My love of music and songwriting isn’t limited to my custom song work. I also enjoy teaching other people about songwriting—especially kids! Here are four music games that I’ve used in music classes and camps, and also as classroom management tools in nearly every setting that K-5 public schools have to offer. These activities require no materials, very little set-up, and they can be started and ended quickly once the students have learned how to play them. They can be used as indoor activities on rainy days, as a break from desk work, as a warm up for a lesson that requires listening skills, or simply to take up a little time if you find yourself stuck in a hallway or waiting for a guest speaker who is running late. Most of my work has been with younger students (K-2) but I’ve found that these games are easily adaptable for students up to about 12 years of age.
For each game I’ve written a basic description followed by a lesson plan with a potential script for the teacher. So, without further adieu, let the games begin!
One student (the conductor) stands in front of the other students and makes motions that correlate with certain sounds. The rest of the group make the sounds that correspond with the motions until the conductor brings his or her hands in to rest in front of the chest, which means that the sound cuts off. After a student has had several turns as the conductor, choose another student to be the conductor.
Suggested motions and their coordinating sounds:
Arms over head Clap hands
Arms pointed towards the floor Stomp feet
Arms out to the side Animal sound (duck, cow, dog, your choice)
Arms rest in front of chest Cut Off
The first time you play the game, you (the teacher) should act as the conductor. Stand in front of the group and say;
“I’m going to try to trick you, and I’m super tricky. I bet I’ll trick every one of you”
Most students, especially the younger ones, will meet this by saying “no” or “uh-uh.”
“Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to raise my hands over my head and when I do, I want you to clap your hands, just like you would after someone does something cool.”
Demonstrate by clapping your hands as though applauding. Then say;
“So, that’s what you’ll do. You’ll clap your hands just like that when I raise my hands over my head, BUT when I bring my hands down, you STOP.”
Bring both arms down and pull them tightly into your chest. Say;
“When I bring my hands down like this, you have to stop clapping. If you keep on clapping after I’ve brought my arms down it means that I TRICKED YOU. Let’s try.”
Bring your arms up and allow the students to clap for a couple of seconds, then bring your arms down to your chest in a quick motion. Hopefully, most of the students will stop clapping. If they do, then say;
“Shucks. I didn’t trick ANYBODY.”
If you bring your arms down and there are still students clapping for a second or so after you’ve stopped say;
“Hmmmmmm, I think I might have tricked some people, but let’s try again.”
Repeat this several times until most of the students are cutting off appropriately.
“Ok, so you’re pretty good at that, but this time I’m really going to trick you! Instead of putting my arms up, I’m going to put my arms down, and when I do, you’re going to stomp your feet! BUT when I bring my arms back to the center if you’re still stomping it means that I TRICKED YOU!”
Try it several times until the students catch on, then say;
“Ok, ok, that was easy, but get ready to get tricked, ‘cause what I’m about to do is going to blow your minds!”
Point your arms downward and allow the students to stomp until you cut off. Then, put your arms in the air. Some students might remember to clap when your hands are in the air, most probably won’t. Make a big show out of having tricked them and say;
“I tricked you once, I’ll trick you again, ‘cause sometimes I’m going to put my hands up in the air and you’ll clap but you’ve gotta cut off when my arms come down, and other times I’ll put my arms down and you’ll stomp your feet until I bring my arms back to the center and then you’ll stop!”
Play several rounds of the game using just these two motions and sounds, then add a third. When you put your arms out to the sides, students make an animal sound (dog barking, cow moo, whatever you’d like) and cut off when your arms come back to center.
After several rounds say;
“Wow, I am not tricking anybody, but I’m actually glad, because it means that you’re all listening and you know how to play the game. So, in this game you are the orchestra because you make the sounds, and I’m the conductor, because I make the motions. BUT do any of you think that you could be a conductor? Raise your hand if you want to try!”
Choose a student that you think will be successful to come up and stand next to you. Say;
“Ok, the most important thing for a conductor to do is this (put your arms in front of your chest just like you do to cut the students off). Can you do this?” Once the student has their arms in front of their chests say “Ok, let’s do it together.”
Raise your hands up, and allow the new conductor to do it too. Encourage the other kids to clap if they aren’t doing it. Then cut them off. Go through this as many times as you need to until the new conductor seems comfortable, then do the other motions (point down to stomp, out to the side for students to make animal sounds). Then, allow the student to try it without you. Let them go through about three or four rounds then choose someone different. If they can do it, then great! If they are having trouble, stand next to them and have them follow you until they seem comfortable.
Choose a new student and while they make their initial tries to lead the group (I find by the third student they can usually do it on their own) write down the names of the students who have already been the conductor. If time allows and the students are enjoying it, let them each have a turn. If not, continue making a list of the kids who have already had a turn and tell the rest of the students that you will play the game later and make sure they get a turn.
