This one is for the Teachers: whether you work in elementary classrooms or as an arts specialist, here are some ideas to help classroom focus and students come together through play! A bonus is that kids are practicing executive function skills and mindfulness as they do these techniques.

Wild energy comes with the territory when you teach young people. Over the last fifteen years as a theater-arts educator, I’ve developed and refined techniques that harness kids’ energy and focus. In our classes at Child’s Play NY, the work often involves games that get kids moving and speaking creatively: There’s improvisational dialogue, gestures, and transitions galore. Lately, we have been working in wide-open spaces, even outdoors, with little physical structure to keep kids grounded. As a result, we need to quickly develop rapport and classroom management despite the creative maelstrom. The techniques listed below will help any classroom teacher to harness the enthusiasm and get their students mindfully transitioning, focusing, and moving safely.
Executive function and self-regulation are crucial skills that can be supported through movement.  The following seven strategies have movement at the center of them and involve very little adult chatter and no reprimands!

It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.
– Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University


When I Say: A Playful Chant for Focus

I love this as an alternative to the over-used “Stop, look and listen…OK!”

The idea is to establish a simple call-and-response chant that feels like a customized cheer for the group. This chant can build community and remind them of their goals.

When I was directing Wrinkle in Time this year, I staged complex group moments of wild movement. So, to mindfully transition from a big group improv into something else, I would use the chant, like this:

Jocelyn: When I say Wrinkle, you say Time. Wrinkle!
Kids: Time!
Jocelyn: Wrinkle!
Kids: Time!

For classroom teachers, make a chant that ties into your curriculum and keep it fresh according to whatever book you are reading, the holiday season you are in, or even a science unit.

I encourage you to keep changing it on the students, even during the chant, so there is no complacency or monotony. For instance, if your students are obsessed with Harry Potter, of course, you can do:
When I say Harry, you say Potter. Harry! (Potter!) Harry (Potter!). 
But you can also get more specific and niche with the chant. Playing along with the different Houses, you can say:
When I say Huffle, you say Puff 
When I say Gryfen, you say Door.

I’m sticking to one syllable here, making it easy to repeat and refocus. You can also ask for specific feedback from your students to make the chant and have a few possibilities going simultaneously.

To see another way to play “When I Say” that connects opposites and gross motor movements, watch this video:


Simon Says – Playful Style

Simon Says can instantly bring kids into focus. You can also embrace a character to play it. Like from the classic “Miss Nelson is Missing,” you can become Viola Swamp and say, “Ms. Swamp Says…”. Kids love that excitement of the character, and it puts the responsibility on Swamp to be harsh, rather than you, their beloved classroom teacher!

Or perhaps there’s another character you enjoy in the literature you read. For example, I’m currently directing Roald Dahl’s Matilda with 3rd-5th graders in Brooklyn. Suppose I need to focus their energy in a given moment or corral them at the start of rehearsal. In that case, I’ll just begin with “Trunchbull Says.”
I’ll become the “villain” with a sonorous voice and a commanding presence as I playfully get them to come to attention.  This game is a tool that I can use to make sure that the cast is in their spots, with their scripts on their chairs, and ready to start dancing! It is so much more fun than saying, “Come on, everyone. Let’s get our materials ready!” It is an instant game that encourages the kids to be focused and ready through play.

Boom Chic A Boom

I also love the Boom Chic a Boom chant. Then you can change up the style – again, keeping it in the world of what you are reading or rehearsing.


If You Can Hear Me

Another simple chant that gets whole classrooms focusing through play is the phrase, “If you can hear me…” But again, the back-end of this can be anything physical.
The classic version of this is:
“If you can hear me – clap once. (Clap) If you can hear me clap twice. (Clap. Clap)”
However, I encourage you to ask your students to do things beyond clapping that are a little more adventurous and physical. By changing the chant, you will require them to listen even more astutely to you and your following directions. You can repeat the physical movement several times because not all the class will be with you when you start, although they will gradually all join up. Finally, you can end with a direction that is what you want them to do.

For example:

If you can hear me…
…Touch your toes. If you can hear me, touch your nose. If you can hear me, have a seat!
…Pat your head. If you can hear me, pat your head AND rub your stomach. If you can hear me, pay your head, rub your stomach and listen to my directions.
…Jump up. If you can hear me, crouch down. If you can hear me, jump Up. Crouch Down. Line up!

I like to say, “If you can hear me” between each of these different commands. It is important to modulate your volume and even speak very quietly even as you give these instructions, especially by the end. Keep giving different physical commands until the class is in synch with you. Then I guarantee you’ll have their focus and be able to transition them to the next activity.

focus classroom with fun circle game

Rhythm Change-Up

A favorite game for quiet focus is “Who Started the Motion?” In this game, A rhythm Leader starts a repeatable motion, and the whole class joins in, in-synch. For the purposes of calming down the classroom, simply skip the part of the game where someone tries to guess who started the motion. What you can keep is the repeatable pattern that shifts slightly.
You, the teacher, simply lead the rhythm and stop changing it only when you have everyone’s focus. If you make it an interesting enough pattern that is just challenging enough, you’ll get the kids to want to join in and master it along with you. Their chatter and extraneous movement will fall away, and you will have their attention harnessed and ready for the next task at hand. At its core, this is an incredibly mindful exercise.  Experts agree that practicing mindfulness supports empathy and resilience, what a wonderful byproduct of this exercise!

Classic Counting

One of the simplest yet most effective ways to gather kids’ focus and make them aware of a transition is to count down. While not “playful” in the traditional sense, you can add in claps between the numbers, so “silly counting” where you insert a non-number word like “banana” or “potato” while still reaching the goal of counting backward from a number.

Make sure you have clear instructions. Like, “I’m going to count back from 20, and we need everyone’s backpacks on by then. So, here we go 20..19…18…”
The parameters of the numbers are like a container. Whether you choose to change up the numbers or insert something silly is less important than the clarity and calm of the instruction and count-down.


Create clear zones in your room and brand them! Here are some examples of ways to transform your space by a simple title: Story Corner, Warm-up Wall. Audience Box, Stadium Steading, Circle Spots. Use painter’s tape on the floor to mark the space.

To familiarize them with the different Zones, you can play Landmarks, where you call out a spot and then have them swiftly go there and strike a pose. For example, if you say “Warm-Up Wall”, they go there and then freeze in a position as if they were warming up. Play music, like freeze dance until you call out the next location. Decide ahead of time, what the frozen picture will be.

These clearly defined spaces will be a major asset to you when you want them to land somewhere specific, say at the end of a Simon Says, or “If you can hear me…”

This little infusion of game-based intervention can work wonders to harness attention and get kids focusing through fun. I hope you find them both effective but also joyful, bonding, and continuing to serve the purpose of centering play!
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