teachupsidedown: 50 Brain Breaks to Engage Students in the Classroom

Every teacher knows that “glazed look” students give you after they’ve had to overwork their brains thinking about a difficult subject – or just sitting in their desks for too long. Over the years, I’ve developed many of these brain breaks because I know and understand that students need to “recharge” – especially when we are working on difficult material.

This is just a great list to get you started. I’m sure you’ll come up with more of your own creative ideas – and I would love to hear them! Please comment! Not all of these are “curricular” brain breaks, and for good reason. I make it a point to do at least ONE non-curricular 2-5 minute brain break a day. I find that my students are actually MORE engaged in the process of learning when I do these. For elementary teachers, maybe 2-3 of these are good for your kiddos.
I hope this huge list helps you to “change it up” during class and breathe fresh life into your classroom!

50 Brain Breaks to Engage Students in the Classroom

HIVE FIVES – listed below are 5 different high five brain breaks. These are short, simple, and to the point, but my students absolutely love them. They give students time to stand, get the blood pumping back to their brains, and they get to physically move around, which my high schoolers definitely need. Every time I tell them to stand up, they know that a high five is probably shortly around the corner.

1. Regular high fives – Tell the students they have 30 seconds to high five every person in the room, but they MUST walk. It’s funny watching them try and walk quickly to high five 30 students in 30 seconds.
2. Double high fives – Have students stand. Then tell them to put one hand in the air, then another. Then have them turn and double high five all the students around them.
3. Windmill high fives – Tell students to spread out in the room so they have plenty of room. Then have them stretch both arms out to the sides, once hand facing forward, the other facing backward. Then have them partner up with someone, turning in circles. As they turn, they should be able to high five their partner. This is one of my students’ favorites.
4. High five hugs – When the students high five, they place their thumb around the hand of the other student and tap it a couple times. It’s as if their hands are giving hugs.
5. Student authored high fives – Often I have the students come up with their own versions of high fives. They invent them and show them to me. Then I use them in class at a later time. Students have come up with volleyball high fives, jellyfish high fives, turkey high fives…so many.

GRATITUDE – Listed below are several gratitude brain breaks. It is statistically proven that if we daily practice gratitude, we are 10% happier. It helps students to stop and take a few minutes to be grateful, and it gives us a short break in the middle of class.

6. I’m thankful for YOU! HANDOUT – take a few minutes and use the attached handout to allow students to write a short letter to someone they are thankful for.
7. Thankfulness Sharing – Go around the room and have each student share something specific they are thankful for (more than just friends or family – they need to say specific names or items).
8. Thankfulness Post-its – Have students take a post-it note and write down what they are thankful for. Then designate a place in the room where students stick those post-it notes for you to read out loud when you need another brain break!

9. 1,000 Gifts – Ann Voskamp has a blog called http://www.aholyexperience.com. At that blog she has lists of daily gratitude prompts for every month. Every day you could put one of those prompts on the board and have students write them in a journal. Then, when you need a brain break, you can have them share their gifts from the journal.

10. Gratitude Graffiti Wall – Put a large piece of paper on your wall, in the hallway, or on the door. During a brain break, have students write their gratitude on the wall. If your students sit at tables, you can put the paper on their tables and have them write them, later hanging the gratitude posters on the wall.

11. UNBIRTHDAY PROJECT (HANDOUTS) – As a teacher of 16 years, I have always had difficulty remembering and celebrating student birthdays. So, a few years ago I started celebrating students’ unbirthdays. It is a great brain break once a week – and if I forget, you can be certain the students will remember. In the attached packet are all the handouts you’ll need to make this happen and understand what Unbirthdays are. But you can certainly make this your own.

ENCOURAGEMENT – A great way to develop safety in the environment of your classroom is to have students encourage one another and other teachers. Taking five minutes out of your class time to encourage one another is more valuable than you’ll ever know. When students feel encouraged and safe, they are more likely to take risks in their education.

12. Drive by encouragement – While students are finishing up an assignment quietly, I walk by their desks and put a long 1-2 foot strip of masking tape on their desks. When it is time, we take 5 minutes to do a fun activity. The students write compliments on the masking tape for their fellow students. I make them start with their own table or row (so everyone makes sure to get one). Then after all the compliments are written, they “drive by” and stick the pieces of masking tape on each student. Students end up with 10-20 encouragements. Most of my students keep the tape on their binders or folders and are very encouraged by these notes.

13. Drive by Post-its – Once or twice a semester, I like to take 5 minutes to encourage another colleague, a janitor, a secretary, an administrator, or the lunch ladies. I have students write an encouraging note on a post-it note. Then we take a short five minutes to do a silent drive by. We walk quickly to that person’s door and stick all the post-it notes on it. It’s very important that the students know it is silent.  We don’t disturb anyone, but especially for secretaries or colleagues, this is a great encouragement for them.