Naturally, you need to make sure that you do play the game later and that all of the students do get a turn (wink wink)!
Repeat the pattern
The leader (usually the teacher) makes a sound pattern (clapping hands, hands on legs, singing/saying words/noises) and the students attempt to repeat the pattern. Start by clapping a simple pattern, and make them increasingly more complex. Be sure that students understand that they have to wait for you to stop before they attempt the patterns.
“Alright, I’m feeling tricky again! Who’s ready to get tricked?”*
Once students have reacted (usually with nooooo or not me) continue by saying;
“I’m going to clap a pattern, and when I’m done, then you have to clap the same pattern. BUT if you clap your hands before I stop then it means that I TRICKED YOU!”
Start with a simple four beat pattern**. I would recommend the old shave and a haircut or some other familiar pattern. You might want to just clap four times in a row for the really young ones. Whichever pattern you choose, do it several times until most of the students are clapping the pattern properly and cutting off at the right time. Then say;
“Not bad, but this time I’m going to trick everybody with a new pattern”
Do a different four beat pattern, wait for them to respond, then repeat until they are all more or less doing things correctly.
You can use this game as a means of getting the students’ attention without having to raise your voice. Bascially, you train the kids to always repeat your pattern whenever they hear it, regardless of what they’re doing.
If you’re interested in doing this, once you’ve reached the part of the game described prior to Expansion one, simply continue by saying;
“Ok. It looks like I’m not tricking anybody but listen to this; no matter where you are or what you’re doing in this class, when you hear me clap a pattern, you have to stop what you’re doing, find me with your eyes, and clap the pattern. If you keep doing what you’re doing and don’t find me with your eyes and clap the pattern it means that I TRICKED YOU!”
I find that it is necessary to clap patterns five or six random times on the first day of class to get it engrained in the students’ minds. I always like to clap the same simple pattern to initially get their attention, then do a different one. If, after some time has passed, you try this and some students don’t respond, say;
“Ooooooooh I think I’m tricking some people, and this time I’m going to trick EVERYBODY” clap the same pattern as you did before. Hopefully enough students will respond, and you will be able to make whatever announcement you need to make.
Once students have the hang of clapping the patterns, start incorporating other sounds (stomp feet, snap fingers, hit legs etc). For instance, do the first two beats of the pattern by hitting your hands against your legs, then clap the rest. Do other combination patterns in which part of the pattern is made by hitting hands on legs and clapping hands.
Incorporate voice sounds. For instance, on the last beat of the pattern instead of clapping or hitting your hands on your legs say “Wooof!”
This is an extremely useful activity as you can play it nearly anywhere, for any length of time. Stuck in a hallway waiting to get into the assembly? It’ll make less noise than your class would if they were all chit chatting.
Vocal Warm Up
Students use a variety of vocal exercises to warm up their voices while hopefully having a little fun! These exercises include;
Making a sound like a snake.
Making a sound like a bee.
Singing a long note while gently beating on the chest.
Crouching and singing a low note, then singing a progressively higher note as they raise themselves to a standing position. There are lots of fun variations with this one!
Glissandos-singing a continuous note, gliding from low to high, then high to low while moving the body up and down in conjunction with the pitch.
“Okay, let’s warm up our voices! In just a minute you’re going to take a deep breath, then make a sound like a snake! Here I’ll show you.”
Take an exaggerated breath then make a sssssss sound as you exhale. Then say;
“Okay, do it with me this time”
Repeat the inhale and the sound but do it a little more slowly. When you’re finished say;
“Okay! One more time!”
Once they have done the snake sound a second time say;
“Now, let’s do the same thing, but this time we’ll make a sound like a bee”
Make a quick bzzzzz sound to demonstrate, then lead the group through the activity two times (or more). Then say;
“Alright! Now let’s clear everything out of our chests!”
With loose fists beat quickly on your chest while making a long aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. The students will most likely join in as soon as you do it. Repeat it a few times.
Quickly drop to a crouched position and say “Sing a low note with me.”
Sing a low note and hold it for a few seconds. When you finish singing the first note, wait for the students to quiet down, then rise slightly and sing a slightly higher note. Continue until you are standing upright and singing a high pitch, then end by singing an exaggerated aaaaaaaaaaaa in the style of an opera singer. You can vary how many notes you sing before reaching the top. You might want to do a whole scale (8 notes), or you could do a major triad (3 notes), or any number of random pitches as long as they get progressively higher.
This activity in easy to vary and expand. For instance, once you are up, you can do the activity in reverse.
Another simple variation is to use a different syllable. For instance if you did an ahhhhh sound, next do an eeeeeee sound, then do an oooooooo sound and continue through the vowel sounds, or you could make animal sounds, use words etc.
