Movement Activities That Help Learners of Every Age Refocus

An increase in wiggles and whispers or holes torn in papers from too much erasing can be important clues that your students are beginning to reach their individual or developmental limit for focus or endurance. Responsive Classroom teachers are always on the lookout for signs their students may be in need of proactive support to feel successful. Providing students with quick opportunities to move can build academic endurance and recharge learners throughout the school day.

Knowing your students developmentally can help you choose energizers and brain breaks that best fit their needs. With the age of your students in mind, here are some activities to get your thinking started. (The directions for all these activities can also be found below.)


Fives express their thoughts through actions and need lots of language repetition to grow their vocabulary. Introducing Tony Chestnut can add an energizer to your repertoire that fits their needs perfectly. Students may even enjoy doing this silently while waiting in line for their turn in PE. (Fives enjoy many things, but waiting is not one.)


Sixes experience increasingly unsettled behavior as they move on from being five. Adding a targeted energizer, such as Alphabet Aerobics, can provide an outlet for the wiggles and increase the length of academic focus. The reinforcement of lowercase letter placement is a bonus.


Sevens are hard workers and often perfectionists. At times, they will erase until there are holes in their schoolwork. A calming energizer, such as Mirrors, can provide an opportunity to reduce the intensity of the quest for producing perfect written work. Students take turns being the image and the reflection. This provides enough cognitive load to move students on from whatever is making them feel stuck.


Eights enjoy socializing and sharing humor. Go Bananas! may be just the right fit for these silly, social second graders. Classmates chant along together and pantomime peeling, eating, and going bananas! Teaching the end first will set students up for success and help them shift back into learning.


Nines are fiercely competitive and like to practice their negotiating skills. An energizer like Did You Know? provides a challenge for pairs of students as they focus on their partners and work together. You are likely to witness some sound teamwork and very serious giggles. You’ll need to practice this one with a willing colleague or student volunteer in advance of modeling for the class.


Tens are notoriously cooperative and collaborative with a clear focus on friendships and fairness. Number Freeze is a fun whole-group challenge for these terrific tens. Students work silently and cooperatively to match a specific number of classmates standing versus sitting at the buzzer.


Elevens need lots of time to talk with peers and often have difficulty making decisions. Consider a brain break such as Love It or Leave It to provide decision-making practice in a low-risk situation. Allowing a few seconds to discuss their choice with a partner can also feed their need to chat with peers. Challenging rules and limits is the job of elevens as they seek independence. Providing clear limits and expectations is essential to preserving the joy in any activity with students at this developmental level.


Twelves are emerging leaders who can initiate their own activities. While they value access to trusted adults, input from their peers is prioritized. Sit back and enjoy these capable twelves as they team up and pantomime machines during a round of Three-Person Machine. Once students have built a safe and positive community, consider increasing the risk (and reward) by challenging students to work with classmates they haven’t worked with recently. Expanding their circle of trusted friends is increasingly important as they move toward the upper grades.


No matter the ages of your students, attending to a few key details when planning energizers will lead to greater success for everyone:

  1. Know your students. Choosing movement breaks with the just-right level of risk will encourage worry-free participation. 
  2. Model clearly. Be sure students feel confident with the directions and have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. 
  3. Start simply. A few easy movement breaks that students know well will have stronger outcomes than a greater number of activities that they will participate in tentatively.
  4. Share a plan for the end. Be sure students know how you will signal the end of the movement break.

Energizers and brain breaks are quick and fun tools to proactively manage behavior and strengthen your positive classroom community. Oh . . . and they’re fun!

For more dynamic energizers and brain breaks to help your students refocus, check out Energizers! 88 Quick Movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus for elementary students and Refocus and Recharge! 50 Brain Breaks for Middle Schoolers for middle school students. To learn more about students’ developmental patterns and how you can use that information to support students, check out Yardsticks: Child and Adolescent Development Ages 4–14. 

Amy Isenhart is an elementary educator and consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools. 


Tony Chestnut


  • Have some discussions on how words can sound the same but have different meanings. If appropriate for your students, you could introduce the concept of homonyms.
  • Sing the song together before adding the motions.
  • Important: Children younger than seven do not typically understand plays on words, so be prepared to explain the double meaning of the words in this song.


Sing this song to the tune of “Frère Jacques”:

Tony Chestnut

Tony Chestnut

Tony knows

Tony knows

Tony knows I love you

Tony knows I love you

Tony knows

Tony knows


Place hands on the parts of your body that are spoken in each word or syllable:

To . . . (hands on toes)

. . .  ny (hands on knees)

Chest (hands on chest)

nut (hands on head)

knows (hands on nose)

I (hands point to eyes)

love (hands cross over heart)

you (point to a friend)


Alphabet Aerobics


  1. Chant the alphabet slowly.
  2. As the leader chants each letter’s name, children imagine each lowercase letter in their minds (or refer to the classroom alphabet chart) and form the letter with their bodies:
  • For letters that “stand tall” on the writing lines (for example, b, d, f, h), stand straight up and lift arms straight up over head.
  • For letters in the middle of the writing lines (for example, a, c, e, i), stand straight, bend knees slightly, and place arms out straight ahead.
  • For letters with “tails” that drop below the writing line (for example, g, j, p, q), squat down and put hands on the floor.


