How to Make School Fun with Social Distancing

Text says: How to Make School Fun with Social Distancing. Photo shows 3 girls with face masks, sitting in spaced apart desks in a classroom.

Are you trying to figure out how to make school fun with social distancing? It takes a little extra creativity, but it can be done. This blog post shares 12 fun ideas you can try today!

I’m living a life I never imagined I’d live… one filled with masks and social distancing. Never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares), did I imagine teaching would be like this! I have always found immense joy in teaching – but that joy is harder to find this year. I find myself focusing on what I can’t do with my students; what we are all missing out on. It sucks the joy out of teaching.

But, I need to step back from time to time and think about how to make school fun, even with social distancing. I just need to shift my thinking a little bit. There are many activities I’ve used in the past that can still be used, with just a few simple modifications. I’ll share a few of them in this post.

Whole Group Activities

First of all, have kids put down the devices for a bit. My school has 1:1 iPads for students. These have been so helpful with instruction, especially when we’ve had students home on quarantine or when we have spent several weeks in distance learning. But… the novelty has worn off… Kids don’t find the iPads fun in and of themselves any more – and I don’t blame them. So, I try to find times in the day when we intentionally go low-tech. Here are some of my favorite things to do, without devices.

Fun Read Aloud: 

I absolutely love reading books to kids. Nothing is as rewarding as having them hang on my every word, waiting to see what happens next. Or the peals of laughter as I read a funny book. It fills my heart with joy!

Social Distancing Adaptations: 

Sadly, read-aloud time feels different with social distancing. Instead of being gathered on the rug in front of you, they sit at well-spaced desks. As you read, you might try wandering up and down the rows of desks from time to time, showing key pictures up close, bringing back some of the “up close” reading joy.

As an alternative, you could use a document camera to project the book for better viewing.

Brain Breaks:

Sitting in the desks all day gets long for our little learners. Fortunately, you can break up the time a bit with some videos from YouTube or GoNoodle. These short videos make great brain breaks – and add some much-needed laughter. You can also incorporate your own favorite movement songs and chants for brain breaks. It can be fun to repeat the song/chant using a funny voice, or at a faster pace.

Social Distancing Adaptations:

If you aren’t allowed to sing (to prevent potential Covid spread), say the songs as a chant. Doing with a mouse or monster voice makes adds to the humor.

Funny Voices:

Speaking of funny voices, you might find that adding funny voices to anything makes it more fun. Kids can chant the alphabet, spelling words, or repeat directions using a funny voice. Some funny voice ideas include:

  • mouse
  • monster
  • ghost
  • robot
  • whisper
  • pinching your nose

Small Group and Partner Activities

Since much of the school day with little ones is spent in small group and partner activities, it’s important to think about how to make school fun with social distancing in these parts of the day. Fortunately, a few traditional small group activities can be adapted to work, even with social distancing.

Readers’ Theater:

Traditional guided reading may be a challenge this year for several reasons. You may not have up-to-date reading data on students. Social distancing isn’t conducive to pulling 6 kids around the kidney table. You don’t have time to scour the book room for guided reading books weekly. 

However, readers’ theater can be a fun substitute for formal guided reading. It does not replace the individualized instruction that comes as part of guided reading, but it still provides an opportunity to coach readers and engage them in reading for fun. Pass out scripts of familiar stories (folktales and fairy tales work well.) Then allow each reader to read the entire script individually (scoot around and coach, like you would in guided reading – just a few minutes per child.) This familiarizes them with the story. They can read at their individual desks, if needed, or spread throughout the room. 

Next, pull the group together for a minute to let them choose parts then send them off to rehearse their parts. Finally, come together as a group and “perform” the script together. Often, just this performance for their own group is rewarding enough for students. However, you can certainly perform it for the entire class, encouraging dramatic voices, and possibly little hand-made signs to identify characters. Video tape it and share it with families!

Photo of a script for The Mitten Readers Theater - shows script and a character headband for a hedgehog.

Blended Teaching Adaptation:

If you have students at home and students in the classroom at the same time, they can still do a readers’ theater together. Assign the students at home a digital copy (screen share a PDF, use a document camera, or share it on Google Drive.) Then have the in-person and at-home students share a video conference as they read the script together.

Partner Games (with modifications):

If you use a lot of games during your instruction, a few simple modifications can make some of them work with social distancing.

Tic Tac Toe:

(use it with numbers, letters and sight words) Each child draws a board on their own white board. When the first player makes an X (or letter, number or word), the second player draws an X in the same spot on their own board. Basically, each player recreates the other players moves on their own board, plus adds their own moves. They continue playing until one child gets three in a row.

