Let’s face it, mornings can be challenging, even if you aren’t in charge of a classroom full of kids. For teachers, planning a great first activity may feel stressful. Ideally, you want to set a joyful tone, connect with the students, and offer them an opportunity for self-expression. That’s a lot at 8:03 a.m. My suggestion: turn to simple theater games.
Actors use games to hone skills such as perspective-taking, creativity, and listening. They help performers connect with their breath, voice, and body in preparation for the brave act of going onstage. Finally, through games, a cast learns to rely on each other, so there’s more trust and playfulness in performance.
When deployed in a classroom of non-acting students, these games can serve a similar purpose. But rather than preparing kids to perform in a show, they get them warmed up for the day, attuned to each other, and ready to learn.
Most important, many of these exercises can help with executive function skills, like listening, turn-taking, and working memory. Research tells us that people in positive, energized moods come up with imaginative, original ideas. So these games can effectively activate kids’ brains and pave the way for meaningful learning and creativity.
Additionally, the activities can serve to buoy student engagement, which is top-of-mind for many school leaders. Theater games can become something that kids genuinely look forward to doing and which motivates them to come to school.
The following are some favorite games for morning meetings, which I’ve developed over the last decade of bringing theater residencies to schools. These can be played in a circle by the whole class simultaneously, in table groups, or even in partnerships. As with all theater games, the instructions are just a blueprint, and you should feel free to tailor them to your students’ needs.
4 Theater Games for Morning Meetings
1. I Have a Gift for You (grows “theory of mind"): To play I Have a Gift for You, hold an imaginary “object,” pass it to your neighbor, and say, “I have a gift for you, it’s a _____,” filling in the blank with anything they desire—for example, “puppy,” “magic wand,” “Taylor Swift tickets.” They can endow it with a weight, a texture, or even a smell. The person receiving the gift mirrors their gestures and “takes” the gift, saying, “Thanks, I’ve always wanted a _____. Now I can _____.” Then it is their turn to offer another invisible gift to the next person.
Research shows that acting can grow young people’s “theory of mind” (our ability to perceive other people’s mental states). A game such as this one offers a concrete way to expand our point of view. What magical, thoughtful, or creative gift might my classmate enjoy? As they play, students are actively and empathically putting themselves in the shoes of their classmates.
2. Fortunately/Unfortunately (builds listening and turn-taking skills): In order for students to play Fortunately/Unfortunately, they collectively make up a story, building on each other’s ideas and trading off narration. Start with a simple story prompt (for example, “Once upon a time, there was a hungry dragon…”). Each student then takes a turn adding a sentence to the story. However, the first word must alternate between “Fortunately” and “Unfortunately.” This “plot roller coaster” is automatically dramatic and funny and pushes listening to the next level.
To make a truly compelling story, students have to actively hear each other and incorporate the ideas that have come before them. To expand on this and develop literacy skills, have the students write down their stories as part of a class project.
3. Pass the Hello (builds empathy and improves relationships): Name an emotion, and have students pass it around the circle just using the word “hello.” As it goes from person to person, they embody the feeling in their voice, face, and gesture, but only use the one word to do so. Once the “hello” makes it all the way around, change the emotion. Repeat this for about five feeling words, ending on an upbeat one before you move on to the rest of your day.
In his research, Marc Brackett, PhD, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says, “Labeling emotions accurately increases self-awareness and helps us to communicate emotions effectively, reducing misunderstanding in social interactions.”
In addition to being a stellar way to increase their “feeling word” vocabulary, this game gives students a safe space to express their less socially acceptable sentiments, such as anger or fear. It also gets students aware of how feelings manifest in their body and highlights how each person has a different way of showing them.
4. Object Boggle (builds imagination): To play Object Boggle, pass around an interesting object (like a whisk, bulb baster, eyelash curler, etc.) and have students make up a new use for it. For example, a hairbrush could be a flyswatter, a toothpick for giants, or a magic mirror, etc. Students can demonstrate how the object gets used in its new form before passing it along.
Encourage students to take an unexpected or even a fantastical spin. The beauty of this game is that there are no wrong ideas. The process of coming up with different uses for one object stretches kids’ imaginations and paves the way for more creative classwork.
These simple morning meeting activities can bolster students’ confidence and give them a playful springboard that creates focus, joy, and camaraderie. They follow a repeatable structure, allow for equal time in the spotlight, and, most important, connect students with each other. After our theater residencies are long over, I hear from classroom teachers that their students still request these games. Our mornings can be joyful, even at 8:03 a.m.