Early Childhood Education

8 Brain Breaks to Spark Joy and Help Young Students Concentrate

Theater games make fun brain breaks that also foster valuable executive function skills.

March 1, 2024
Laura Dwight / Alamy

Picture this: You are transitioning to a new lesson, and suddenly your class is full of bouncing legs and restless bodies. Chatter abounds, and fidget toys appear from nowhere. It’s time to take a brain break.

It’s no secret that students need frequent breaks to stay engaged and stimulated. However, students’ brains are actually working really hard during what we call brain breaks. Research shows that short bursts of movement can help boost the brain’s working memory and blood flow to the hippocampus. Additionally, the brain relishes unexpected stimuli. So, rather than thinking of them as breaks when learning stops, you can think of these exercises as another way to build students’ brain function.

However, finding the ideal activity that’s simple and hits the reset button can be a challenge. For some variety, you may want to consider theater games. There are a slew of exercises that actors use to refocus, build community, and stimulate their energy that work well during transitions or whenever kids need to refocus.

While they can certainly help students concentrate, there are other benefits to these exercises: mindfulness, executive function skills, growth mindset, social and emotional learning, and especially fun, depending on the game. Gholdy Muhammad, professor and author of Unearthing Joy, notes that we can find joy in the classroom “when we create learning experiences that encourage students to have fun and problem solve, with their voices (and perspectives) centered.” These brain breaks provide just such an opportunity.

8 Fun Brain Breaks to Help Students Focus

1. Silent circles of sameness. In this activity, students stand at the perimeter of the room, and you pose a statement to the class. Students who agree with the statement move to the center, while the rest stay at the edges. Debate topics such as “Zoos should not exist” or “Unicorns are superior to dragons” work well. You can also tie in themes from books (“Wilbur is brave.” “Wonka is kind.”).

Or use it as a way for the class to get to know each other (“I have a sibling.” “I speak more than one language.”). For extra movement, start your statements with “Jump into the circle if…” and keep changing up the verb (Spin! Hop! Run! Wiggle!). This activity gets kids connecting with each other, fostering fun and community in the classroom.

2. Mirror game. The mirror game is a classic acting exercise developed by the pioneer of theater games, Viola Spolin. Working in pairs, one student is the leader, who initiates movements, and the other is the reflection, who copies their motions. The moves could be abstract and dancelike or realistic, such as brushing teeth or making breakfast. The leader keeps their movements slow so as to not leave their reflection behind.

Additionally, students can make facial expressions showing emotions like anger, fear, and joy. The partners can switch roles after about a minute. Scientists have studied the mirror neurons in the brain and regard them as the seat of empathy. As students see their own selves reflected, it brings increased feelings of connectedness and belonging.

3. Laugh like a ___. Brainstorm a list of animals, creatures, or characters. Cue this game with a phrase like “Drop everything and laugh like a ___.” It can be fun to do a few in rapid succession (for example, “Drop everything and laugh like a monkey... like a whale... like a giraffe”). Science shows that laughter releases endorphins in the brain, so what better way to reset than that?

4. Feather balance. Ask students to balance a feather on the palm of their hand. This helps them practice mindfulness as they focus on the feather, moving to keep it upright. Growth mindset is also at work in this game.

Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” While some students might say, “I can’t do it!” you can introduce the magic word yet into the conversation and then apply it to more academic topics later.

5. Boom chicka boom. This vibrant chant can get repeated in any style imaginable. Play around with different themes from books: “Big Bad Wolf style” or “Lorax style.” You can also tie in units of study, using animals or professions in the community. To get the body involved, encourage gestures that get repeated too. Model a few versions, and then pass the baton for the students to lead.

6. Human knot. Students circle up and hold the hand of someone next to them, and then with their other hand take the hand of someone who is not next to them. They then have to untangle themselves without letting go of anyone’s hand and find their way back into a big circle. This full-body exercise builds teamwork and trust. Encourage “voices off” for an extra challenge.

7. “Down by the Bay.” The classic song by singer Raffi is a lovely way to get music, rhyming, and even acting into the mix. You can sing it in its original form and then encourage new verses from your students. Ask students to fill in the blank for the lyric “Did you ever see a ___” and then come up with a new rhyme to finish the verse.

This game benefits early readers, since studies show that rhyming builds literacy skills. Students can embody the rhyme, moving across the room or in their seats, as if they were a “shark trying to visit a park” or a “T. rex escaping a hex!,” which adds an imaginative and kinesthetic element to the brain booster.

8. Who started the motion? One student steps outside the room. Another is selected to be the motion captain; they start a repeatable gesture (like clapping and snapping in rhythm, tapping their head and then their feet, etc.) and then switch to another one. Meanwhile, the class copies these gestures. The other student comes back into the room and observes the motions, even as they change, and tries to guess who is the captain. In this exercise, students develop their power of observation and collaboration as they move in sync.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Arts Integration
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.