Fun and Engaging First Day of School Activities to Kickstart the Year
by Voyager Sopris Learning on March 7, 2023
Everyone knows that first impressions are important, and the first impression students get on their initial day of school can have a lasting impact on the rest of the school year. It is important to focus on the first-day-of-school activities because they can set the tone for a positive and exciting school year. The first day of school can be a nerve-wracking experience for both students and teachers, but suitable activities can make all the difference in building a positive and productive classroom environment.
The first week of school may vary from elementary school to middle school to high school, but the core goals are the same. During this first week, the teacher strives to set positive expectations for the year for both student success and teacher success. Students will succeed if they can quickly establish relationships with their peers, routine procedures, and respect for the teachers. Likewise, teachers will be successful if they can quickly build connections with their students, classroom management, and clear communication. There are many different activities teachers can use within the first few days of school that are simple yet highly effective at achieving these goals.
Some of the most common first-day activities include icebreaker activities, creating a class mission statement, getting-acquainted activities, making connections, setting goals for the year ahead, creating a classroom community, and an introduction to class expectations. Activities like these are not only fun, they can start the year off on the right foot in a way that creates a classroom environment of both engagement and expectation.
Top Back to School Activities
The number of back to school activities is long, and is growing each year as education and technology continue to evolve. However, here is a list of a few proven activities that ultimately focus on some of the most important elements of education: the students, the classroom environment, and the relationships that occur in the classroom.
1. Icebreaker Activities
The icebreaker activity is a classic concept that focuses on a variety of fun and interactive games specifically designed to, as the name suggests, “break the ice.” Icebreakers help students feel more comfortable and at ease on their first day of school.
There are many icebreaker games to choose from that have been successful in both classroom and work settings. However, some common ones include: “All About Me,” “Name Game,” “Find a Partner,” and “Two Truths and a Lie.” These activities can foster a classroom environment of community and trust from day one. The most basic form of an icebreaker activity is for students to complete an “All About Me” page, which allows students to tell everyone about themselves, but it is not as interactive as other icebreaker activities.
Icebreaker activities can vary in depth and detail when it comes to getting to know someone. For example, the “Name Game” mainly focuses on repeating and learning someone’s name. Students go around in a circle saying their name and one thing they like that starts with the same letter of their name. The next student repeats the previous information and adds their name to the list. As the game moves around the room, it becomes more challenging to remember as more information is added.
While the “Name Game” centers around learning and repeating names, “Find a Partner” has students go beyond just names and preferences and instead engage with each other to find similarities and connections. Finally, “Two Truths and a Lie” has students not only interact with each other but also has them practice skills of analysis, inference, and deductive reasoning. As students share two facts about themselves and one lie, classmates are left to consider which information is likely to be true or not. “Two Truths and a Lie” provides a more advanced way of getting to know your classmates, which high school students often enjoy.
2. Creating a Class Mission Statement
Creating a vision or mission statement is something that almost every business or corporation does to present the values and goals of that company to its employees and clients. Likewise, creating a class mission statement as an activity on the first day of school can help students and teachers work together to establish who they are, what they value, and how they want their classroom to operate.
The process of creating a class mission statement includes three main steps: brainstorming ideas, voting on the final statement, and displaying the statement in the classroom. The benefits of having a class mission statement include helping students understand their own role in the classroom as well as promoting a positive and cohesive classroom environment. When students are part of the process creating a mission, they are then invited to take more authority and involvement in ensuring the class rules and values are met throughout the school year.
While there are many ways to go about creating a classroom mission statement, there are a few strategies that can make this process easier. For example, having students write down their ideas on sticky notes during the brainstorming process can make it easier to organize all the different ideas students share. Then, placing the notes on the board can reveal patterns of goals and values to include in the mission statement. Allowing students to submit their sticky notes anonymously and having an open discussion about everyone’s ideas can encourage participation from all students. Once all the ideas have been presented, let students vote on the final result to solidify the decision.
Another way to go about making a class mission statement is to provide students with a template to follow. This can help students organize their thoughts into a cohesive statement. For example, this template featured in, A How To Guide For Co-Creating A Class Mission Statement:
“We the class of ___________________ devote to being ___________, __________ and ________________. We work to achieve ___________________ and ________________ everyday because _______________________. We believe _____________________.”
“We the class of ________________ believe that _______________________________. Therefore, we strive to ___________________ everyday. We will be ______________, _____________ and ________________ and work to _____________________.”
Once a statement has been created, displaying the final result on a bulletin board can serve as a constant reminder for students to remember and reflect on from the beginning of the year to the end.
3. Geting-Acquianted Activities
Get-to-know-you activities have been used in classrooms to help students get to know one another and build a positive classroom community among peers on the first day of school. Sometimes it is something as simple as wearing name tags to help people learn names, and sometimes the activities are more involved. There is seemingly no limit to how get-to-know-you games can bring your students closer together in ways unique to each activity itself. Some focus on learning students’ names, some on finding things in common with each other, and others sparking intrigue and excitement.
