Middle schoolers are at a unique point in their academic career—and their lives.
How can you appeal to this crazy mix of youthful exuberance, social anxiety and budding teenage angst?
One fun solution I’ve found is to teach them the children’s games that people from Spanish-speaking countries grow up with.
These are simple by design, passed down through the generations for young children to enjoy, and they get just a touch more complex for students by virtue of being in Spanish.
It’s a game setup that would make Goldilocks herself content—not too easy, not too hard. Just right!
At this point, we all know that learning a new language is more than just focusing on the grammar and vocabulary, all those nuts and bolts.
It’s about starting to think in the new language that you’re learning instead of drilling, repeating and translating.
What Makes a Great Spanish Game for Middle Schoolers?
Each of the games on our list meets the following requirements:
- Gets students pumped to learn. They’re the kind of games that students will actually ask if they can play again in class!
- Keeps their youthful energy flowing. Movement of some sort comes into play, to help young students put their jitters to good use.
- Embraces the power of competition. Competition is a healthy motivator, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The games below will encourage your students to strive to be the best in class. And little rewards and recognition for winning a Spanish class game can go a heck of a long way, so feel free to bring gold star stickers or tiny treats to class on game day.
- Has a strong social element. We all know that our middle schoolers would rather be texting, snapchatting or chatting at their lockers. Despite that ever-present desire to socialize, they might also feel awkward about starting up conversations naturally with their peers, especially in a foreign language. Give them a social game in class, and you’ll help them break the ice.
- Is easy to learn, or activates prior knowledge. A mistake many teachers make with middle schoolers is getting too complex with Spanish games. At this age, your students are likely just starting out in their Spanish studies. Giving them games that are easy to learn—or better yet, similar to games they already know—eliminates any learning curve or feelings of intimidation.
- Can be whipped out in spare moments, for motivation and energy boosts. Rising and depleting energy levels come with the tween territory. You might end up with a class that’s dragging and students who are bummed out or exhausted from their last class periods. A quick, easy-to-deploy Spanish game can really do wonders for boosting the energy level. Many of the games I’ve got in store for you can be done in just a few minutes, which is ideal for shifting gears and filling in time.
Now, let the games begin!
8 Slamming Spanish Games for Getting Middle Schoolers Pumped to Learn
1. El ahorcado (Hangman)
This is a ridiculously well-known classroom game, so I shouldn’t need to explain too much how it works. A classic for a reason, its simplicity makes this game one of the most popular activities for any classroom.
Its purpose in a Spanish class is to reinforce letters of the alphabet and improve vocabulary. Simply write out a blank space for each letter of a word in Spanish, then let your students guess the letters to complete it—either “every man for himself” style or in teams.
For an added dose of listening practice, show students this instructional video before playing:
To up the difficulty a little bit, have students guess the word by saying its definition, rather than shouting out the word itself.
You can also explore cool variations of the game online or create your own, depending on what you’re teaching.
One even gentler option is to play “Cosecha” (harvest) by drawing a fruit tree with a limited number of fruit, crossing out the little fruits for each incorrect guess and ending the game when the fruit runs out.
2. Párame el carro (Stop the car)
Also known párame la mano (stop the hand) or tutifruti, this is a rich learning game that allows you and your class to have tons of fun, practice the alphabet, brainstorm Spanish vocabulary and find new connections between words.
It’s super popular in Ecuadorian schools, and it’s pretty similar to Scattergories. This Spanish game is a very resourceful word contest, involving brainstorming and categories. It’s ideal for low budget and no budget classes!
This fun, competitive contest of words challenges your students to fill the parameters you give them each round and finish before everybody else or time is up.
Have each student take out a blank piece of paper, flip it horizontally, draw lines to break it into columns, then label them as Nombre (name), Apellido (last name), Cosa (thing), Fruta (fruit), Color (color), Animal (animal), Ciudad (city) or País (country) and Total (total). No matter what you’re currently teaching, you can change up the categories to match!
Each round, provide a letter of the alphabet and have students fill out the categories with Spanish words that start with that letter.