War Games:

Children sit at their desks to play. The “winner” of each little battle keeps their card, while the player with the lower number drops the card on the floor between the two desks. Kids can make one floor pile for each player. At the end of the game, the player with the biggest pile of gained cards on the floor is the winner.

Photo of two place value war cards - one showing the numeral 49 and the other showing 26 "ones" cubes.

Bingo:

Fortunately, minimal adaptations are needed for social distancing. Each child has their own board and counters for covering spaces. The teacher is the game caller.

Buzz (a counting game):

See this page for a game description and detailed instructions for Buzz. Typically for this game, students would stand in a circle and sit when they are “out.” To modify it for social distancing, have them stand behind their chairs (or sit on their desks), then sit in their chair with they are “out.”

Dice Games (Follow the Path, Roll and Cover, etc.):

Similar to Tic Tac Toe, each child can have a game board. For a path game, they move their game marker and one for their partner – each on their own board. For a Roll and Cover game, kids can cover each other’s numbers or they can race to see who covers the entire board first.

By using a few small adaptations, you can still include fun learning games in your classroom with physical distancing.

Individual Work Time

I know… individual work time is not necessarily known for being fun. But, I think in the middle of a pandemic we need to insert fun anywhere we can. So here are some things to consider when your kids are working:

Allow Some Noise

Kids are noisy by nature. And little kids think out loud – seriously. So during some of your work time, allow them to talk a bit. For instance, during writing time, kids might want to show off their current writing piece to a neighbor. This typically involves some noise, but that noise level is likely to increase with social distancing, because their “neighbors” are farther apart than normal.

Independent reading time is another slightly noisy time in primary grades – because kids often read out loud when they are just learning to read. Rather than constantly reminding them to quiet down, give in and let them read a bit loudly – maybe even to a small stuffed animal.

During their math practice page, consider letting students check their work with a friend from time to time. Again, they won’t be able to do so silently, but it will be more fun (and free you up to help other kids, in-person or on-line.) Make it even more fun by letting them make a star or smiley on top of their partners page when they have the same answers.

Social Distancing Adaptations:

The noise can be hard to tolerate as a teacher. It feels a bit extra chaotic, but allowing this social interaction is important for the kids. However, you can set a time limit for the socialization – that the first 10 minutes of writing should be silent, then the last 10 minutes can be spent consulting with friends. 

Allow Choice:

There is so much power in choice for kids (and adults, too.) For instance, allowing choice heads off so many behavioral challenges by making kids feel valued and empowered. In fact, I have an entire blog post about how to incorporate choice into the classroom.

Here are a few choices you can provide for students, even in a socially distanced classroom:

  • markers or crayons 
  • blank paper or writing booklet
  • writing topics (and genres)
  • sit in chair or under desk
  • work with or without shoes (or hat)
  • books to read during independent reading time
  • white board or scratch paper

Incorporate Individual Play:

I strongly believe in playtime in the primary grades. In a typical year, my students have time to play when they arrive (through a soft start to the school day), recess, and a choice time later in the day. Some of these routines have had to be changed due to social distancing and restrictions on shared materials. But, playtime is still important for student development. 

In a classroom with social distancing, you might give your students “choice time” bins. Teachers set these up in many ways. Some teachers give each child a bin or plastic box and provide a variety of materials for the child to use. Other teachers allow students to choose a pre-filled bin that they will use for several days or a week.

First, keep this simple. Use bins (or other containers) that you already have in your classroom. Second, use materials that you already have in your classroom – divide them into reasonable amounts for one child. Here are some suggestions for materials:

  • blocks of any kind
  • paper and art materials (markers, colored pencils, water color paints, etc.)
  • paper, glue, tape, and scissors
  • small toy cars
  • math manipulatives (ex: pattern blocks, longs and cubes, one inch blocks)
Photo of a small plastic bags filled with mismatched Lego pieces.

For more ideas about individual play items, check out this post about soft starts with social distancing. Many of those suggestions will apply for individual play throughout the day.

What will you do?

With a little creativity (and intentionality), you can still make the school day fun for your students, even with social distancing guidelines. Your classroom probably feels very different than it has any year in the past, and is far from your ideal vision of a positive learning environment. But, the kids are adaptable. And I learned long ago that 80% of teaching is acting. If you act enthusiastic about these activities, your students will be excited, too.

If you have other ideas of how to make school fun with social distancing, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Text says: How to Make School Fun with social distancing. Photo shows 3 girls learning face masks, sitting in a classroom in well-spaced desks.

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