Social Distancing Classroom Ideas

Photo of a young child in a masking waving goodbye to a family member. Text says: Social Distancing Classroom Ideas.

Learn social distancing classroom ideas for young children. Get ideas for morning meeting, centers and play time.

Social distancing in the classroom. A phrase that had not even been in our vocabularies a few short months ago is now impacting every minute detail of our school day. Keep kids apart. No sharing. Lunch in our classrooms and teaching outside. It’s all so overwhelming!

As we start this school year, we need to consider things we have not had to consider before. But first, let’s remember to look at this as physical distancing. We are spreading out the children in order to decrease the power of the germs. We are not socially separating from one another. In fact, we will need to be more intentional about social-emotional needs than ever before.

Second, we need to remember the impact of our attitude on our class. We, as teachers, are human beings and have a wide range of emotions about this school year. But I think I can safely say that physically distant instruction was never what we envisioned for our lives. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. However, it will be important to project a positive attitude in our classrooms. None of this is their fault. They are just as confused by the situation as we are. So, in front of our little friends, we need to remain positive, kind and compassionate. They will feed off our emotions, and teaching is so much more rewarding when we do what we can to keep it a positive place.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s start the real work of figuring out some social distancing classroom ideas that will work for you.

How can you organize materials?

When it comes to social distancing classroom ideas, storing student materials comes to mind immediately for teachers. We use a lot of “things” throughout the day, and social distancing often means kids can’t share these “things.”

So if the favored community supplies are out for the year, how do we store their supplies?

  • pencil pouches/boxes
  • bins under the desk
  • plastic zip bags
  • plastic shoeboxes (often $1 per box)
  • Pringles cans (can hold pencils and markers)
  • plastic take out containers

I’m not going to go into much detail on this, because social media is full of examples. The important part is to find some small container that can hold each students’ materials.

What materials do you want to put in the supply box?

As little as necessary. We are still teaching little kids, and asking them to be physically distant does not magically make them organized little creatures. So, consider giving each child:

  • 2-3 pencils
  • crayons or markers or colored pencils
  • scissors
  • glue stick
  • a whiteboard, dry erase markers and something for erasing (stored in a gallon zip bag)

But what about all math and reading materials?

You may also need a place to store their books for reading, writing and math. If your students have desks, inside the desk is perfect. If you are using tables, you might get/track down larger boxes to serve as individual storage spaces to hold books and their supply boxes. This doesn’t need to be fancy. It’s a one year fix, so no need to break the bank.

Do you need individual boxes of math manipulatives? Maybe. But you might be able to get by with a small bag of counters of some kind that can be used in multiple ways. Again, limiting supplies makes it easy for students to organize and keep track of their things. And you don’t need the added stress of finding little pieces on the floor every day. Start simple. You can always add more materials as the year goes on. Good, bad, or ugly, finding social distancing classroom ideas will be an on-going issue for teachers this year. You have plenty of time to solve some of these issues.

How can I do a morning meeting with social distancing?

Now that you have a plan for student supplies (and your school has shown you how to set up your room with kids several feet apart), you can start thinking about routines that need to be tweaked. 

One of my favorite classroom routines is the morning meeting. In fact, I’ve written an entire post on the morning meeting routine, including ways to adapt it for physical distancing.

A few quick things to consider about morning meeting. First, you probably won’t be able to gather on your carpet. That’s OK. Sitting in a circle adds to the sense of classroom community, but so do the routines that make up the morning meeting. You can still greet one another (without touching), share news, engage in a fun common activity, and discuss the morning message without a class circle. Depending on your school guidelines, students may be able to turn to look at one another speak, or you might experiment with a way to use technology to project the speaker for all to see. Maybe you could even sit outside (with a socially distanced circle!)

For social distancing classroom ideas for morning greetings, check out my morning meeting post. There are suggestions for each morning meeting component when you are in a virtual or socially distant setting.

How do I keep kids apart in the classroom?

Many of us are expected to have students physically distant, even inside the classroom. This is a new challenge for us. But, with some creativity, it can happen.

First, use their desk/table space. The desks are already spaced out. Students can sit in at the desks or tables to work. But they can also sit under their desk for a bit of variety. If you are really brave, you might even let them sit on the table or desk for special situations or rewards.

Beyond the desk, some teachers are using painter’s tap on the floor to create individual spaces for each student. Others plan to use Sit Spots to mark spread-out spaces on the floor.

You might also want to display a few social distancing posters in your room to remind students of the need to leave space between each other.

OK, but what about the hallway?

You may not have students in the hallway often, especially if lunch and specials are happening in your classroom. But you may want to move outside for some learning or movement activities. Many schools expect distancing in the hallway. Use a trick from preschool classrooms by getting a rope and tying knots several feet apart. (You might need a long rope, depending on your class size.)

