Wish you had games to keep your youngsters engaged?
That is, games which won’t require translating into their native language?
Even if they don’t understand every single word you say, the five games below are simple enough that young kids will quickly pick up on how to play, while also absorbing the target language.
Most come with several variations, as these games can easily be modified to fit the needs of your students. They will also likely spark ideas for new games—so you will actually be walking away with way more than five activities!
Ready to get started? First let’s take a quick peek at why we’ve chosen to emphasize cooperative games.
Why Are Cooperative ESL Games Perfect for Kindergarteners?
Kindergarten is where kids learn to socialize through play, so naturally playing games is an excellent way for young kids to pick up English as well.
But as we know, not all games are made equal. Adults usually like to compete (and win!), whereas cooperative games work especially well with young kindergarteners—in which students work together to see what they can achieve.
Here is why cooperative games work well at this age:
- They keep students active; young kids cannot sit still for too long.
- They let everyone be involved; no one is left out.
- They allow shyer kids to feel safe, since everyone is working together.
- They are repetitive, and that familiarity also helps kids feel safe and knowledgeable.
- They can be unsophisticated. It won’t bother your students if the game is obviously made up—it is still fun!
The five cooperative games below are “made up” games, based on a song or story that you might use for teaching kindergarten. They include rhythm, repetition, actions and cooperation. And hopefully they will also give you ideas how to make up your own games too!
5 Endlessly Fun ESL Games for Kindergarteners
1. Don’t Put That in Your Mouth!
Type: A singing game based on “Open Shut Them”
The song “Open Shut Them” is enjoyed by all young children, but it is particularly appealing to children from an Asian background who are taught very early to have a strong aversion to putting their fingers in their mouths. (The first time you teach them you may see shocked looks on their faces when it seems like you are going to do that.) It provides a good opportunity to practice the pronunciation difference between “r” and “l.”
This song is so simple that it is great for your very first session, maybe the first time you try to teach them with only English.
Teaching the song
Start by teaching students the song “Open Shut Them.”
- If you are unsure of the tune, you could learn it from YouTube, but in this situation don’t just use a video to teach it. If you want your students to watch the video, it would be better them to watch it after playing the game.
- If you are not confident about singing in front of the children, just teach it first as a poem.
Here are the actions that you should do as you sing. Remember to make eye contact while teaching, and make sure all eyes are looking at yours. Students should all copy your actions while singing/saying the words.
- “Open” — Hold up your hands in front, palms outward.
- “Shut them” — Bend your fingers down and shut your hands.
- “Open, shut them” — Same actions as above.
- “Give a little clap” — Dramatically clap your hands (With Asian students practice saying “clap” a few times to make sure they are using “l” and not “r”.)
- “Open, shut them. Open, shut them.” — Same actions as above. (They love repetition!)
- “Lay them in your lap” — Put your hands in your lap. (Again, make sure children are saying “lap” and not “rap.” Also make sure it is clear what “lap” is.)
- “Creep them, creep them …” — Creep your hands and fingers up your arms and body. (Pronunciation: “Creep,” not “cleep.”)
- “Right up to your chin” — Point to chin. (Make a point of demonstrating what “chin” is the first time. Let children point to and hold their chins and say “chin.”)
- “Open wide your little mouth” — Open your mouth wide. (Again, pause here to let them all open and point to their mouths, and to practice saying “mouth” (not “mouse”).
- “But do not put them in!” — Dramatically pull your hands away from your mouth, down behind your back.
Go through the song several times, each time getting a little bit faster, and maybe progress from saying it to singing it. You could give some more confident children the opportunity to lead from the front, or to sing it as a solo/duet.
From the song to the game
Now play a game to practice the vocabulary they have just learned. Here is just one possibility:
Review: Draw a big face on the board with an open mouth (and obvious chin). Point to the parts and review the words. Leave the drawing up once you’ve finished reviewing, as you will use it in the game.
Practice: Then practice “creeping” with their fingers (you could creep your fingers up the board), and then creeping/crawling with their bodies across the floor on their hands and knees. (Note: Some doctors believe that crawling is a valuable physical brain training activity for young children.)
How to Play:
- Have some children (one or two) wait off to the side. Others (all or a team, depending on class size) sit facing the board. Put a line on the floor in front of the board (masking tape works well).
- Everyone sings the song while doing the actions.
- When you get to the “Creep them, creep them” line, the children facing the board “creep” or crawl along the floor towards the “chin” on the board, without crossing the line on the floor. Their aim will be to touch the “mouth.”
- On the “Open wide your little mouth” line, crawlers can now stand up and get ready to run.
- When they reach the “Do not put them in!” line, children try to touch the mouth and then run back to their spots. However, they want to get back without getting tagged by the few students who had been off to the side—who now can try to tag the “crawlers.”
Scoring: If you want to be more competitive (and the kids generally don’t really care) there could be points for anyone who gets as far as the “mouth.” The catchers near the board could also try to run and take the chairs of the creepers.
