If you’re reading this you’ll know that teaching young kids isn’t easy! They’re generally restless, they wriggle around a lot and don’t do well sitting for long periods. That’s why it’s important to plan lots of short activities in your ESL classes and vary the pace of those activities. However, there are some days when one (or all!) of your kids are just bouncing off the walls and it seems impossible to get anything done.
Maybe you can relate to this:
So whether you’re teaching groups of little kids or you´re a parent with a restless child at home, it’s always good to have some easy ideas you can pull quickly out of the hat when you need to help children focus.
Restlessness and distraction are often due to pent up energy, but they can also be caused by kids being over-excited or bored. Here are a few short games and activities you can try that require very little preparation and that you can pretty much play on the spur of the moment. The ideas I’ve included are a mix of boredom busters, energy burners and games to settle over-excitedness.
These ideas are useful for children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder but they are also great for preschoolers, since all little kids exhibit some hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention (the key symptoms of attention deficit disorder). I’ve adapted the activities so you can use them with small groups in class or individual children at home.
Invite your child or children to move around and make silly poses or faces (or imitate different animals) until you shout, “Stop!” Play a few different rounds and invite children to take turns being the ones who shout “Stop!”
You can play this game using music instead of saying “Stop!” (the classic party game “Musical Statues”). However, it is much quicker to transition to in class if you play it without music and works just as well. If you use music you’ll have to get up, go to the computer or sound system, find a song, etc. and this is time in which your kids are getting even more restless.
2. RING THE BELL
For this game you need a bunch of coloured crayons or pencils and a bag or box. Some of the colours need to be repeated. You also need to place a bell (or other noise making object) on the other side of the room.
To play with 1 child:
Put the crayons in a bag or box. One at a time, take them out of the bag and place them on the table or floor. When there are 3 colours that match, your child must get up and ring the bell.
To play with a small group:
Have children sit in a circle on the floor or at a table. Give each child a different coloured crayon. Put crayons of different colours in a bag or box and place them one at a time on the table or floor.
Here are suggestions for two ways you can play in a group depending on your kids, their age and how difficult you want to make it:
Version 1: put only one duplicate of the colours your kids have into the bag and when a child sees their matching colour appear they get up and ring the bell.
Version 2: put two duplicates of the colours your kids have into the bag. Children have to wait until they see two crayons of their matching colour on the table before they can ring the bell.
It’s also a good idea to put other colours in the bag that none of the children have. This increases the time that children have to wait and intensifies the level of concentration required.
I recommend you try out which version works best with your kids. You might like to start with the first version, which is easier to learn and play. Once your kids know the game you can introduce the second version to give them more of a challenge.
This game is great for focusing children’s attention as well as allowing them to move and take short breaks from the game. If you want to get in extra vocabulary practice you can play it with flash cards instead. You could use other items instead of crayons, but be careful what you choose, as it’s easy for kids to get distracted by the object instead of focusing on the game itself.
The great thing about Bingo is that it requires children to be very attentive in order to complete their boards. Many children with attention deficit disorder enjoy fast-paced, competitive games, so this may work well for them.
To play, each child needs a different bingo board to complete. You can easily make very simple bingo boards by dividing a piece of paper into squares and writing a different number in each square. For 3 - 4 year olds I recommend using four squares per board. For 5 - 7 year olds, make four to six squares. Adapt the numbers to the age and level of your kids (for example, numbers 1 -10 for pre-schoolers, and numbers 11 – 30 for 6 to 8 year olds).
Put flashcards of all the numbers you are playing with into a bag or a box. Remove the first card and say or show the number. If a child has that number on their board they put a big cross on it. Continue calling out all the numbers. When a child has crossed off all the numbers on their board they shout "BINGO"! If you are playing in a group, continue until all the children have completed their boards.
The maze is a game that really helps focus attention and you can adapt the difficulty to the age of your kids. Trace a maze on the floor – you can use coloured packing tape, chalk, or a ball of yarn if the floor is carpeted. Place an object in the centre of the maze and invite the child to follow the path until they reach it. The object could be a toy car, a teddy or even fruit or another edible treat. You can make the maze as easy or difficult as you like; with only one path, or with branching paths that they have to choose.
If you have a small group of children you could draw a long wiggly path for each child with lots of loop the loops that they have to follow, instead of an actual maze. If you use chalk you can very quickly draw the paths, so there’s very little set-up time.
If you have your own classroom this is something you might like set up and leave as a permanent resource that you can use whenever you need it.
5. IMPROVISED PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS
If you’re a glutton for punishment (or you have the patience of a saint), an activity that children particularly enjoy and that really helps release pent up energy is playing the drums. Just gather together a few pots, pans, tins or tubs and let your child or children play away hitting the objects with a stick or pencil. As well as helping them release energy, it also allows them to experiment with different sounds.
It is, however, torture for most parents and teachers, and if you have a group be aware that there are many children who find a lot of noise distressing. In this case you could try improvised shakers instead, using empty plastic tubs filled with some crayons, pasta, or other small, hard objects. Just make sure you tape the lids on securely!
If you see that your child or group is very restless, try getting them to burn off some excess energy through a TPR song. You can find many on You Tube, although you may want to avoid the ones that invite kids to run, as this can hype kids up even more and get chaotic in a group.
Music can also be very helpful for keeping kids on task during a particular activity, such as tidying up, lining up to leave, or when transitioning from one activity to another. You don’t have to put on actual music for this – just sing simple instructions to a catchy melody. When your kids learn the song they´ll enjoy joining in and will also know what’s expected of them at that moment.
7. PLAY DOUGH
Young kids absolutely LOVE play dough and I always have some on hand ready to whip out at times that my kids are particularly restless. It’s amazing how play dough has the power to focus kids, plus it’s really good for helping develop fine motor skills!
You could allow it to be a free activity and just let the kids use their imaginations to build whatever they want for a designated amount of time. However, in my classes I prefer to use it as a way to reinforce some English so I have play dough mats on hand for them to use.
Sometimes I give them word mats of the vocabulary we are learning, and invite them to make the letters of the word out of play dough, or number mats to practise counting. Or I might ask them to make particular animals, or fruits, or make a certain number of items, or make something of a particular colour – anything that will help revise basic vocabulary.
You can find lots of play dough mats on the internet to print and laminate . We also have a few free mats here you can use:
Helping young children stay on task or pay attention is complicated, and despite your best efforts there will be times that you don’t succeed. These strategies may or may not work for you, but you won’t lose anything by giving them a try and hopefully you can find a way to adapt them to your particular situation.
We'd love to hear your ideas too, so feel free to let us know in the comments section below!