The student who finishes first yells “¡párame el carro!” and everyone else stops writing. Each word has a score (you decide how many points). Sum up all the words and write down the total each round. For instance, in this round, we’re going with the letter P, and each word is going to be worth 50 points. Ready? Go!
Cosa: Pala (Shovel)
Fruta: Pera (Pear)
Color: Púrpura (Purple)
Animal: Perro (Dog)
¡Párame el Carro!
3. Cadena de cuentos (Chain of stories)
What’s better for capturing the imagination than storytelling? All the madness begins with three words, and from there you’ll allow your students to string together ideas in Spanish while they practice grammar and vocabulary at the same time.
This fast-paced Spanish game is great to shake things up in your classroom, wake up your students and take them by surprise with awesome and hilarious short stories—that they created themselves!
Using three funny words to start, pick the first candidate and ask them to put together the words you gave them to quickly begin a story. Then have another student continue the story. Between each line, repeat the story back to students with funny gestures to help them retain the information.
First three words: “Pezuña, cola, pulga.” (Hoof, tail, flea)
First student says: “El elefante tiene pulgas en la pezuña y en la cola.” (The elephant has fleas on its hoof and tail.)
Next student says: “El elefante tiene pulgas en la pezuña y en la cola. Las pulgas en la cola están haciendo una fiesta.” (The elephant has ticks on its hoof and tail. The fleas on the tail are having a party.)
Each student needs to come up with a short story with the words given as fast as they can and continue the story chain. Decide on one rule that the loser who breaks the chain has to follow—it can be silly, like “bark like a dog!” or educational, like “write all the present tense conjugations for ir on the chalkboard.”
To get students warmed up to the idea of storytelling, watch these videos together first:
This second video shows how a teacher can improve the storytelling with gestures:
4. Frío, tibio, caliente (Cold, warm, hot)
Yet another classic! Ask a student to leave the classroom for a second, and deliberate among the other students: What should you guys hide and where? Get some chatter going about this in Spanish. Ideally, you’ll hide an object relevant to the topic you’re teaching in your class at the time.
Make them find it while y’all sing and chant “¡Frío, frío, tibio, caliente, caliente!”
It’s a simple game you can use to shake things up in your classroom and have fun, as they search, the class yells “¡Frío, frío, tibio caliente, caliente!” (cold, cold, warm, hot, hot!). The closer they get to the object, the louder you shout “¡caliente!”
This sample video is in an English classroom, but it shows what a blast this can be for students:
5. Zapatito cochinito (Dirty little shoe)
My husband grew up playing this game as a kid in Ecuador. In essence, it’s their version of “eeny meeny, miny, moe,” a selection or choosing game—meaning that it’s perfect for selecting students for games, activities and roles in class.
For example, are you deciding who will give their presentation first in class? Play this game to lighten the mood and choose that unlucky lead presenter.
Or you can use it to pick a person for a game, like the student who needs to go outside the room while you hide an object for “¡Frío, tibio, caliente!”
Breaking into teams? Rather than letting cliques form, gather together for a corny, catchy Spanish song.
To play this, students gather together in a circle, make an inner circle with their right feet, then sing this Spanish song one word at a time:
“Zapatito Cochinito, cambia de piecito porque mi mamita dijo que lo cambies tú” (Dirty Little Shoe, change your little foot because my mommy said that you must change it.) I know, it’s not as cute and snappy in English, but such is life.
Each player says two syllables and taps their foot on the floor as they say them. When the song ends, the person who’s tapping their foot and saying the final syllable must change their right foot for the left one. (This is a good moment to teach about Spanish diptongos e hiatos (diphthongs and hiatus), which affect how syllables are broken up.) If they’re at the end a second time, they’re outta there! The last student standing is the chosen one.
For teachers only, here’s a funny video from a humorous Ecuadorian variety show, EnchufeTV, that shows how this game is played—and how it would look in a ridiculously extreme “Russian roulette” format.
Obviously not something to show students, but it’s something we adults can chuckle at while lesson planning.
6. Piedra, papel o tijera o lo que sea (Rock, paper, scissors or whatever)
This is just like the classic “rock, paper, scissors” game that everyone knows but it’s more challenging because there are more objects to participate with, such as classroom supplies, animals and even dynamite!