14. Have a fan-tasch-tic day (HANDOUT) – Small slips of paper used to write encouragement notes to classmates or locker buddies.

15. SIX WORD MEMOIRS (HANDOUT) – Instructions are on the handout. This is a great activity that can be extended or short. You could merely have the students write down a six-word memoir for their day and put it on a post-it or share it with the class. OR – you could do the more extended assignment, but only take 5 minute brain breaks here and there to work on it. If you use technology in the classroom, you can also use Twitter – as there is a Six Word Memoir Twitter page where people can post according to the # prompts given.

GETTING TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS – I love to use brain breaks to get to know my students and help them get to know one another. Here are some ways to do that:

16. Handshakes – During a brain break, have students go shake the hands of three students and introduce themselves. You’d be surprised how many students still don’t know one another’s names by a few weeks into the semester, especially in high school.

17. Favorites – Have students stand up and go talk to three different students about a “favorite,” making sure they also know the name of that person. When they all finish, have several students share what they learned out loud with the rest of the class.

18. Cave Time – Have students sit under their desks or table with another student and discuss something from your lesson or a “favorite.” Just the simple act of sitting at another level helps them break up the mundane.

19. What Matters to You? –(HANDOUT) Have students fill out the What Matters to You handout and then, when you need brain breaks, have students get it out and share one thing with the class, their neighbors, or their tables.

20. Show Not Tell – (HANDOUT) Have students fill out the show not tell handout. Then, when you need a brain break, have them partner up and do a charade to help the other student figure out when they were happy or shy or sad.

21. Skittles Interview – (HANDOUT) Have students pick out (according to the instructions on the handout) skittles. Then have them interview one or more students based on the colors they’ve chosen. This can happen all at once or a question at a time, depending on how much of a brain break you need.

22. Check-up Letter – Have the students write a letter to you (you choose the length) as a brain break about once a quarter, letting you know how they are doing in the class, any questions they have, anything you need to know about their out of school life.

23. One Word- Have students give you ONE WORD – for instance, one brain break you could have them give you one word that describes themselves, their families, their outside activities – something that helps you get to know them better.

24. Kindergarten Carpet Time – I use this strategy for book discussions in my classroom, but it’s also nice to change locations and sit on the floor. If you teach elementary school, you already do this. But this has been very successful for me even as a high school teacher. The students are just tired of desks and tables. It’s nice to change locations. And before we discuss the book we often have a “How’s your heart?” discussion as a group. Great way to get to know my students.

25. Post-it Notes – These are my favorite for getting to know kids. When they walk in the door or during class for a brain break, I have them fill out one of these questions and stick it to a place I’ve designated (mine is a board called Post-It Place):
a. What are you most excited about this weekend?
b. What exciting thing happened last weekend?
c. What are you most proud of lately?
d. What questions do you have about class?

CURRICULAR BRAIN BREAKS – Another kind of brain break is one that relates back to your curriculum. Both administrators and teachers love this one.

26. STOP AND TEXT – (HANDOUT) This handout is a more extended version, but at anytime during your lesson, you can have students STOP & TEXT. You can use the form I created or create one of your own that you pass out and have them write a quick text based on the subject you are currently studying. Then students get up and share their texts with someone else. If you have a classroom that allows cell phones or Twitter, you can actually have the students text. You can also give them a specific hashtag on Twitter for all of them to post their information.

27. Entrance Ticket (HANDOUT) – I have included a sample entrance ticket for you to look at. You can also do a MID CLASS TICKET – have students write down what is happening, any questions they might have, etc. On my ticket I include an Instagram photo, which is fun for high school students to do.

28. TED (HANDOUTS) – I love http://www.ted.com. It is a website full of short and long videos. I have included some handouts I have created for TED – there is a full bundle in my TPT store. There are a lot of very short TED videos that are great to show in class. With the search tool on the website, you are sure to find something that connects to your curriculum. The three ideas below won’t necessarily connect with your curriculum, but they are good brain break ideas that stemmed from TED.

29. Love Letters (HANDOUT) – One of the TED videos is Hannah Brencher, who suggests leaving letters for strangers in hidden places. For one brain break in my class, we took a few minutes to write an encouragement letter to a stranger.

30. Before I Die (HANDOUT) – Candy Chang has a great short TED on a cool art installation she did asking people the things they want to do before they die. Students can write on slips of paper, Post-Its, or on a chart you have on the wall. It’s neat to see some of their goals.

31. 30 Day Challenge (HANDOUT) – Another TED talk by Matt Cutts challenges people to try something for 30 days. You can use the handout I’ve created or just have a short brain break where students share something they’d like to try for 30 days.

