12 ESL Activities for Children to Make English Class More Fun
It’s true—teaching English to children can be incredibly different than teaching adults.
Attention spans are shorter, and kids’ vocabulary is much more limited—even in their native language—meaning that the topics you can discuss are limited as well.
The trick is to make English fun for your learners!
Whether you have a class full of young beginners or children who know some English already, these 12 fun ESL activities for kids will help you teach them everything they need to learn.
- 1. Art Projects
- 2. Active Games
- 3. Singing Songs
- 4. Labeling
- 5. Educative Play
- 6. Role Playing
- 7. Storytelling
- 8. Show and Tell
- 9. Picture Dictation
- 10. Flashcards and Memory Games
- 11. Word Puzzles
- 12. Nature Walks
- How to Use These ESL Activities for Children
1. Art Projects
Art is a fantastic way to get young students excited and interested in reinforcing different vocabulary. The art project that goes with your lesson should either come at the end of the class or at the beginning of the following class (after a brief review of the vocabulary).
Students can draw pictures independently, but you should walk around the room and encourage them to talk to you about their work.
Let’s say you’re using an art lesson to follow up acquisition of different color words. You could ask students, “What color is this?” to get them to practice the vocabulary.
The same sort of lesson can be used once students become more advanced with other sorts of vocabulary (fruits, careers, animals). Have students draw pictures using the words and help them label their drawings.
You can find more art project ideas via Art Projects for Kids, a teacher-approved site filled with resources and ideas. There’s also fun ideas from Artful Parent, craft ideas from Enchanted Learning and themed crafts from Funology.
2. Active Games
You’ve probably already witnessed the awesome power of kinesthetic learning in the classroom, and active games can be a great way to get beginners up and moving.
One of the best for beginners is Simon Says, or a variant thereof.
Simon Says can be a very useful way to review new vocabulary while also upping the energy. That’s why it’s a great choice either at the beginning or in the middle of a class.
The obvious way to use Simon Says is to reinforce a vocabulary lesson involving body parts. It’s also great for action words, like “dance,” “jump” or “clap.”
Students may look like they understand what you’re saying, particularly if they’re following the rest of the group, but it’s important to introduce the words you plan to use in lesson format before introducing the game.
Try not to give them any hints with your own body language as to what they’re supposed to do when you play—let the ESL lesson be their guide!
There are more kinesthetic games in this list that you can try with your young learners.
3. Singing Songs
Music is a fantastic mnemonic device for new vocabulary, and the Internet is a wealth of different song ideas.
The best time to use a song is once the vocabulary has already been introduced. Some songs are simpler, which makes them ideal for using the same day or same week that the vocabulary is introduced. For instance:
- “7 Days A Week” — for learning the days of the week
- “If You’re Happy” (simplified) — for learning emotions
- “Put on Your Shoes” — for learning clothing words
- “Rainbow Song” — for learning colors
Other songs are more complicated, making them better for students that already know some vocabulary in English. They’re great for reviewing!
- “Let’s Go to the Zoo” — for reviewing animal words
- “I See Something Pink” — for reviewing colors
- “One Little Finger” — for reviewing body parts
- “Colors Song” — for reviewing colors
But don’t limit yourself to simply singing the songs. Use them as a way to get kids participating—even your shyest students—by coming up with ways for the class to respond to the song.
For example, once the song has been learned, you can call on individual students to fill in a “blank” with the appropriate word. This is great for songs like “Old MacDonald,” where the verse is the same each time with a slight modification—in this case, the animal’s name and sound it makes.
Here are a few other ideas to keep your students engaged while singing:
- Have students make up hand gestures or a dance to go along with the song.
- Ask students to illustrate the song as an art project.
- Have students make up their own verses (when appropriate to level).
- Have students make their own musical instruments so they can play along as they sing!
Labeling can be a great way to remember new vocabulary. The kids can label art projects, as mentioned above, but you can also use labeling in a classroom or with photographs.
If you’re trying to teach the names of different things in the classroom, tasking your students with creating labels for them can be a great way to get them up and moving—and speaking!
Once the labels are created, be sure to laminate them. You can use the classroom labels with all sorts of games, from treasure hunts to interactive matching or memory games.
You can also use labeling with photographs, particularly if you can project them on the wall.
Find photographs or images of different scenes containing vocabulary that you’ve covered in class. Then, either make the labels yourself or have your students make them. Allow students to come up and affix the labels on the projected image as vocabulary review.
Labeling of this kind is great when used in tandem with an art project, as students first identify items as a group and are then encouraged to label things on their own.
5. Educative Play
Particularly when your students are very young, educative play is a useful technique for teaching them without ever letting on!
Students can be encouraged to play with one another in a variety of ways, such as with board games or in a playroom or similar space.
Teachers and assistants should participate in the play in English, asking questions that students can answer. Examples of such questions include:
- What are you doing?
- What are you playing?
- Can I play?
- What’s that?
- Would you like this block/ball/doll?
The key to making educative play fun and useful is to make sure that you engage students without frustrating them. Asking them repetitive questions or asking too many questions can be counterproductive. As a rule of thumb, ask about one question every minute or so.
Encourage students to answer you in English, but don’t force them to speak to one another in English. As things progress, they may speak to one another in English of their own accord—which is proof that your efforts are paying off!
