Illustrated collage featuring brain breaks activities
Photos: iStock / 4x6, Studio CJ, ATHVisions, kovaciclea; Collage by  Edutopia staff
Brain-Based Learning

17 Brain Breaks Tailored for High Schoolers

As high school students navigate more rigorous academic tasks and denser curricular material, the occasional 3-to-5-minute break delivers a wide range of benefits.

September 1, 2023

Kids, like adults, cycle through periods of attention and inattention—though the duration of the interval changes with age and is variable across individuals. By high school, according to neurologist and classroom teacher Judy Willis, concentrated study of “20 to 30 minutes for middle and high school students calls for a three-to-five-minute break.”

Regardless of attention spans, brain breaks can prevent older students from feeling overwhelmed and provide space for reflection, joy, and connection during a packed school day. They’re also a crucial part of the learning process.

“According to one popular school of thought, it’s the active, repeated manipulation of material that lays the neural foundations for skill development,” writes Youki Terada, Edutopia’s research editor. But breaks are often misconstrued as a pause in the active learning process, instead of “the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced,” neuroscientist Leonardo Cohen and his team explain in a June 2021 study. In fact, Cohen continues, incorporating breaks into learning “plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill.”

Brain “breaks” can take many different forms inside of the classroom, depending on the aim. To boost students’ mood, Willis suggests activities that increase restorative neurotransmitters like dopamine: anything that involves “laughing, moving, listening to music, and interacting with peers.” Likewise, brain breaks that incorporate physical activity not only provide a moment of stress relief for students but also increase the blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain—stimulating brain activity and helping students regain focus in the face of fatigue. 

1. Thinking Outside the Box: On the board, provide students with the start of a doodle that they’ll have to creatively transform into something unexpected. This can be anything from two lines to a squiggle or a half circle. To add in some student voice and choice, have volunteers suggest what the initial drawing prompt should look like. Sourced from Tina Centineo via X (formerly Twitter).

2. “Train Your Brain”: A fun activity that starts by having students touch the tip of their nose with their right index finger and then touch their ear with their left hand index finger. Then have them switch the position of their hands, touching the tip of their nose with their left hand index finger and moving their right index finger to touch their ear. Kids should keep doing this until they can get it right, which may take only a few tries for some and much longer for others. To add an element of competition, see which student can do this activity for the longest without messing up. Sourced from PE teacher Matt Head via TikTok.

3. Would You Rather: Pair students up and have them discuss fun “would you rather” questions. Here are some examples of prompts:

  • Would you rather live in a world with no technology or a world with no nature?
  • Would you rather have the ability to speak with animals or the ability to speak all human languages fluently?
  • Would you rather have your favorite movie character as your best friend or your favorite book character as your sibling?

To add an element of movement, do this activity together as a class. Announce the prompt out loud, and have students go to one side of the room or the other to show which option they’d rather choose. A select couple of volunteers can raise their hands to explain their reasoning. Sourced from Education World.

4. Rest and Reflect: Try turning off the classroom lights, setting a timer for three to five minutes, and playing some soft, calming background music. Students can close their eyes and breathe deeply while they briefly pause and allow their minds to clear, processing what they’ve just learned and preparing themselves for the next portion of class. Sourced from We Are Teachers.

5. Snowball Toss: This is a quick strategy to help students decompress and normalize productive conversations about stress and mental health. Have each student write down something they are stressed about on a piece of paper, which they then crumple up into a ball. Once you give the cue, all the kids throw their snowball across the room in a mock snowball fight. Lastly, kids pick up another snowball near them and read about something their classmates may be struggling with. Giving students the option to abstain ensures that everyone has agency and control in what they share or whether they share at all. Sourced from Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men—Englewood Campus.

6. Fold and Fly: Dedicate a few minutes to a paper airplane challenge. After breaking students up into small groups, instruct each group to create one paper airplane that they will enter into a competition. Provide no instructions or templates so that students have to think on their feet and improvise. Each group of kids have to put their heads together to construct the best airplane, testing and refining their techniques until they find the ideal design. Next, each group competes to see which airplane flies the farthest from one side of the room to the other. Sourced from Student-Centered World.