This one’s popular everywhere, but there’s an extra variation which allows the students to add a little flair—or I should say, a little explosion.
You know how it typically goes: Rock, paper and scissors are the options. In the Spanish version, you can also add a thumbs-up gesture to represent dynamite and blow the whole game out of the water. But each player can only use it once in each three-round game, maximum.
Explore more hand gestures or try to find something relative to the topic, or just stick with the classic. Check out some more information in Wikipedia.
The simple Spanish rhyme goes:
Piedra, papel, tijera o lo que sea (Rock, paper, scissors or whatever)
Uno, dos, tres (one, two, three)
Here’s a demonstration of the classic game in Spanish, with a slightly longer rhyme:
If you like her longer rhyme, then you can use it in class instead of my short and sweet one—and you can even follow her rhyme to change “menos una papelera” (except a waste bin) or “menos cola de ballena” (except a whale’s tail) with another creative rhyme that you come up with on your own, or as a class!
Better yet, have each pair come up with their own silly rhyme, then have them present it to the class before an epic finger duel.
And here’s a fun “Dragonball Z” clip to share with your students before playing! Anything is cooler when Goku does it first:
7. Canasta de frutas (Fruit basket)
Move those desks out of the way! Set up a circle of chairs in the middle of your classroom. The number of chairs has to be one less than the number of students that are going to participate.
Have everyone stand in front of the chairs in a big circle. Then, everyone needs to become a fruit. That’s right, students each choose their own fruit to identify themselves as, or you assign them fruits. You can even make little name tags to stick on each student’s shirt with their designated fruit.
Start the game by calling out “¡ensalada de frutas!” (fruit salad). Everyone has to run as fast as they possibly can to nab a new seat. Whoever didn’t get a chair becomes “it” and goes to the center of the classroom. They start the first real round by calling out a random fruit, for example, “naranja” (orange). Now only the naranjas run as fast as they can to change seats, as does the kid who’s “it.”
The student who didn’t make it and has no seat will be the new “it,” and ends up calling a new fruit. If somebody yells “ensalada de frutas,” everyone has to book it!
Not a Spanish version, but this video shows how the gameplay works:
The best part is that you can vary this up for any theme of vocabulary: professions, countries, languages, animals, foods, family members. Go nuts with this one!
8. El baile de la silla (Musical chairs)
Now, instead of a big, open circle, as was made for the last game, bring your classroom chairs together into a tight circle with their backs all together. As before, you’ll want one chair fewer than there are students.
You’re bringing a hyped-up fiesta to class with el baile de la silla and your favorite Spanish tunes!
First things first, pick that song. Two Spanish classroom favorites are “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens and “Guantanamera” by the incomparable Celia Cruz, but feel free to pick your own options for students. For middle schoolers, you may want to opt for current Spanish pop songs or a little Shakira.
The lazy way is to play the song on a boombox for the game. You can also teach a song to your classroom or print out the lyrics for a sing-along, and then sing out loud together. When the teacher suddenly stops singing, all the students need to stop singing and scramble for a seat to stay in the game.
Whoever’s out is out for good. The kids who are out can sing, clap and cheer (in Spanish) on the sidelines, or even spend their time playing another Spanish game together. Remove one more chair, and play again with the remaining group. Rinse and repeat until you have a winner!
Watch some little tykes playing this in Spanish, here:
In the next class period, you can fuse this game together with Canasta de Frutas for a combo game, which uses some rules from each. This steps up the level of complexity a little bit. Just watch how these kiddos do it:
There isn’t a middle schooler who won’t enjoy these games—even the students who are trying desperately hard to act aloof and cool will get a kick out of them.
Once you’ve got everyone running around, cracking smiles and giggling, everyone will be flinging themselves into the action.
And don’t forget that the best way to keep the mood relaxed is to have fun yourself! When the teacher’s getting into it too, there isn’t a kid who can resist.
After all, your middle schoolers are still in the midst of their childhoods, as old as they may try to act.
They’ll love being reminded that they’re allowed to have fun, even as they’re beginning to grow into adults!
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