Is it Appropriate to Play Games?

Classroom teachers don’t want subs to spend the day solving puzzles, handing out word finds, and playing games. After all, serious educational work needs to be accomplished. In the modern school environment with the emphasis on testing and accountability, there is enormous pressure to cover the curriculum, often to the exclusion of extracurricular activities.

However, there will be days when you are given no plans, or other days when you complete the plans with time to spare. It is at these times that games can serve as both a filler and as an incentive for the students to complete their work in a timely and cooperative manner. When you play a game, you are in control, and if you choose the right games, learning will occur. So, it is appropriate to play games, but be sure you choose your games wisely.

How Can Games be Educational?

Any game that is played in the classroom should have three attributes:

  1. It must be fun.
  2. It must be age appropriate.
  3. It must have some educational merit.

The games that I recommend in this chapter have all three attributes. They are fun; if chosen properly, they can be targeted to a specific age group; and they all require solid thinking skills.

It’s important to note that games can also be used to complement the curriculum. Games can be used to review spelling words and vocabulary. They can be used to review concepts that prepare students for tests. Math games can be used to review facts and hone skills.

Whenever possible, try to adapt classic classroom games to fit into your curriculum. Later in the chapter, I’ll suggest some things that will help you accomplish this.

When Should I Play Games?

Games can become an important element of your classroom management approach. Therefore, use them to your advantage. It’s best to introduce a game early in the day, during a quiet time when you know it will be well received. Play it once or twice and then stop. Promise the students that you’ll repeat the game later in the day, but only if they exhibit good work habits and behavior.

What Types of Classroom Games are Available?

There are many websites with school appropriate games for all age groups. Here is a list of classroom games that are winners! They require some thinking skills, and they reinforce learning.

  • Spelling Bee. Aside from the classic version, you can modify the traditional Spelling Bee for math problems or to review facts for a test. Ask the class how they line up for a Spelling Bee (methods vary). If they say they never have Spelling Bees, you can line them up by teams, randomly, or by rows, and have students sit down when they miss a word. The team left with the last person standing is the winner.
  • Sparkle. A variation on the Spelling Bee, Sparkle can be a great way to drill spelling or vocabulary words in a challenging way. The class forms a circle and is given a word. The first student says the first letter, the next says the second letter, and so on. When a student provides the wrong letter, he or she sits down. When the word is completed, the next person says “Sparkle” and the very next person must sit down. Play continues until only one student is left standing . . . the winner!
  • Hangman. This classic is always well received. Think of a vocabulary word or a term from geography, science, or any other subject. Draw dashes on the board corresponding to the number of letters in the word. Now draw a “gallows.”

Students then guess a letter that might be in the word. If the letter appears in the word, it is placed in its proper position over a dash, but if the guess is wrong, draw a head, stick figure body, arms, and legs (one at a time for each bad guess) under the gallows. The student who figures out the word is the next person to come to the board and think of the next word. However, if the body is complete, with all body parts hanging from the gallows, then the teacher has won and will make up the next word. Try to judge your group. It may be best if you continue to be the person at the board making up the words. If the group seems mature, you can allow the students to take turns with this task.

  • Scrambled Letters. Write a word on the board with the letters out of order. Have students unscramble them to find the correct word. The first student who comes up with the correct word wins. Variations: Use names of the students, teachers in the school, or famous sports figures, or use a science or social studies term.
  • How Many Words? Write a word on the board and see how many smaller words you can make from the letters in the larger word. Have children write the smaller words on their own pieces of paper and then read them to the class. Whoever has the most words is the winner. Set a time limit of five minutes.
  • Charades. This classic party game can be modified for classroom use by choosing a student to go to the front of the room and act out a well-known song, movie, or book title. To maintain decorum, it’s a good idea to have students raise their hands to offer a guess instead of shouting out the answers. Whoever guesses correctly has the next turn.

A variation of Charades for the primary grades is to act out spelling words or vocabulary words from the content area. When I play this game with my younger students, I whisper or write down the suggested word to the “actor.” That person goes to the front of the room and begins to act out the spelling word. If a student in the class thinks he or she knows what the word is, that student raises a hand and guesses. If he or she is correct, that student takes a turn acting out another word.

  • Around the World. Choose a leader from among your students. The leader stands beside the first child in the first row. Using a set of flash cards (e.g., math facts), stand in front of both children, holding up one flash card. The child that gives you the correct answer first wins that round. He or she then moves to the next child, and the same process is repeated with a new flash card. If the child sitting beats the child standing, the two students change places with child #1 sitting in the seat of child #2. If one student can go “around the world” (meaning that student beats every other student in the class), he or she is the winner.
  • Twenty Questions. When I played this game with my students, I always went first. I would choose a scorekeeper to write the tally marks on the board to be sure we did not exceed twenty questions. To begin play, think of an animal, vegetable, or mineral (you might need to explain the differences). Then have children pose questions to you requiring a yes or no answer. You may only answer with a yes or no.