Of course you can easily make adjustments to the game based on:
- The number of your students
- The size of the room, and the furniture
- The age and ability of the students
2. Come Back! Come Back!
Type: A dramatic singing game, based on “Five Little Ducks”
Again, we will use a great little song that can easily be taught without resorting to translation. This song works really well with finger puppets—especially for teaching with them. They could be little ducks, or they could just be faces, or five thimbles/bottle caps/anything you can sit onto your fingertips. The children could also make and use puppets, but they could just as easily pretend with their fingers too.
Teaching the song
Start by teaching the song “Five Little Ducks.”
Don’t use a video to teach the song. Learn it first if you are not familiar with it (using the video above) and then teach it face to face. Note: Some versions use the line “Mother Duck said, Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!” but we are going to use the line “Come back! Come back!” this version is more useful in this context.)
Put your puppets on your five fingers of your one hand, and use your other hand (perhaps with a sock puppet) to be the Mother Duck.
Here are the actions of the song. Once again, have students copy you as you go.
- “Five Little Ducks went out one day” — Hold up your hand with the five puppets.
- “Over the hill and far away” — Put your hand high, and then down behind your back.
- “Mother Duck said, Come back! Come back!” — Focus on your Mother Duck hand/puppet. At the same time, behind your back, flick one of the finger puppets from your other hand in preparation for the next line.
- “But only four little ducks came back.” — Bring your “ducks” hand to the front, showing only four puppets remaining.
Continue the song in the same way, removing one duck each verse until the line “None of those little ducks came back.” Finally, Mother Duck calls again and on “All the five little ducks came back,” you will want to put the five finger puppets back on your hand.
Add some drama to the song
Now let the children themselves be the little ducks, with you (or one of the children) being the Mother Duck. A group of five (or more if you want to increase their counting-backwards-in-English skills) go across the room and behind some furniture as everyone sings the song. When Mother Duck calls the first time, all but one return.
From the song to the game
Again, there are many possible variations, depending on your class, the room and your comfort level. Here is one possibility:
Set up: Firstly, place five items around the room. These might be small toys/pictures/flashcards/tokens/etc. One item should be special in some way. For example, it could be marked with a star, a ribbon, or be a different color. It doesn’t really matter if the children see where you put them, but don’t show them which is the special one.
Practice: It is good if you can practice the words for these five items first.
How to play:
- Choose five children to be the five little ducks.
- As everybody sings, “Five Little Ducks went out one day over the hill and far away,” the five “ducks” go off in search of the items.
- When the class sings, “Mother Duck said, ‘Come back! Come back!'” those children should quickly return with their finds—except for the student with the “special” item.
- Once the class sings, “Only four little ducks came back,” you could ask the children for the words associated with each item, including the special one.
- To be competitive, points could be assigned for finding the objects, with extra points for the special item.
- Now “hide” three of the items and the special one again, and the same four children could search again, or you could choose four new students.
When you play the game more than once, some of the children could do the hiding each round as well.
There are many other ways to vary the game. The children will have fun regardless, because they enjoy singing, running, looking for treasure and repetition.
3. Run as Fast as You Can!
Type: A storytelling game based on “The Gingerbread Man”
Reading the story
Start by telling the story of the Gingerbread Man.
You could read the story aloud from a book or from a website, or you could even show a video. If you can, it is always best to tell the story with the children watching you and making eye contact. If you are telling the story without a book/video and the children are unfamiliar with the names of the various animals, have pictures of those ready.
As you tell the story, get the children to join in with you on the chorus, “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me—I’m the Gingerbread Man!” Teach it to them slowly the first time, a word or two at a time with actions that make the meanings clear. For example, on the word “catch,” the children could all stand up and make running motions with their arms at this point.)
From the story to the game
Set up: Have the children sitting on chairs in a circle. One child (or more, if you like) should be in the center of the circle holding something such as a foam bat, (soft) rolled-up paper or small towel.
Designate the various characters to the children sitting in the circle: old man, cat, dog, pig, goat, cow, horse, fox. You can have several children for each character. It might help to give students a small picture card telling which animal/character they are. (Note: Versions of the story vary, and if you have Muslim children you might want to omit the pig and dog. You might also choose to add some other animals.)
- Start telling the story. Whenever you mention a particular character, all of the children who are that character should stand up, turn around and sit down again. (It is fun to pause and create a little suspense before you say each character name.)
- The child in the center tries to tag the back any of the students as they turn around.
- The children who are tagged could be asked to sit out for the rest of the game so you can finish with a “winner,” but really it is just fun to try not to be tagged—whether or not it is possible to be “out.”
- Then everyone chimes in with the chorus again.
- After the chorus, you will finish the Gingerbread Man’s statement, listing each of the characters so far: “I’ve run away from an old man, and a cat, etc.,” pausing slightly after each one to allow children to stand up and turn around.
It is all about practicing vocabulary (the character names) and spoken rhythm (the chorus), listening carefully for specific words, and having fun while socializing. It doesn’t need to be competitive.
You could tell the story in such a way that you repeat each name several times. For example, “He saw a dog, and the dog looked at him, and the dog said… and the Gingerbread Man said to the dog…,” pausing momentarily before each one to build suspense and excitement.