Adding different movements and notes is really fun. Start in the crouching position and sing a low note. When you are done, sing again but this time go back and forth between the original note and a note one that is slightly higher (a whole step for those of you with a music background). Twist your body from side to side along with the changing notes (left for the low notes, right for the high ones, or vise versa). Rise slightly and repeat the activity with higher notes.
At the end of the activity, you will either be standing up or crouching down. Let’s go with standing. Look at the students and say;
“Okay, this time, we’re going to make one long note and go all the way to the ground”
Sing a relatively high note then move slowly down to a crouching position, hold the note while you move down and allow the pitch to get lower in conjunction with the movement until you are crouching and singing a very low pitch.
Repeat this activity in reverse, going from low to high.
Once you’ve completed several of these warm ups, it’s usually nice to sing a song together!
Pick a number
This activity is a bit more complicated than the others I have listed and is probably suited more for older children. Although it can be implemented without any materials, having small pieces of paper numbered one through eight and something (a hat, a jar) that you can pick them out of is a great asset. It’s also a blast to do this with simple percussion instruments if you have access.
Students are put in groups of 4-6. The groups do not need to be even, if one group is smaller or larger than another it won’t matter.
Students count to eight with a steady beat, starting over with one each time eight is reached.
Once students are comfortable doing this, each student is assigned a number 1-8 (make sure that no two students in the same group have the same number). The students repeat the activity, counting to eight along with a steady beat but only clap on their assigned number.
Once comfortable, students can use other sounds (snapping fingers, hitting legs, saying/singing words, stomping feet etc.).
If you have percussion instruments (tambourines, rhythm sticks, shakers etc.) students can use these.
The first thing you need to do is put students into groups. Use whatever method you prefer for doing that, or use the one that I use here.
“Alright! We’re going to see who has a good memory! I’m going to look at you and say the name of a letter, and it’s your job to remember that letter. Here we go”
Look at and/or point to each student and assign them a letter A-D (depending on the size of your class and how how big you want the groups to be you can use more or fewer letters).
Once you’ve given everyone a letter say;
“Okay, all the A’s get together, all the B’s get together, all the C’s together, and all the D’s together”
It doesn’t matter if the groups are not of equal size. If someone can’t remember their letter assign them to any group that needs or can handle having another member.
“Now, who can count to eight? Anybody? Okay, let’s count to eight.”
Once the class has counted to eight say;
“Alright, let’s do it again, but this time let’s clap with every number”
Being careful to keep the count relatively steady, count and clap along with the students.
“Pretty good! Now this time, when we count, as soon as we get to eight we immediately start over again with one, so basically we will be counting to eight over and over. Let’s try it!”
Count from one to eight several times. Once the students have the hang of it say;
“Great, now it gets kind of tricky. We’re going to count every beat, but we’re only going to clap on three.”
Count and clap along with the students.
Note: If a lot of the students are having difficulty with this, take a moment to think about whether you’re willing to put a fair bit of time into learning the activity. If so, you might want to practice this several more times and then pick up with the next few steps at a later time.
Once they have the hang of it say;
“Now, let’s do the same thing but this time we will clap on five!”
Clap and count with the students, then say;
“Alright! Now let’s clap on three and five!”
Clap and count then say;
“Now that you know how to clap and count, I am going to assign each of you a number. You will only clap on that beat. When you work with the members of your group and everyone hits on their assigned beat, it will make a cool pattern!”
At this point you could use one group as an example and lead them through the exercise as a demonstration, or if the kids are catching on you could just go ahead with the next step.
Go to each group, and either assign them numbers randomly or if you have slips of paper or an eight sided dice, use this to assign the number. Make sure that no student has the same number as another student in the same group.
Once all of the numbers have been assigned, go back to the first group and see how they are getting along. Move to other groups, assist as needed.
Finally, have each group perform their patterns for the rest of the class.
Expand this activity by having students use different sounds (snap fingers, saying/singing a word etc.) or using percussion instruments (tambourines, rhythm sticks etc.).
As a final challenge, see if the students can quietly tap feet or nod heads instead of counting out loud.
I hope that you will find these games useful! Contact me if you have any questions about them, or if you’re interested in working on a custom song with your class. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the one about teaching songwriting to kids.
*This whole idea of being tricky is my schtick. It always works for me and you’re welcome to try it too, but don’t hesitate to insert your own methods into these activities and don’t feel like you have to do things exactly as scripted.
**If you don’t have a music background, four beats doesn’t mean that you only clap four times. Basically it means that your pattern has to fit into a four beat measure. If this makes no sense to you don’t worry! Just clap patterns and try to make them roughly the same length.