One commonality across all new classrooms, from elementary to university, is in the gathering of individuals who hope to find a space of belonging. This initial time together is an opportunity to set norms and expectations while also building trust and community. This investment in the first few days and weeks can pay off as relationships strengthen and students recognize your classroom as one that is safe and welcoming.
The staff at Lab-Aids®, many of whom are former science teachers themselves, worked up a list of ideas to get started building a classroom community. This is definitely just a starting place and we feel confident that with a little inspiration, you'll be off and running with several more ideas of your own. Use the activity name and brief description to quickly find numerous variations and instruction online.
As with any suggested instruction, know the individual and collective needs of your students and rules set by your school or district. Not every idea will work well in every classroom. Recognize that both the group and each individual will need time to feel comfortable and that the pace is different for everyone. Start small with shorter activities that require less vulnerability and work your way up over time - for some, just saying their name aloud is a big deal and all participation should be acknowledged.
IDEAS AND INSPIRATION FOR THOSE FIRST WEEKS OF SCHOOL (AND BEYOND!)
Getting to know each other
- Learning names: providing intentional space for students to learn each others' names is essential for initial community building. This is also a good time to give space to name pronouns. There are a zillion out there but a few of our favorites include:
- Going on vacation/camping trip/field trip: "My name is Mrs. Porter and I'm taking the class on an imaginary trip to <anywhere>! On this trip I am going to bring popsicles." Next student continues with an item of their first initial and tries to repeat all those before.
- Ball Toss: Start with introductions - one student (or teacher) tosses the ball asking, "My name is -----, what's yours?" Repeat without duplications. On the next round shorten the phrase to a statement using both names, My name is -----, and I'm tossing to -----." Repeat without duplication. If the group is into it you can take it to the next level with just names but keep the order the same each round and see if you can get faster.
- Name art: Have students create a small name tent or mini-poster incorporating something they enjoy or like into the name (a soccer ball for an "o" or just a flourish next to the name). Be sure to provide stencils and other tools that allow those less artistically inclined to feel successful.
- Silent line-up: Students are asked to line themselves up alphabetically by the first letter (and second if applicable) of their first name. This one is best done after 1-2 other name activities so they have some idea of names already. Follow it up with some other sorting like birthdate, shoe size, etc. This is also an excellent activity for teachers to observe which students naturally take over, and which are resistant or more reserved.
- Two Truths and Lie: Have them generate 2 truths about themselves and one lie, getting others to try and guess which is the lie. Recommended after students are feeling more comfortable with each other and with a more experienced facilitator.
- Quiz/bingo on facts about themselves/other kids: encourage students to submit information about themselves ahead of time (this can be as guided or not, depending on the age and skill levels) and then create a few different bingo card templates. Everyone (teacher too!) then goes around the room finding a match to each square, writing in their name.
- Hypothetical questions: for example, "If you had to get a tail, what tail would you want and what would you use it for?" Give students groups one minute to rapid fire share their answers. Switch groups and/or ask questions over a period of a few days when they're already shuffled from the previous session.
- This or That: A cat or a dog? A burrito or a salad? Throw in odd pairings to bring levity... a stapler or a mango?
- Guess Who: This is best played after they know each other better
- Surveys/polls: Offer quick polls as students enter the class. Topics are endless - Would you rather? If you could have a superpower? Food, music, sports preferences...
- Do you love your neighbor? Arrange chairs in a circle, minus one. The person without a chair stands in the middle, everyone else sits. Group: "<Name>, do you love your neighbor?" Center person has 2 choices: 1) "No!" Everyone has to find a new chair. 2) "Yes, except for people with <characteristic/clothing/etc>." Anyone meeting the named criteria (having a sister, or brown eyes, or likes AC/DC, for example) has to find a new chair. The goal for the center person is always to find a chair and not be the center again.
Play and interact with each other
- Traditional Games: Hangman (but call it something else!!), Pictionary/Charades, Bingo, Name that Tune
- Camp Games: Animal Signs, Simon Says, Scavenger Hunt for common items
- Mystery puzzles (like 20 questions), problem solving, Ummbrella
- Team quizzes
- Classroom starters: have an activity for students to do while everyone is getting in and settled. Example: Have a strange image that's zoomed way in. Let students just chat about what it might be. Once everyone is in class, slowly zoom out until someone gets it.
- Giving/following directions: One person has a simple shape or image (shared privately by the instructor), and tries to explain to someone else how to draw the same thing. This can be done with pairs, smaller groups, or with the whole class. Great primer for procedures!
- Build on the next person games like: I’m Going on a Camping Trip and I’m going to bring (everyone says something that starts with each letter of the alphabet and is in theme), Alphabet (starts with one who says “Train”, next person says a word that starts with “n.” Storytelling Chain (Instructor gives starting sentence, kids add to it.)
- Freeze dance
- Rhythm/beat challenges
- Building challenges, ex: a structure out of paper that can hold x/is x high, a newspaper marble run that can't be faster than x seconds, etc. Look up "minute to win it" challenges for lots of ideas.
- Circle Sign: everyone thinks of a movement, shares it once. The starting person does their sign, 2nd person does first and theirs, 3rd does 1, 2, and theirs, etc
- Fire on the Mountain
In a virtual space
- Many of the ideas above can be modified for a virtual classroom.
- Teach students how to change their display name. If this is not already done through rostering or some auto process, students may be using a shared computer, may only display last name, might be misspelled, etc. Our name is a part of our identity and, especially in a virtual setting, it's important that students have a space to display theirs proudly and correctly. This may also be an opportunity for students to phonetically write their name, share preferred pronouns, add an adjective that starts with the same letter, etc.
- Grid view: students need to be able to see each other, not just the instructor. Depending on your platform, like Google Classroom, this may need to be provided as an "add-on" by your district administrator.
- Vocabulary Scavenger Hunt: Find creative ways for students to move around the house, outside, or even use their computers to search and share items that are related to key vocabulary. Example: find something related to "photosynthesis."
- 10 Powerful Community Building Ideas, Edutopia. Emily Minero, 2019
- Community Building in the Classroom, Columbia University, Center for Teaching and Learning
- Building Community in the Classroom, Teaching Channel
- How to build an equitable learning community in your science classroom, STEM Teaching Tools, Deb Morrison & Philip Bell, 2018
- Playmeo - a search tool for interactive games