If the rope seems like too much, teach your students to visualize 3-6 feet (depending on your guidelines.) One way to do this is to have them spread their arms like airplane wings. Have them turn sideways. Their airplane arms should not be able to touch. If they can touch, they are too close.

You could also have them envision you stretched out on the floor between them. If there’s not room for you to lay down, they are too close.

What about centers?

This is a burning question for teachers of little ones. Centers are a key part of the learning day in many classrooms. And centers, by their nature, typically involve pairs or small groups sharing materials and interacting together. That may need to change for this school year. Here are alternative center ideas to encourage social distancing in school:

Literacy Centers:

First, I highly recommend the book The Daily 5 for purposeful, low-prep activities to use during your small group instruction time. The book does an amazing job of describing activities and how to introduce them intentionally and in a way that encourages independence. They suggest using Read to Self, Read to Someone, Word Work, Writing, and Listen to Reading. Let’s see how those will work with physical distancing:

Read to Self – Students read books independently. The only change you may need to make is setting books aside for several days when students are ready to swap books (to decontaminate.)

Read to Someone – Since this usually involves two students sitting side by side to read together, you will likely need to tweak it. Some teachers are able to simply have students sit a little farther apart as they share their reading. Other teachers may use video conference technology to allow students read together from farther apart – using headphones to avoid distracting peers. It’s possible that you might just need to skip partner reading this year.

Word Work – During this time students work on spelling, phonics, and high frequency word activities independently. Many tried and true word work activities are independent. If your students typically shared letter magnets, letter beads, etc. throughout the week, you might need to skip those activities. However, there are still many word work activities students can do with white boards, homemade play dough, printable letter tiles, paper and markers (ex: rainbow writing, written word sorts, alphabetical order, etc.)

Listen to Reading – This is pretty self-explanatory and easy to manage if you have individual devices for students. If you have a handful for the class to share, you’ll need to refer to your school guidelines about sharing devices.

Writing – Provide students with opportunities to write. One simple (but engaging) way to do this is to provide small stapled booklets and let students make books during this time. Students can also use this time to write in a reader’s response journal. Or give them a cheap notebook and let them write whatever they want during this time.

Other possible literacy centers:

  • phonics websites/apps
  • poetry notebooks – illustrate weekly poems; reread familiar poems
  • handwriting – on paper, white boards or iPad app

What about math centers?

Math centers will also need to be done individually and in one location. So what can you do? 

Provide small sets of manipulatives

If you have a big collection of math manipulatives (like pattern blocks, geoboards, connecting cubes, etc.), you could create individual sets of materials – enough for one child in a bag. You can assign specific tasks or allow open-ended activities. For simplicity, once a material is used during a week, you might either set it aside until the next week or have that child reuse the same bag of supplies all week. To me, it seems like spraying down supplies after school will waste time I want to use for planning instruction. If you feel differently, happy spraying!

Individual dice games

It’s easy to find roll and graph or roll and cover games. These can be fun for kids and are easy to do individually.

Photo of two pink dice.

Create word problems

Give students a blank sheet of paper and let them make a word problem to share with the class. They can illustrate one way to solve the problem on the back of the page. Easy-peasy and low-prep!

Number boxes

Assign each child a number (or let them draw from a deck of number cards or roll dice to determine a number. Have the child write the number in the corner of a blank sheet of paper and challenge her to find 10 or more ways to represent that number (ex: number word, tally marks, ten frame, addition facts, etc.)

Math books

Allow students to read or listen to math-themed books.

Use Technology

Students can use a wide variety of math games on the iPad or computer station.

Play Centers

These go by a wide variety of names, but they are a critical part of early childhood classrooms. I cringe at the thought of not having time to play at school, but play is more challenging without sharing materials. However, there are some simple ideas that encourage creativity while staying in one’s personal space.

Paper

Let kids simply create with paper. They can use their markers or crayons, scissors and glue. Depending on your guidelines, you may be able to let them access a stapler or tape. It’s amazing what kids can come up with when given paper (even the rejects from the copy room!)

Other fun ideas include:

  • Individual sets of blocks
  • Free drawing on the individual white board
  • Individual puppets (or paper finger puppets) that can have long-distance conversations
  • Small Matchbox cars
  • Individual packages of play dough – which is really cheap to make
  • String beads, lacing cards, individual puzzles – that will need to go “rest” for a few days after being used
  • Read or Write using the materials in their supply bin
Photo

Check out my socially distant soft start blog for more ideas.

Just like any other play time in your classroom, you might expect this time to get a bit loud. Children are going to want to show one another what they have made, which is fantastic. You’ll just need to practice ways to do that (and have those critical social interactions) while staying away from others.

So there you have it! Lots of social distancing classroom ideas to use in your classroom. We can still make school fun and engaging for kids – we just have to be creative! Let me know in the comments if you have other ideas we should try.

Photo of a young child in a masking waving goodbye to a family member. Text says: Social Distancing Classroom Ideas.

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