Early Childhood Education

The Surprisingly Positive Effect of Drama Games on Classroom Management

Young students are more likely to remember school routines around things such as lining up if guided play is involved.

April 18, 2024
Jacob Lund / Alamy

“In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” So wrote Lev Vygotsky, the Russian pioneer of child development and a champion of imaginative play. Researchers have continued to develop this theory, finding that children level up when they “self-distance” or pretend to be someone else. So it makes sense, then, that during the many times in a day when we ask kids to follow directions, we can turn to their imaginations for positive outcomes.

Purposeful Play for Productive Classrooms

Although it might seem counterintuitive to play your way to better behaviors, thinking that it might lead to chaos in the classroom, research shows otherwise. Studies show that children become more active participants in the classroom when they engage in guided play. When they make-believe with adult support, it builds their executive function, growth mindset, and social skills.

So, even as you gamify your classroom cleanup routine, or lining up for recess, for instance, know that the students are practicing a whole host of abilities that will set them up for positive outcomes. In addition, new experiences stimulate dopamine neurons, and students are more likely to remember and repeat the desired behavior (such as a speedy clean-up) when it is delivered in a novel, fun format.

5 Drama Games to Reinforce Classroom Routines

1. Follow the Leader (to move throughout the day). Every day, there are inevitable transitions that require moving your class from place to place. But what if a journey to the yard or the art room could involve an element of play? A version of Follow the Leader could accomplish this.

Start with yourself as the leader, modeling different ways to move quietly: jumping, on tip-toes, skipping, trudging. You can add more elements of dramatic play with the words “as if”—for example, “as if I were a superhero” or “as if I were a sloth”—calling out the different cues as you move. Once the class gets the hang of the game, let a student be in front. Incentivize students’ excellent behavior or work with the prize of being the Follow the Leader-leader.

2. Simon Says (for following directions). Simon Says is a classic and lively game that you can also use to move through your classroom routines. Weave in prompts that you want your students to follow. Just like in regular game play, find times to not say “Simon Says.” For example, if you want your students to stand up, push in their chairs, and come to the rug, play your way through by saying:

  • “Simon says, ‘Stand up.’”
  • “Simon says, ‘Touch your nose.’”
  • “Simon says, ‘Push in your chair.’”
  • “Hop on one leg. Oh, Simon didn’t say!”
  • “Simon says, ‘Hop on one leg to the rug!’” Mission accomplished!

Additionally, this game supports executive function skills such as working memory and attention switching. To be even more playful, instead of Simon, be someone from literature that your students know, and invite them to also be characters from that world. Think Mr. McGregor and a bunch of bunnies or Trunchbull and the kids of Crunchem Academy.

Since students are using their imaginations, they have incentive to listen, retain the directions, and stick with the challenge. “Playful settings motivate kids to stay with activities that build executive function skills,” says Stephanie M. Carlson, professor at the Institute of Child Development.

3. Restaurant (for eating in the room). Often, students need to eat lunch in the classroom, and that gets messy. Whether it’s a rainy day or a birthday celebration, set up a routine through imaginative play with the game Restaurant. Students can take turns being waiter, maître d’, or patron.

Since this is an improvisation, kids can also decide on who their customer-character is, be it superhero, princess, or cat. They choose what they “order,” what they chat about, and the magical currency with which they pay. Research shows us that kids can learn more from guided play than from direct instruction, so it makes sense that inside a game, the characters would know to bus their table like a waiter or keep their napkins in their laps as a customer would.

4. Wind-Up Clean Up (for a tidy classroom). Whether it is asking kids to put away materials or tidy their desks, games are here to help. Play Wind-Up Clean Up, where students become cleaning robots with a pretend mechanism on their backs that powers them up. With the simple turn of an imaginary key, they go about their cleaning tasks exceedingly fast and efficiently.

These superhuman powers become even more playful when, mid-clean, these robots “break down.” As the kids glitch, they could go backward, in slow motion, making funny noises, etc. Keep the pretend play alive with a creative solution—a magic elixir, a chant, or simply a new wind-up. Continue this game until the classroom is sufficiently tidy.

5. Sneaky Tag (to put away materials). Another option for playful clean-up is a version of Night at the Museum, or something I call Sneaky Tag, where kids start as frozen statues. When your back is turned, they stealthily move through the classroom as spirited, wily “do-gooders,” putting away materials.

You can play the role of a “guard,” a curmudgeonly, messy character who might turn around at any moment to catch the statues coming to life. When the kids freeze, they are rendered invisible. The game ends victoriously when the magical moving statues have cleaned up the room and made their way back to their desks. The guard is foiled again, and your classroom is straightened up.

Ultimately, relationships between students and teacher are the bedrock of successful classroom management. When you ask for playful participation, rather than compliance, it can boost your students’ morale and engender trust. Your ability to turn mundane tasks into opportunities for laughter, self-esteem, and camaraderie goes a long way toward a successful classroom.

We want to know—do you use games to help with classroom routines? Tell us about them in the comments.

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  • Classroom Management
  • Arts Integration
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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