Some different types of get-to-know-you activities include “Question of the Day,” “Would You Rather,” “Interview a Classmate,” “Mystery Student,” and more. “Question of the Day” is always a simple, easy way to start each day with an opportunity for students to voice an opinion and make connections with other students. In lower grades, such as kindergarten or first grade, questions may be as simple as, “What is your favorite type of candy?” As grade level increases in depth, questions may become more though-provoking and even relate to the lesson for the day.
“Would You Rather” is a great option to get students up and moving. Students can move to different sides or corners of the classroom based on their answers and start to see responses they may have in common with their classmates.
“Interview a Classmate” and “Mystery Students” are a little more involved than a simple question-and-answer response. These two activities involve students more in the process of asking questions and seeking answers themselves. With these, students are either practicing their questioning and listening skills by interviewing a peer, or they are practicing investigative skills by using questions and answers to lead them to solving a “mystery.”
One tip when it comes to get-to-know-you activities is to have the teacher participate in the activities as well. Each new school year, students are getting to know a new teacher. Having teachers also play some of the games can allow the students to meet the teacher in a way that is more relaxed and informal. Even teachers may have first-day jitters, so allowing themselves to be involved in get-to-know-you activities can relieve some of their stress too.
4. Making Connections
Once some activities have been completed for students to get to know each other, they should then have opportunities to actually connect. The goal of the first week of school goes beyond just the idea of learning information, but actually connecting to what they learn about and who they learn about.
Some of the most traditional ways of making connections are through group discussion, team-building exercises, and a class scavenger hunt. Group discussions are nothing new to the classroom, but often educators save discussions for more formal or academic roles in the classroom. Group discussions can also be used in more informal or personal roles in the entire class. One great discussion starter for making personal and academic connections during reading instruction or reading intervention is the text to self, text to text, text to world strategy.
Team-building exercises are also popular activities for strengthening connections between classmates. One example of a team-building exercise is to conduct a school scavenger hunt. This can be used in a number of different ways, but the goal of fostering a sense of teamwork should always be at the heart of the activity.
5. Setting Goals for the Year Ahead
Goal setting is an important procedure to set up during the beginning of school because it encourages a growth mindset in students to lean on throughout the school year. Often goals are displayed somewhere prominently in the classroom as a reminder for learners to refer back to throughout the school year, and other times they are creatively placed into some form of time capsule for students and teachers to return to on the last day of school.
The process of setting goals might seem simple for adults since it is something we participate in often, but students must be taught and retaught the process. Goal setting is a skill to be learned and fostered. The goals in these activities can range from individual goals to group goals, or even a class goal. The goal-setting process should include brainstorming, decision-making, reflection, and accountability.
Setting goals for the year ahead holds many benefits for those involved in the process. Not only does it help to promote motivation and focus, but it also provides a sense of purpose among students and teachers.
6. Creating a Classroom Community
Creating a positive and inclusive classroom community on the first day is vital to the overall success of students. This may involve different types of activities and strategies, such as setting classroom expectations, creating a class contract, and establishing class norms. Being part of a strong classroom community helps to promote trust, respect, and accountability among students and teachers.
Students must remember that being part of a community also involves being part of a system of rules and procedures. These expectations of how students should behave in class will allow them to participate and engage with their academic community better. Teachers can help establish classroom management of rules and procedures by clearly communicating classroom expectations effectively and holding students accountable for upholding the classroom rules. This can often be done by presenting students with a class contract.
In lower grades, a class contract might be a simple statement or list of rules that are clearly displayed in the room and referenced throughout the school year. In upper grades, a class contract might be a more formal written document students sign for accountability and agree to at the beginning of the school year. In all grades, allowing students to contribute to creating any of the rules, expectations, procedures, or contracts can actually encourage students to follow them more.
7. Introduction to Class Expectations
While the first few days of school should be fun and engaging, they should also set clear and consistent expectations for behavior, learning, and assessments. Class expectations should be clearly communicated to students and consistently adhered to by teachers. This balance of clarity and consistency should be established quickly in the first few weeks of school to set the foundation of expectations for the rest of the year.
This may include establishing routines and procedures to teach behavior, writing learning objectives on the board to set expectations during learning, and explaining the assessment process to students. Setting clear expectations can help promote structure to how a community operates, understanding of what is expected, and a sense of accountability among students and teachers.
Teachers can better facilitate this activity by involving students in the process of establishing classroom rules, clearly communicating expectations in both written and verbal form, and ensuring expectations are consistently reinforced throughout the school year. All of this will draw students into the process and help enforce them through a sense of ownership.
According to Harry Wong in his book The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, “There is overwhelming evidence that the first two to three weeks of school are critical in determining how well students will achieve for the remainder of the year.”. Therefore, teachers must remember those first few days and weeks are vitally important.
Not every activity listed here is going to work in every classroom. Teachers should implement the activities and strategies that best fit their teaching style and school culture, perhaps even using a variety of activities to cover a variety of needs. At Voyager Sopris Learning®, we are constantly seeking more ways to support teachers with resources and activities for every occasion.
The first moments of each school year are precious, and they set the tone for the whole year. By creating a positive and engaging start to the school year, teachers are creating an environment where students are more likely to succeed in school and beyond. Activities such as those discussed here have the power and ability to teach students skills of listening, empathy, and trust in each other—all important skills valued in adulthood as well.