Sometimes we think theater games belong only in drama classes, but finding ways to apply these activities to your subject area can increase engagement, creativity and critical thinking. It’s also a great way to get students moving around, interacting with each other and having fun with your subject matter.
Below are some theater games you can use in a variety of classes. Just keep your students’ ages, comfort levels, and physical and linguistic abilities in mind. You know what will work best with each group and what accommodations students might need. And don’t be afraid to alter these activities to really make them your own.
This game is typically best for eighth- to 12th-grade students who have a good command of English, as it requires them to improvise and know a variety of words that start with each letter of the alphabet. The game pairs students in a conversation where they take turns speaking back and forth on an assigned topic — trying to go from A to Z. The first word of each ensuing sentence must start with the next letter of the alphabet. Sentences still have to make sense and fit with the topic you give them.
This game can get students into a creative yet focused conversation on a general topic like ecosystems, or it can review something specific like key players during the Harlem Renaissance. For an added challenge, invite advanced student pairs to try to fit in terms or vocabulary words.
- Student 1 goes first, beginning a sentence with a word starting with A, such as “Are you ready for that test on the Industrial Revolution?”
- Student 2 replies with a sentence beginning with a word starting with the letter B, such as: “Better believe I’m prepared, and I know all about urbanization and labor unions.”
- Student 1 responds with the letter C, with a line like, “Can’t forget about Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who got really rich during that time.”
- Student 2 would reply with the letter D, and so on.
If one student gets stuck, the partner can help out. If they’re both stuck, they can start over and see how far they get, or sit down and study.
Tips: It’s best to model this game first with a student you’ve prepped in advance. It’s also helpful to walk around during the activity to monitor and encourage each pair.
This improvisation game requires students to be focused, attentive listeners who are knowledgeable about the subject matter you’re choosing to review through this activity. In small groups of three to five, students work together to improvise a cohesive story. The catch is they must take turns, saying only one word of the story at a time.
In drama classes, this game quickly turns into a lively tale full of imagination and expressive body language to convey characters’ emotions. In a history, science or English class, you can still encourage that kind of drama to keep it fun vs. mechanical. You can also require students to fit in certain vocabulary words or key concepts.
Students can either practice this in groups around the room, or they can take turns standing in front of the class to tell a story. You can ask them to explain something such as how WWII began, give a summary of Sir Isaac Newton’s life and accomplishments or describe the major conflict in the play “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The topic and how you focus their attention is really up to you. You can also make this into a fun way to review before an exam by asking a question from their study guide and pointing to a specific group to respond, requiring them to take turns, saying only one word at a time.
Tips: Assigning groups cuts down on students getting distracted when working with their friends. It’s also important to make sure students understand they are on a team when they’re in a group, so when they’re practicing around the room they can help each other out. Groups will often have to start over. If you let them know that that’s part of the process (since we all make mistakes), then they will handle it better as individuals and as a team.
Angel/devil dilemma scene
This is a great game for studying moral dilemmas, using historical figures or famous fictional characters who faced difficult decisions pulling them in opposite directions. The activity can be really useful because students have to act things out to show they understand why somebody feels torn.
Groups of three or four students write, practice and act out the scene in front of the class. One person plays the historical figure struggling to make a decision. Another person plays the angel on one shoulder, and another plays the devil on the other shoulder.
If your groups number more than three, make them supporting characters who speak with the main person who is struggling internally — unsure whether to listen to the angel or the devil. If angel and devil figures seem too religious-sounding for your students, call them the conscience and the temptation, the superego and the id, or the good voice and the bad voice.
Acting out scenes like this can help students solidify important literary scenes or historical moments in their minds. It can also help them develop empathy and fully comprehend the gravity of a situation by creating realistic dialogue, showing emotion, and including relevant details that demonstrate comprehension and critical thinking.
A group acts out the moment Juliet finds out her beloved Romeo killed her cousin Tybalt, and she doesn’t know what to think. Does she react with love and forgiveness — or rage and violence? Students act out both sides, adding depth to this brief but important moment that’s wedged between scenes of violence and romance.
Tips: Make things even more engaging by starting a discussion after groups perform their scenes: Ask students what they learned while performing and watching, and to apply it to their own lives. That’ll help them feel more connected to the characters or historical figures in the spotlight.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a nonprofit organization.