George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Fun Relationship-Building Activities for Older Students

Spending a little time having fun in the classroom can have a major impact on students’ engagement and sense of belonging.

March 8, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

My superintendent recently told us that most students begin hating school after second grade. Why is that? My superintendent believes it is because show-and-tell basically stops after second grade. I wonder if it’s because high-stakes testing begins in third grade. More than likely, it’s a combination of both. When teachers sacrifice building relationships with students for the push to cover the curriculum, we increase student anxiety and decrease student learning.  

I prioritize spending time throughout every school year building and maintaining relationships with students. I have found this time to be invaluable. The time I spend on relationship-building activities with my students and on allowing them to get to know me shows them that I value them as people. When they feel seen, they are more open to what I need to teach them. Here are three fun, simple activities I do throughout the school year that help form relationships and build relational capacity within the class so that my students are ready for the rigors of my academic work.

3 Relationship-building Activities

Concentric circles: In concentric circles, students form two equal circles, one inside the other. For example, if you have 22 students in your class, you would have an interior circle of 11 and an exterior circle of 11. The interior circle should face outward toward students in the outer circle. If you have an odd number of students, have two students in the outer circle act as one unit. The facilitator asks the group any question that will help students get to know each other better—some fun, some serious. Give students time to answer the question with their partner. 

After a few minutes, give the instruction, “Inner circle, rotate three to the left.” The students in the inner circle will then rotate three students to the left, and now they have a new outer circle partner. Vary having the inner circle rotate to the left and the outer circle rotate to the right. Students will work their way through the class answering questions and getting to know each other. Every once in a while, the teacher should give their own answer to the question so that students can get to know them as well.

I always start with some fun questions:

  • Would you rather vacation at the beach or the mountains?
  • Tacos or cheeseburgers?
  • Who is your favorite relative and why?

Then I go a little deeper.

  • What is one of your dreams or hopes for your life?
  • Who is your best friend and why?
  • What is something you are afraid of?

Concentric circles are also a great way to build a discussion about a topic in class. For example, when my students read The Great Gatsby, I might do concentric circles and ask them questions like these:

  • Is Gatsby a likable character?
  • Do you think the American Dream is a possibility today? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of a place that is similar to the Valley of Ashes in the area in which we live?

The beauty of concentric circles is that it can do double duty. It can be used for academic purposes while it is also building relationships among students.

Spider web: For the spider web activity, students will stand up. They do not need to stand in a circle or in any organized fashion. One person starts holding a ball of string or yarn. The first person shares something interesting about themselves. For example, the first person might share, “I am on the cross country team.” If a student can make a connection in any way to the last person who shared, they raise their hand. The student who is holding the yarn then throws the yarn to the new student who is making the connection.

Then the student now holding the yarn shares the connection, so they might say, “I ran a half marathon last summer” (or whatever the connection may be). The teacher can be involved in this one as well. When everyone has shared, the yarn will look like a big spider web.

Tip: Be sure to emphasize the connection point: We are all different and yet all have similarities with each other. No one in our class is ever alone. I really like to bring this out in the middle of a semester during the difficult months of November and February. Students and teachers are tired. There are also new students who may have joined the class. Completing a spiderweb reminds the students (and the teacher) that we can always make connections and that we will get through the school year together.

All my people who: This is a fun, active game, similar to musical chairs. Have all students sit in chairs in a circle facing inward. There is one fewer chair than students in the class. The student without the chair stands in the middle of the circle and says, “All my people who…” and then states a descriptor. For example, “All my people who... like tacos” or “All my people who... have brown eyes.” Every student who fits that description has to get up from their seat and move to a new seat that is not next to them. In the meantime, the student in the middle is trying to get a new seat. The student who is left standing is the new student in the middle.

Students love this game. When they’re sitting all day, it gives them a chance to move. Plus, honestly, they don’t expect teachers to be this fun. However, it can get a little rough, especially among older kids who will dive for chairs and push students out of the way. Be sure to preface this game with specific instructions to keep the game fun and safe: No pushing, no tipping chairs over, be careful of landing too hard in chairs so they don’t fall over. I have played this game with both middle school and high school students, and yes—I have fun actually playing with them.

I have never regretted taking the class time to build relationships with my students. It builds trust. When the students trust me, they are willing to go on the rigorous academic journey that the rest of the year holds. Building relational capacity with the students makes for a more fun and academically successful year.

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