If your children have a tendency to get rough when tagging, or if there are social concerns about children touching each other, the game could be changed so that the specific children have to simply change places with each other, while the child in the center tries to steal their spot.
This type of game can also be played with any other stories that have a number of characters!
4. Find It! Catch It! Throw It! Jump on It!
Type: Card game
This card game is very flexible to whatever content you’d like to practice. For example, to learn letters/sounds/printed words, you could use flashcards with the target letters or words. If you are practicing English vocabulary, then picture cards are clearly better. For numbers you could have the actual number written on the card, or representations of numbers (i.e. dots, or a series of small pictures such as three dogs). Or you can even use regular playing cards to teach numbers with this game.
Preparing the cards
For the main game, you would need enough cards for each student (or pair, or group) to have identical sets of cards. Below we will also look at some variations that require just a single deck of cards.
You can use ready-made cards, or make your own. If you make your own:
- Either make your cards really hardy (printed on cardboard and carefully laminated) or really cheap (lots of copies printed on cheap or recycled paper that will get used up and replaced).
- You could print pictures from clip-art or photos on the Internet, cut and stick pictures from magazines, or ask the children to draw pictures for added learning.
- The number of different cards you have will depend on what learning you want to support with a game. As you are deciding, remember that little kids love/need repetition. It gives them a chance to know and prove what they know—and that is all part of “the game.”
Playing the game
If each student (or pair, or group) has an identical set of cards, then you can begin play by asking “Who can…?”
Possible questions include:
- Who can hold up the picture of the frog?
- Who can hold up the 6 and the 8 at the same time?
- Who can bring me the picture of a car?
- Who can be the fastest to put an elephant in that box?
It can be competitive, as pairs/groups race against the others to follow the command, and there could also be points. There could even be a reward for the winner(s) at the end.
If you are using a single set of cards for the whole class, students could also compete individually or in pairs/groups with the following ideas.
- Find: Place/stick cards on the board and ask students to race to find a particular card. Winning students could have a turn at calling what to find next.
- Catch: Have the children standing in a line at the back of the room as you throw/flick cards for them to catch and then identify. (You need to be confident that you can control the safety of the students so no one gets a card in their eye nor bumps their head with another while trying to retrieve cards!)
- Throw: Students pick a card from a pile, identify it and then throw it at/into a target (the door, a bin, etc.). If using disposable cards, they could crumple it to throw it.
- Jump: Spread cards out on the floor in an open area, and students attempt to step/jump onto a card as identified by you or them. The cards could be in a sequence like stepping stones.
Again it can be as competitive as you choose, with points and/or rewards for winners (or everyone) and winning students could also have turns at calling which card is the next target. Build suspense as you pause when calling which card they should be looking for.
5. Make It and Say It
Type: Games with playdough
Playing with playdough is an activity loved by children of all ages, and probably not used enough in the classroom considering the benefits that it offers the children in their learning.
Making the playdough
Firstly, you can make some homemade dough using these instructions. There are cooked and uncooked recipes, but I much prefer the texture of the cooked playdough, and it lasts much longer. (If you keep it in a zip-lock bag in the fridge it can last for weeks!) The ingredients are cheap and available in the supermarket, so you can easily make several different colored batches.
You could also let the children make the dough, which in that case it would be better to use the uncooked variety. This activity is in itself a valuable language learning activity, as you carefully demonstrate and give each instruction in English.
Playing with the playdough
Just playing with the dough is an activity that children will enjoy and benefit from, but you can spice it up by adding some competition with a challenge, or by cooperating together in a game. Here are some ideas to start:
- Make the best: Using vocabulary words you want to practice (nouns and maybe numbers, but probably not verbs) challenge individual children/pairs/groups to make it the fastest/biggest/smallest/best/etc.
- Throw the ring: Line up the best several playdough models and challenge students to throw a ring over them. Place them at different distances for different points.
- Order by size: After everyone has made the same model/shape, have everyone work together to line them up in order of size. To be competitive, you could then choose three random numbers (for example: 3, 7, 12) and reward the models that are the third, seventh and twelfth in the line.
- Match the model: Make a model, and show it to the children very briefly, all the time talking about it, saying the name, describing it. Then, ask students to make a matching model. You could reward the “best” three if you like.
Pass the Dough
Here is a final game using playdough:
- Seat the children in a circle.
- Pass a lump of dough around the circle while playing music. (As they become better at it, you could introduce more than one lump of dough.)
- When the music stops the student holding the dough has to quickly make a particular shape. This could be decided and announced before passing the dough, or it could be called out after the music stops.
- Everyone counts (slowly) to 10 (or a number of your choice) while the person holding the dough quickly makes the shape and holds it up for everyone to see.
- There could be a reward (for completing it satisfactorily in time) and/or a sanction for failing, or you can just start the music again and continue the fun.
In all of these games, the children are active, involved, socializing, feeling safe, being creative, learning new words and having fun. Start using these games with your kindergarteners today and watch their excitement grow!
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