7. Jigsaw Jumble: Looking for a brain break that will have your classroom silent for several minutes? Try providing small groups of students with a handful of puzzle pieces. The group must work to put the pieces together using only nonverbal communication. No talking allowed! Sourced from Student Centered World.

8. Keep It Up: After blowing up a balloon, have students stand in a circle together and hold hands. When everyone is in position, toss the balloon up into the air, and as a group, students have to keep the balloon in the air using anything but their hands—including their heads, feet, shoulders, and elbows. You could also try breaking the class into teams and seeing which group can keep the balloon in the air for the longest time. Sourced from X.

9. What Is That?: Find a picture of something your class may never encounter in your subject area and display it for students to see. “I showed a physics class a murmuration of starlings but did not tell them what it was,” explains former principal Peter Embleton. “No phones or computers, they had to figure out what was happening and why.” This not only ignites student curiosity but may introduce your class to something they didn’t previously know existed. Sourced from Peter Embleton via X.

10. Rock, Paper, Scissors: Transform the classic game of rock, paper, scissors into a brief class tournament. Start by pairing students up; the winners of the first round move on to compete against another winner in the classroom, while the losers of the round sit back down in their seats. Winning students continue to compete until one final student is left standing. Sourced from Barre Unified Union School District.  

11. 1, 2, 3, Math!: Similarly to rock, paper, scissors, students play against each other in pairs. After the players say “1, 2, 3, Math,” each displays one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The first of the pair to correctly call out the sum of both players’ fingers wins that round and a point. The first person to win three rounds is the champ. Sourced from: Lori Desautels.

12. Cup-Stacking Challenge: Break students into small groups, and provide each group with three cups and two index cards. Each group stacks these items in the following order until they create a vertical tower: cup on the bottom, index card, cup in the middle, index card, cup on top. The aim is to quickly pull the index cards out so the cups fall into each other in a clean stack. Using a timer, see how quickly the whole class can complete the task. You can even have different classes compete against each other for the fastest time. Sourced from Jonathan Alsheimer via X.

13. Classwide Wordle: The word game that swept the nation is sure to keep your students on their toes. According to the game’s website, you’ll have six tries to guess the five-letter word of the day. The tile color changes depending on how close the guess is: A green tile means the letter “is in the word and in the correct spot,” a yellow tile means the letter “is in the word but in the wrong spot,” and a gray tile means the letter is not in the word at all. Try playing together as a class, and have students shout out their suggestions, voting on which ideas they like best. Sourced from Kim West via X.

14. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: To keep kids alert during a long lesson, have them spend a couple of minutes stretching and moving around the room. Consider creating a short sequence of exercises that students can all do together to get their blood flowing—such as five high knees, four jumping jacks, three push-ups, two deep breaths, and one squat. Offering students the option to stand and do the sequence or alternatively sit and stretch in whatever way they choose ensures that this activity is inclusive and considers everyone in your classroom. Sourced from We Are Teachers.

15. Odd One Out: This Google Arts & Culture game challenges you to “guess the AI-generated imposter” among the artworks. You’ll be presented with four images and have to guess which of the options was created by AI before time runs out. Compete all together as a class, or have students play together in small groups. This could inspire an interesting conversation around student perceptions and misconceptions of AI. Sourced from Tony Vincent via X.

16. Collaborative Class Story: Open up a fresh Google Doc and ask one student to start by sharing a sentence they’ve made up. You could also have ChatGPT create the first sentence—for example: “Amidst the chaos of the carnival, I found myself face-to-face with a llama.” Next, have each student add on a sentence until every person in class has contributed. If you’re running short on time, break students into mini-groups of two or three and have them quickly agree on their sentence. Lastly, read the story back to your students, and see what their final creation sounds like. Sourced from Dora Hartsell via X.

17. Invisible Pictures: In groups of two, have one student “draw a picture in the air while their partner guesses what it is,” writes assistant professor Lori Desautels. To give students a starting point, provide them with categories like foods, animals, or places, and then allow their creative minds to lead the way. For a bit of extra help, allow the guessing partner to ask one or two yes or no questions that will provide them with crucial context. Sourced from Lori Desautels

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  • Student Wellness
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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