Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?

Last winter I was asked to present at the National Best Practices Conference. As I was considering what to present on, I thought about all of the conference presentations I’ve sat in that provided great information but weren’t practical or relevant for me. I wanted my sessions to be things teachers could use in their classrooms the very next day, ideas that didn’t require a special program or expensive equipment.

The first presentation I did was one that’s always been popular, Quick Accommodations for English Language Learners in the General Education Classroom. The second presentation was new for me though, and I decided to do a round up of some of the most popular hands-on activities and games from my classroom that utilized common classroom and household materials and recyclables. Today I’d like to share that same round up of activities with you. I’m only going to mention each briefly, but all include links to blog posts with more details.


The most popular writing lesson I’ve ever done has to be Mr. Potato Head Descriptive Writing. Students first build their Potato Head to look like anything they choose. Second, they write a description of their Potato Head with as much detail as possible. The next day, I randomly hand students a descriptive paragraph and tell them to rebuild the Potato Head, using only the information in the paragraph. The first time through students rarely use enough detail in their paragraphs to allow an accurate recreation of their Potato Heads. The second attempt always produces much more descriptive writing.

Legos have a lot of uses in the classroom, but one of our favorite ways to use them is to practice prepositions. In Lego Preposition Build, students work in pairs to create something using Legos. The first student is given a set of step-by-step picture directions (available free in the original post) and the second student is given a baseplate and container of Legos. The first student then gives oral directions to the second student, helping him/her to create the item in the directions.

Beach balls are another toy with a lot of different uses in the classroom. Since they are unlikely to cause injury or damage upon impact, students are able to throw them back and forth across the room (something they greatly enjoy doing). One of our favorite games is Beach Ball Questions. I keep a beach ball with question words written in each section in my classroom and it only takes a moment to blow it up. Students toss the ball and whatever section their right thumb lands on is the question word they must use. After asking a question, students toss the ball again, and the person who catches it must first answer the question, before asking one of their own.

Body Boggle is a great way to practice spelling, and you might be surprised at how much your older students get into the game (my male middle school and college-aged students have been known to become quite competitive while playing). Set up an alphabet grid (I always put the letters in order, though it was suggested to mimic a keyboard setup for older learners, which is genius in my opinion.) using foam letters, a rug, or sidewalk chalk if you’re outside. Give a student a word to spell (or the definition for a word you want them to state and spell), and the student then jumps from letter to letter, spelling the word. My students have come up with several variations, including team spelling, which you can read about in the original post.

In search of yet another way for my students to practice vocabulary that didn’t involve paper and pencil, I tried Magnetic Spelling out on my middle schoolers. I didn’t have high hopes for its success, but they really enjoyed it and it became a regular part of our classroom. All you need are some letter magnets, some type of metal surface to stick them to (I use cookie sheets), and a way for students to know which words to spell (I give strips with pictures or definitions of their spelling/vocabulary words). Students look at the prompt, spell the words, and then check their accuracy with me. It provides excellent spelling practice and it’s fun to see how creative students get when they run out of or can’t find a specific letter.


I wasn’t sure whether to classify this activity as “Toys” or “Trash,” since it’s a little of both. Scrambled Words, another activity we use when practicing vocabulary, uses plastic eggs, egg cartons, and Scrabble tiles. Students are given a piece of paper with pictures or definitions of vocabulary words on it and a set of numbered plastic eggs. Inside each egg is a set of Scrabble tiles that, when unscrambled, will spell one of the vocabulary words. Students unscramble the letters and write the egg number and vocabulary word next to the correct picture/definition.

Paint Can Questions is a very active and fun game. I set up a row of empty paint cans at one end of the room and give each team a set of stir sticks with questions (minus the question word) on them. Students take turns reading the question, deciding which word should start the question, running to place the stick in the correct can, and returning to their team. The game is even better if you can play it outside or in a larger room, such as a gym or cafeteria. Full directions for making the game, and a download of the questions I used, are in the original post.

Have some old magazines stashed away? Need a good prepositions formative assessment activity? Then Picture Perfect Prepositions is for you. Give students a list of 5-10 prepositions, some magazines, scissors, glue, and extra paper, and you’re ready to go. Students search the magazines for pictures to go with each preposition and write sentences to describe how the picture represents the preposition.

Appetizing Adjectives is a great activity because it uses those grocery ads you get for free each week, and it’s easy to differentiate. Students use grocery ads to find foods for each letter. They then use adjectives to describe each food (details about differentiation and requirements in the original post). The end product is a poster. Alternatively, students can use the school lunch menu to create a restaurant-style menu for the school cafeteria.

Cover Up is a popular game in my class. I have game boards to practice cause and effect, types of sentences, past continuous tense, present perfect tense, participial adjectives, and shape vocabulary. I love being able to play a game with only a gameboard (printed on cardstock) and milk jug lids. The students love being able to play with a single friend, and how there is a bit of luck involved in winning. Each board has twelve squares, one question or prompt per square. Students roll a 12-sided die (or two 6-sided dice), and answer the question in the matching square. If the square is already covered, the turn is over. The first student to cover his/her board is the winner.

Now that everything has gone digital there aren’t as many CDs and DVDs being purchased, but there are a lot of CDs and DVDs sitting around unused. I use printable CD label stickers to create a spinner with vocabulary words, questions, or other prompts on them. Spin ‘n Spell is one of our favorite games to play with these CDs. Students spin the spinner and state the vocabulary word, spell it, and use it in a sentence. Directions for building your own CD spinner are a free download.

These eleven activities are far from the only ones I use in my classroom, but they are some of the most popular. The blog is full of other games and activity ideas you can use as well. Simply search for your topic or use the categories to help you find what you’re looking for. Happy teaching, everyone!

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