  • Alpha-aerobic your name.
  • Alpha-aerobic your spelling list.
  • Once the children are comfortable and confident, speed it up!




  • Brainstorm and practice various movements that can be done slowly and steadily. 
  • Remind students to move at a slow pace, and challenge them to synchronize their movements with their partner’s. Ask students to share strategies for doing this successfully.


  1. Students stand and select a nearby partner (or you may assign partners). 
  2. Partners decide who’ll be the leader first, and that student begins making slow and steady movements. The follower mirrors the leader’s motions.
  3. At the teacher’s signal, the two switch roles.


  • Choose one student to lead the class. After a few motions, the leader passes the lead to another classmate by pointing to her or him.
  • Have two groups of partners join each other. One pair does the mirroring activity while the other watches and works together to guess who the leader is.


Go Bananas!


  • Practice saying the chant together.
  • Model and practice actions for each movement; specifically, make sure each child has room to do a standing split at the end.
  • Share ways to maintain self-control while staying in one place.



Bananas . . . Unite!

(While standing, extend arms upward, palms together over head.)

Peel bananas.

Peel-peel bananas.

(Wiggle left arm down along left side of body.)

Peel bananas.

Peel-peel bananas.

(Wiggle right arm down along right side of body.)

Peel them to the left.

(Swing left arm up and behind head.)

Peel them to the right.

(Swing right arm up and behind head.)

Peel them down the middle.

(Swing both arms down in front and then out to sides.)

And Unh! Take a bite.

(Pull both fists down hard at sides while bending knees.)

And Unh! Take a bite.

(Pull both fists down hard at sides while bending knees.)

Go bananas

(Point both index fingers up and down above head while slowly twirling in a circle.)

Go-go bananas

(Continue pointing and twirling.)

Go bananas

(Continue pointing and twirling.)

Go-go bananas

(Continue pointing and twirling.)

Bananas … Split!

(Raise arms straight up and then do a standing split—one arm and leg stretched forward, the other arm and leg stretched backward—FREEZE!)


Did You Know?


This one’s tricky! Ask for a volunteer partner and carefully model this one for the class. Ask students what they notice, and be sure they understand the game before sending them off with their own partners.

Here’s an example:

Player 1 points to her ear and says,

Did you know, this is my elbow?

Player 2 points to his elbow and says,

No! But did you know, this is my ear?

Player 2 then points to his foot and says,

And did you know, this is my neck?

Player 1 points to her neck and says,

No! But did you know, this is my foot?

Player 1 then points to her head and says,

And did you know, this is my hand?

Player 2 points to his hand and says,

No! But did you know, this is my head?

Player 2 then points to his nose and says,

And did you know, this is my knee?

Player 1 points to her knee and says,

No! But did you know, this is my nose?

Player 1 then points to her ankle and says,

And did you know, this is my hair?

Play continues in this pattern for a set time or until you signal the current player to say, And this is the end!


Number Freeze


  1. Everyone begins seated. The leader faces the class and calls out any number that’s less than the size of the class.
  2. The leader sets the timer for sixty seconds and says, “Go!” Classmates try to get the stated number of people standing at the same time, while following these rules:
  • No one may talk or point.
  • Anyone may choose to stand at any time, but no one may stand for more than five seconds at a time (students count in their heads).
  1. When the leader thinks the right number of classmates is standing (or when the timer goes off), the leader calls out, “Freeze!” Students stay in their positions, and the leader counts the number of people standing to see if the numbers match.
  2. Repeat as time allows; switch leaders.


Love It or Leave It


  1. The leader names a topic, such as a movie, TV show, book, or song, and then says, “Love it or leave it?”
  2. Going in turn, students throw their arms up in the air as they say, “Love it” or stomp their feet as they say, “Leave it,” depending on whether they like or dislike what the leader named. This activity works best when students react quickly rather than taking time to ponder. 
  3. Repeat with a new topic.


Three-Person Machine


  1. Brainstorm different types of machines or tools used in daily life. List ideas on chart paper or a whiteboard.
  2. Students break into random (or assigned) groups of three and model a machine or tool from the list. For example:

Car Wash: Two students stand a few feet apart and face each other. They act as the washer by raising their hands over their heads and wiggling their fingers to mimic water falling over the “car.” The third student pantomimes driving the car while walking slowly between them.

  1. Each group demonstrates their machine for the class to guess. (Or choose just one or two groups and have the others take their turns throughout the week.)