32. Speed Dating – (HANDOUT) Students love this activity. I have included an example in the packet from my unit The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (the full bundle is at my TPT store). Speed Dating is just like the actual activity in real life. Students talk to another student for an amount of time I set on the clock. Usually they have a set of questions to follow. This is a great way to “shake up” some questions the students absolutely have to answer but you don’t want them sitting and working on them quietly, not engaged. You can call out a question number and then have students “switch” to a new partner to get the answer. Also a great way to differentiate and it gets the students moving around.

33. What’s My Sentence (HANDOUT) – Normally, this is an activity I do with my Tuesdays with Morrie unit. However, this is a great curricular brain break. No matter what subject you teach, you can have students derive a SENTENCE that particular person in history, vocab word, or character might say. For instance, what might a cell say about itself? Students can come up with sentences alone or with partners and stand to recite them.

34. Teen or Tween Tribune – This is a great website that allows students to look at current events related to teenagers. There is an online account teachers and students can have which allow for accountability, but students can comment on articles. It’s a really great, short brain break.

THEME DAYS – In my classroom, I have daily theme days. I got this idea from a fellow colleague in Oklahoma who was our district Teacher of the Year. This naturally lends itself to allowing brain breaks in the classroom. They can be meaningful or silly, they can also be personal to you and your hobbies. My theme days are posted in the classroom and students ask about them EVERY DAY (and I teach high school!) It’s a great, fun way to keep students engaged.

35. Inspire Me Monday – Show short, inspiration clips from YouTube on Mondays. I enjoy Kid President and Soul Pancake videos, but there are thousands you can use.

36. Bubble Monday – Yes, I’m a little crazy, but I blow bubbles in the hallway during class periods on Mondays. The students love running through them. 

37. Mustache Tuesday – (HANDOUT) I allow my students to wear mustaches on Mondays – I just print them on Avery Labels. Most of them just stick them on their binders.

38. Unbirthdays – One of my theme days is unbirthdays. These are my natural brain breaks on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

39. Throwback Thursday – Take a brain break and show pictures of yourself from high school or elementary school. Kids love this.

40. Muppet Friday – I show the Mahna Mahna song every Friday, but I also show short Muppet clips. A great, 1-2 minute brain break.

STATIONS OR PARTICIPATORY BRAIN BREAKS – If we have an station brain break, students can choose what they want to do for 5 minutes. So the next 10 brain breaks are some you can do when you tell students they have 5 minutes to participate in whatever brain break they choose. Keep a list of these on your board or on the wall, so when you tell them it is a “CHOICE” brain break, they can refer to the list.

41. Puzzle – I leave a jigsaw puzzle set up in the corner of my classroom. Students who enjoy puzzles can use their brains to work on this brain break

42. Dream Tree – (HANDOUT) Create a tree on a bulletin board or bring one to life. Allow students to fill out the DREAM TREE handout and then cut off the bottom and hang it on the tree.

43. Leave a Footprint – (HANDOUT) Make a bulletin board of footprints – how students want to change the world. During the 5 minute brain break, students can write on and cut out their foot, adding it to the other footprints.

44. Landmarks and Landmines – (HANDOUT) Have a place where students can create a timeline of their week or month. Have them chronicle the landmarks (positives) and landmines (negatives) of their school week or month. Great way to check in on how they are doing.

45. Get to Know You handouts – (HANDOUTS) Have one station be full of surveys or get to know you handouts the students can fill out. Another way to keep tabs on the interests of your students.

46. Quotes – (HANDOUT) Have a station full of quotes. Students can pick one to write about.

47. Show and Tell (HANDOUT) – There is an example of what I do for Show and Tell in the high school classroom. I have students pick out an assignment they are proud of and take it home to talk about with their parents. During this 5 minute brain break, students can choose an assignment and fill out the Show and Tell handout.

48. Mailboxes – I have a mailbox for each high school student. They keep track of their assignments there and that is how I turn back papers. There may be some helpful students who would like to pass back papers to the mailboxes or to students themselves.

49. No Names – I have a no name box in my classroom. During this 5 minute break, it is a great time to check and make sure none of those assignments in the box belong to you! 

50. Take a Lap – Seriously, sometimes I have bodily kinesthetic students who just need to take a lap and walk around the room. It gets their brains going and gets the ants out. 

Although this list is not exhaustive, it is a good start. If you are interested in the entries that are labeled “handout,” feel free to visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store. There, you can find over 30 handouts that can be used with these ideas.

Once again, please comment and add your own ideas to this list. We teachers are always about sharing the wealth! I can always use more brain break ideas for my classroom, too!