“Little fish, little fish, swim out to sea,” I shout from the center of the field to the mass of students poised at one end line. From the center line, I watch as they pretend to swim across the “ocean” (the playing field) to reach the safety of the “shore” (the opposite end line). Giggles ring out and students give each other high fives as they make it to safety.
We’re playing one of our favorite games for large groups, Fish Gobbler. “Little fish, little fish, tiptoe out to sea,” I broadcast, beginning the next round, and the students start tiptoeing across the wide expanse to the safety of the far end line.
This time, however, when they are halfway across, I shout “OCTOPUS!” Suddenly, students dash here and there, linking up in groups of four to create human “octopuses” (a sort of four-person hug with long, outstretched arms). I am the “fish gobbler,” and I run among them, trying to tag students before they link up. They cooperate so well that it takes two more rounds before I finally catch someone. That student excitedly joins me at the center of the playing field to become my partner in fish gobbler crime.
When someone asked for ideas for large-group games recently on the Responsive Classroom Facebook page, I thought immediately of Fish Gobbler. This game, which I’ve played with multi-age groups of up to 75 children, was a staple of our physical education and recess games repertoire at my former school. To an observer, the game probably seemed quite complicated, with many rules and instructions for children to follow. The key to making it work was a slow and careful introduction, with lots of opportunities to practice in low-risk and safe settings. Here’s how we did it:
To begin, during PE classes, small groups of children learned how to work together to create shapes that resembled oysters, crabs, sharks, octopuses, starfish, etc. We did this before the tagging element of the game was introduced, focusing first on learning how many students were needed to create each sea creature, and how we could take care of one another and keep the whole school of fish safe from the fish gobbler.
Next, we spent time practicing the difference between responding to the “safe commands” that told students how to move across the space (swim, tiptoe, skip, hop, etc.), and the “dangerous commands” that cued them to take quick action and cooperate to make the sea creature shapes.
When we added the tagging component, we practiced safe tagging and playing the role of the fish gobbler, since students who were tagged joined the fish gobbler’s team.
Then, when we first actually played the game, we started out using just a few simple commands. Later, to make the game more challenging, we added more. By the end of the year, the fish gobbler could choose from eight or more possibilities for “dangerous” commands!
Fish Gobbler Instructions
While there are many variations on this cooperative game, here are directions for the adaptation I used with K–4 students.
Space: One large playing area with clear boundaries (it’s important to mark the end lines and center line clearly)
To play: One or two “fish gobblers” are selected. They stand in the center of the playing area. (Having an adult be the initial fish gobbler works especially well.) The rest of the students are fish and must stand on one of the end lines.
Play begins when the fish gobblers call out a “safe command” for the fish to cross the ocean. During these safe commands the fish gobblers may not pursue the fish.
The safe command might be: “Little fish, little fish, swim [or walk, hop, jump, take baby steps, jog, take giant steps, etc.] out to sea.” When a safe command is given, the fish move through the ocean (the play area) in the manner stated, making their way to the other end line.
At any point, the fish gobblers may call out a “dangerous command.” When this happens, the fish must join other fish to create the pre-taught shape for that command.
Examples of dangerous commands include:
Octopus: Four children huddle together in a group hug with arms extended.
Shark: Two students lie face down head-to-toe, with the front student holding hands above head like a dorsal fin and the back student bending legs up like a tail fin.
Oyster: Three students gather together. Two students lie on their sides in a v-shape, with hands and feet touching. The third student squats in the middle (the pearl).
Crab: Two students stand back-to-back with straddled legs, and grasp each others’ hands through their legs.
Starfish: Five students stand in a circle with arms extended and connected in the center of the circle, creating a wheel-like hub.
Fish Gobbler: All fish must fall to their stomachs and connect with all the other fish.
When a dangerous command is called, the fish must quickly and safely create the shapes before the fish gobblers tag them. If tagged, the fish become fish gobblers and the game continues, with the gobblers calling out a safe command for the fish to move back to the end line.
Be forewarned! This game is highly addictive—and lends itself well to unique and creative adaptations! I invite you to “dive in” and have fun playing with your students. Consider teaching it as an end-of-the year celebration game or field day activity—you’ll be surprised at the level of cooperation and fun that ensues!
Babs Freeman-Loftis taught elementary physical education for fourteen years before moving into administration as an assistant principal for nine years. She now provides coaching and consultations to schools and districts using the Responsive Classroom approach. She is co-author of The Responsive Classroom Assessment handbook.Tags: Movement, Special Areas