6. Role Playing
If you have slightly older students who can handle a bit more structure, you can organize role play activities. These will help them move beyond simply recalling vocabulary so they can start consciously putting English sentences together.
Kids can act out scenarios as simple as playing “restaurant” or “doctor’s office” in English. Such interactions encourage creativity, build confidence and foster ease of communication—all in a supportive, low-stress environment.
Of course, they may not know exactly how these interactions are supposed to go, especially in English.
You can model them yourself (or with an assistant teacher), or you could make use of authentic English videos as examples, like the ones on FluentU.
In FluentU’s video library, you can search for a video of someone purchasing food at a restaurant or clothes at a store, for instance. Searches can be filtered by level, so you can ensure each video is a good fit for your students. There are also additional teaching and learning tools to help you utilize FluentU fully in your ESL classroom.
By assuming roles like doctors, teachers or shopkeepers during role play activities, students will learn to use English naturally while honing their speaking and listening abilities.
Tell stories to your young ESL students. Use some kind of visual (a picture book, puppets) to help keep their attention and show them exactly what the story is saying.
Reading stories, in particular, carries a host of benefits for your children. You’ll expose them to English in a fun and interesting way—in fact, you could even implement the popular language teaching strategy of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, or TPRS.
But storytelling can go two ways.
Especially if your students are older and have more of a grasp on the language, encourage them to tell stories in English themselves.
They can simply share something that happened to them, or they can use their imaginations and be as creative as possible. You can even provide them with picture cards or props to help them out and inspire them.
When children are given space to tell their own stories, they’re able to build essential language skills (clarity, pronunciation, logic, etc.) while learning how to express thoughts, emotions, ideas, events, concepts and more.
8. Show and Tell
A favorite elementary school activity of many children, show and tell can be easily adapted to the ESL classroom.
Have students bring an item from home and describe it in English to their classmates, practicing both their speaking and listening skills.
This activity empowers children to confidently communicate about their favorite objects, experiences and/or hobbies in English. By presenting a personal item or topic to their peers, they’ll improve their vocabulary range and get a jump start on their public speaking skills.
This exercise can also be great for fostering a supportive environment where children actively listen and respond, boosting students’ self-confidence as well as their confidence in speaking English.
Plus, show and tell helps you get to know your students better, too!
9. Picture Dictation
This easy ESL activity has the teacher describe a simple scene or picture, and the children draw what you describe. It enhances listening, vocabulary and motor skills.
Children practice focusing on spoken English instructions, transforming them into visual representations, while improving their vocabulary retention by associating words with corresponding images.
Fun and interactive, picture dictation will allow your kids to show off their English knowledge and their creative drawings at the same time.
Just make sure you’ve gone over the vocab ahead of time so the students don’t wander off and create totally unrelated artwork!
10. Flashcards and Memory Games
These are staples for any language learner, and there are good reasons why.
One of those reasons? Flashcards and memory games can be a lot of fun!
Students can create their own flashcards for a specific set of vocabulary, as a type of art project. Or you can create or find relevant ones yourself to use with your ESL students.
You can use flashcards with words or images to hang around the classroom or study from. You can use them to play memory games or matching activities, reinforcing students’ vocabulary and word recognition.
The interactive nature of memory games also makes learning English both engaging and enjoyable, and can be used to encourage teamwork or healthy competition among students.
11. Word Puzzles
If you teach children who already have a decent vocabulary bank, you can create word puzzles like word searches or crossword puzzles with age-appropriate vocabulary.
These kinds of activities offer exciting challenges to students while encouraging problem-solving and word recognition. ESL pupils can even improve their reading skills and spelling via word puzzles.
Word puzzles are also great time-fillers. If you have an extra five minutes at the end of class and have a word search worksheet handy, then you’re all set!
In fact, there are all sorts of word-related activities you can introduce to your class.
12. Nature Walks
Take your ESL kids outside for a nature walk and encourage them to name and describe things they see in English.
Nature walks provide a unique opportunity for children to observe and interact with their surroundings in English. Guided by the teacher, they can learn the names of plants and animals, or whatever happens to be outside near your classroom.
This activity is great for improving listening comprehension and observational abilities. Its biggest draw, though, might be teacher-student and student-student conversation opportunities.
Outside the walls of the classroom, children may feel more relaxed and less like they’re stuck doing something they didn’t sign up for. Guide them appropriately, but also give them the chance to speak freely.
If you and your students enjoy this activity, there are plenty of other outdoor ESL exercises you may be interested in as well.
How to Use These ESL Activities for Children
Attention spans in beginner classes (of any age) tend to be shorter. After all, it’s hard to ask someone who barely understands what you’re talking about to follow an in-depth discussion about anything, even if it is of interest to them!
But for children, this is even more true. A child has a reduced attention span even in his or her own language; teaching children English, therefore, must be done with attention to this fact.
Children’s activities should generally max out at about 20 minutes, so if we imagine that a class lasts between 45 and 60 minutes, each activity would be about a third or up to half of a class period.
Often, however, an activity will take up much less time than this—perhaps even just five to 10 minutes.
Never expect an activity to take up an entire class, and be sure to organize your lessons in order to make the most of each activity time.
There are lots of different ways that these ESL activities for kids can be integrated into the classroom.
Now it’s your turn—try adapting some of them into your own lessons!