Based on the answers to the questions, students may guess what you’re thinking. The student who guesses correctly wins and becomes the next person to challenge the class.

To make this game more educational, try to choose a word or term that relates to the current curriculum. For example, if the students are studying astronomy or space, you might choose one of the planets or constellations as your challenge.

  • Higher/Lower. One student stands at the board, facing the class. The teacher writes a number on the board above the student’s head so that it can’t be seen by the student. The student at the board guesses a number. Classmates say “higher” or “lower,” indicating which direction to go to find the number written on the board. Once the child has guessed correctly, he or she chooses the next student to go to the board. The number range varies by age group. In Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Grade 2, make your numbers 0–100. With Grades 4 and up, you can use numbers with a range of thousands to one million. The game is best for students in Kindergarten through fourth grade.
  • The Unique Game. Ask the children what unique means. You will get many interesting answers. Then put a positive spin on the word. Tell them that it is very special to be a unique person.

Now explain the rules of the game. Tell the students that they must be truthful. If not, they will ruin the game. For this reason, the Unique Game is generally not appropriate for Kindergarten or first-grade students.

The entire class stands next to their desks. You suggest characteristics that would describe one or more students. If the characteristic applies to a student, he or she must sit down. The characteristics (which may be posed as questions) are fun personal things that you would have no way of knowing. A few suggestions:

  1. Did you have cereal for breakfast? If you did, please sit down.
  2. Did you have toast for breakfast? If you did, please sit down.
  3. Are you the oldest child in your family? If yes, please sit down.
  4. If you are having hot lunch today, please sit down.
  5. If you brought a sandwich from home, please sit down.
  6. Did you go to an overnight camp this summer? If you did, please sit down.
  7. If you went to Disneyland or Disney World this year, please sit down.
  8. Do you have a younger brother in this school? If yes, please sit down.
  9. Do you have a younger sister in this school? If you do, please sit down.
  10. Is your birthday is August? If yes, please sit down. (Name other months to eliminate people).

When only one child is left standing, the game is over. That person wins because he or she is the most unique.

  • Seven Up. This game is a favorite in elementary school. Choose seven children to stand in front of the room. Choose a light monitor to turn the lights on and off for you. Say, “Lights out, heads down.” All other students put their heads down and close their eyes. The seven now tiptoe around the room and each taps one child’s head. When all seven have finished this task, they return to the front of the room.

Turn on the lights. Announce, “Heads up.”

Each child whose head was tapped stands up. One at a time, they announce who they think tapped their heads. If they guess correctly, they replace that person standing in front of the room. Next time around, they become the “tappers.”

Note: The beauty of this game is that it is so quiet. Most children know how to play, and you can have a leader take over. It’s a wonderful little filler for those extra five minutes when you need to transition to another activity. Because the game is so quiet, you will enjoy the peace!

  • Bingo Facts. This is a fun way to help students learn and recall weekly spelling words, vocabulary, math facts, geography (state capitals), science facts, or any other information. Before you start, fold a paper so that sixteen squares appear. Cut along the fold lines and number each square; put your squares into a container.

Have students create a “bingo sheet” by folding a piece of notebook paper in half repeatedly until sixteen folded squares appear. Ask the students to write a small number in the upper right-hand corner of each square—in random order. Be sure to tell them to leave room within the square for writing an answer.

Pick a square from your container one at a time, say the number of the square, and ask a question (e.g., a spelling word). Students must write the answer (e.g., the spelling word) in the square corresponding to the number you called. Whoever has completed a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row—with correct answers—wins! Be sure to check for accuracy before declaring a winner. This is an easy game to play with all age groups (perfect for Grades 2–8).

What if I Suggest a Game and the Class has a Different Way of Playing It?

Ask one child to explain their methods, and do it their way. There is no point in locking horns on this issue. Let the students continue to use their own class rules.

What Should I do if There are “Sore Losers”?

In each class, there will be children who don’t like to lose. Primary grade children have trouble understanding that they might lose or not get a turn. Try to set up rules and guidelines for this problem at the beginning of every game. Explain that “sore losers can ruin a game for all of us.” By being proactive, you can eliminate hard feelings. Make a big issue about playing fairly and being mature when playing games. I tell the class that if they do not play like grown-ups, we will not continue the game.

If a child begins to act out because he has lost, pull him aside and have a talk. Ask him to be your helper until he settles down. Usually, peer pressure stops this kind of behavior because the other children want to keep playing.


Games can be used as a reward for good behavior and completed work. They are an excellent filler for those situations in which you have a bit of free time. The following guidelines will help:

  • Try to make the games educational. They can be used to review material from the content areas. Use your teaching skills to adapt the games for educational purposes.
  • Use classic games, but ask the students to teach you some of their own classroom games. You may even want to add these to your bag of tricks.
  • Be aware that some children have trouble losing. Try to avoid these unpleasant scenes by setting clear guidelines.

Remember that if they are used properly, games can have solid educational benefits. They are an important part of your bag of tricks.