As a teacher, it was always obvious when kids were losing focus. Fidgeting. Semi-covert glancing at the clock. Glazed expressions. It was like someone had switched the classroom lights off.
The best way to flip the switch? A quick attention boosting game!
I know, playing games in the middle of class can seem a little counterintuitive: aren’t kids supposed to be productively, quietly learning from bell to bell?
My answer to that is: yes and no.
Studies show that there are limits to kids’ attention spans, and pushing past those limits with lecture-style learning can do more harm than good. Shaking things up a bit is not only one of many strategies for paying attention in class, it could be essential for resuming high quality learning.
Think about it.
If kids are unable to pay attention, the academic material at hand will probably need to be re-taught anyway, so it’s better to reset the class than hit the rewind button every time you need to go over dependent clauses.
Re-energizing the room with something engaging, even if it’s not academic, can give kids a much needed reset. Then, they can resume learning with renewed attention and (ideally) enthusiasm for what they’re learning.
Attention Boosting Games for Kids
So, whether you’re looking for a quick attention game for class, an after-school club, or in planning an extracurricular enrichment activity, one of these brain-boosting activities is sure to fit the bill.
How to go about it
The attention piece can be incorporated in a number of ways: through memory recall, solving a puzzle, or simply moving around. Each of these lower-stakes tasks still engages kids’ thinking skills while giving their minds a well-deserved break.
A few quick words of caution before you jump in: it can be a fine line between a re-energizer and a distraction. A good rule of thumb for these activities is that they should be straightforward, require minimal set up, incorporate a little movement (or a lot!), and should take between 5-20 minutes to complete.
If you’d like to make these brain breaks a regular part of your routine, I also recommend practicing them a few times and keeping any necessary materials handy to make sure they run smoothly.
Before beginning the activity, make sure to set expectations clearly. Review these carefully with kids and make it clear when it will be time to transition back to the task at hand or on to the next part of their day. Include a time frame, rules for maintaining safety, and any other parameters you think would be beneficial.
1. Poisoned Dart Frog
Don’t worry, this activity is perfectly safe.
Stand in a circle and instruct participants to close their eyes. Select one player to be the “poisoned dart frog” and 1-3 (depending on the size of your group) “hunters” by tapping them on the shoulder. The poisoned dart frog’s objective is to “poison” others in the circle without being noticed by subtly sticking out their tongue and making eye contact with their peers.
When caught by the frog, kids can either sit down or act out a dramatic reaction—whichever is appropriate for your group. If the poisoned dart frog goes undetected, they win, if they are caught, the hunters can declare victory! Then, switch up the roles for the next round.
2. Individual Brain Break Menu
Kids love choice, especially as they get older! So, if you sense a brain break is necessary, give kids the choice between a few quiet brain breaks they can do solo. These could include Sudoku, crosswords, reading a fun story, and maybe a few things that the kids suggest.
This way, students can refocus in a way that suits their preference and learning style.
3. Mirror Game
Break the group into pairs. Tell pairs to choose one partner to be the mirror, one to be the actor. Let them start slow, improvising a dance or carrying out a specific action usually done in front of a mirror, like brushing teeth, or checking out their outfit). Tell them to switch after a few minutes.
Then introduce new elements: you are a fun house mirror, exaggerating instead of reflecting; you are an opposite mirror. After a while, let them abandon the switching back and forth, and try to initiate movement and reflect the movement of their partner at the same time.
4. Puzzles and brain teasers
Riddles, mazes, and other quick mental challenges can make excellent re-focusing activities. Younger kids might enjoy noting the differences between two pictures. With older students, try projecting a riddle on the board for the whole class, or a few riddles to work out in small groups.
Need a few ideas? Try one of these riddles with your group.
5. Movement and/or Mindfulness Break
Yoga, stretching, deep breathing, or learning a new dance move: getting moving is a great way to wake up brains of all ages.
I recommend having a few videos in your back pocket for when you think kids would benefit from getting out of their seats for a few minutes. Perhaps a 10-minute stretching video, a 5-minute breathing exercise, and a 20-minute yoga session—that way, you have something fun at your fingertips for a range of time frames.
6. Movement “Telephone”
Have all players stand in a circle. Starting with yourself, do a crazy full body motion including sound. The player to your left has to do the exact same motion and sound creating a "telephone" effect. Then the person to their left does the same thing and so on until it gets back to the original player. Each player should only be paying attention to the person to their right so the motion gets slightly turned and twisted with each pass.
After players know how to play the game, allow them to take turns starting the motion. Make sure players know to only pay attention to the person to their right and only try to emulate them.
7. Red Light/ Green Light/Yellow Light
It’s a classic, and one that can be fun to build upon as a class. Challenge your group to make it across the classroom, field, or gym and say green light to move, yellow light to move in slow motion, and red light to stop.
Build your class community by coming up with custom moves and special rules (moving like an animal, kids have to sit down on red light, etc.) to make the game even more fun!
8. Collaborative Creative Writing/Drawing
Break kids up into partners or small groups and give them a creative challenge.
It could be to draw an alien, write a story about what a day at underwater school would be like, creating treasure hunt clues—whatever gets the creative juices flowing!
This can be loosely tied into what they’re learning, or it can be something totally different. Encourage kids to share what they come up with (and of course ensure the content is appropriate).
9. The Floor is Lava Challenge
(Versions of this game can vary; as a brain break, it’s best kept simple.)
Instruct kids to scatter around the room, with decent space between each participant. Then, challenge them to successfully transfer an object (a balloon, a pencil, a soccer ball—whatever you have on hand!) from one end of the space to the other without speaking or moving from their spot.
The goal is to ensure the object doesn’t touch the ground, but it’s up to you to decide the exact parameters of this challenge! Kids can practice their problem-solving and teamwork skills as they solve this physical challenge
10. YouTube Discussion or Tutorial
In case you haven’t heard, YouTube is a treasure trove of content on any subject under the sun. Think about what your kids are interested in and make a list of videos that would make for fun class discussions or tutorials.
Perhaps they could learn some new words in another language, how to make simple origami, or discuss an interesting TED Talk! If you’re looking for only the highest quality content, try one of these educational YouTube channels for kids!
Learning and fun are not mutually exclusive!
It can be easy to get caught up in learning objectives, busy schedules, and everything else that goes into kids’ routines. Trust me, it’s worth it to make time for fun and for building relationships as a class, team, or community.
For team-building activities and ideas for shaking up learning, check out these resources: