ball questions are a great way to get students actively involved in the class or the subject being taught. On a multi-colored beach ball, use an erasable marker to write questions on each color band. The teacher picks a color and tosses it to a student, who then answers the question written on that color on the beach ball. After answering each question, students throw the beach ball to other children in the class who then answer the question on the next chosen color. Beach ball questions work best when the questions are open-ended, such as likes, personal history, or positions or opinions about the contents of the day’s lesson.
The possibilities are endless
This is just a sampling of some of the amazing engagement strategies teachers have used. These ideas should help to spark creative fires for educators in these first weeks of school. If there’s ever been a time to trust innate inventiveness, this new school year is that time. Introducing an environment that and encourages student creativity, interactive learning and fun may just be the key to helping students adjust and connect in the classroom.
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