Classroom Learning Games
Making Your Lessons Fun

I have been invited on Friday to do a morning’s training with a group of History teachers in South Tyneside. My brief is to talk to them about how to make their GCSE lessons more interesting – to tell them, I suppose, some of the ‘tricks of the trade’.

I come from a different tradition to many of the young teachers nowadays. My apprenticeship was up through Sunday School teaching, Pathfinder Camps, and beach missions, when your audience was there voluntarily and you either entertained them or lost them; somewhere in my loft I have a pile of books along the line of ‘Games for Youth Groups’, and I can still describe some of the more memorable – Old String Bag, Black Magic, Hey Harry, The Priest Of This Parish, British Bulldogs etc. etc. (As an aside, it is worth noting that these games also come from a period when you went into the classroom armed only with a stick of chalk, your enthusiasm and your ingenuity. I have ‘technologised’ some of the following activities, but none of them need technology, and many of them require no technology or materials at all.)

Even when I became a teacher, I entered a profession where you were a success if you could keep the children quiet, and where your measure was to get the children leaving your lessons ‘buzzing’.

Which is why I will probably be starting with a couple of caveats – firstly that it is the sad truth that games and ‘fun’, however much they might energise and entertain (and, arguably, reinforce underlying understanding) do not necessarily translate into exam results and, secondly, that enjoying History for the games you play in your classroom is not the ultimately goal, which is that your students enjoy History for its intrinsic value and worth. History, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a wonderful subject of argument, revisionism and debate, and some of the activities listed below will introduce the students to that aspect of the subject.

Different quizzes
I am going to start by talking about quizzes which are, in my opinion, a much underrated tool. If your Year 10s come in having prepared for a test, I can assure you that you will immediately become very popular if you occasionally declare that you are going to test them in the form of a ‘Ladder’, or play a quiz-game.

A quiz-game will also serve as an adequate plenary, especially as we move into our brave new world with its re-emphasis upon factual knowledge. Towards the end of my teaching career, most of my time was spent teaching Special Needs groups. I always used to promise them ‘ten minutes of fun’ at the end of the lesson, and invent some kinaesthetic game that would get them out of their seats. Unknown to them, however, we were rehearsing the content and concept of the lesson (and embedding it into their memory at the same time).

A quiz does not need to be merely a ‘Team-A-versus-Team-B’ affair. Over the years, I have developed/stolen some smashing quiz-games, most of which require no preparation whatsoever:

A Ladder

Push the desks together to make a single line/ ‘snake’ of students. Ask each student a question in turn, from the first to the last. If a student answers incorrectly, ask the question of the next student in the line, and so on until a student gets it right. That student then jumps up the ladder to the place of the student who first answered the question wrongly; all those who got it wrong then move one place down the ladder. At the end of every round, all the students politely applaud the first in the ladder, and gently taunt the last: ‘[Name] YOU ARE BOTTOM’.

This is a wonderful revision game, because it is non-threatening. Students can hide in the pack. Getting a question wrong is not such a disaster, the teacher moves on very quickly, and you only move down one place anyway. Getting a question right, however, brings great reward. Students of all abilities adore it.

I went to market

Surely you’ve played this at some time in your life? The first student says: ‘I went to [the Western Front] and I saw [trenches]’; the second has to say: ‘I went to the Western Front and I saw [trenches and a funk hole],’ and so on, until the last student has as many things to remember as there are students in the class.

This is a great game for rehearsing/remembering topics where the students need to know a wide range of ‘aspects’ – what they would find on a WWI battlefield, problems facing people in America during the Great Depression, good things about living in Nazi Germany, etc. It is especially good for the students at the end, because they are constantly having to re-rehearse their knowledge as the thing they were going to say gets taken by someone else. Don’t worry if students ‘help’ each other; it keeps the game going and reduces the pressure on the less-able.


You ask the competitors (two teams, or two individuals) to list [battles of WWI]. Taking it in turn, they give answers until one dries up and ‘knocks’. Score as a game of tennis – ‘fifteen-love’, ‘thirty-love’ etc.

This is a good alternative to I went to market where you have a number of smaller lists to rehearse, rather than one huge one – e.g. at the end of a whole topic.


In this game, you offer [four] alternative answers. Students choose the answer they think is correct by going to an appropriate [corner of the room]. When they find out which ‘corner’ was the correct answer, those students who chose wrongly sit down. The game continues until only one student remains standing – the winner. Award a prize; and watch out for cheats sneaking back into the game!

The problem with this game is to set alternatives so that the right answer is not so easy to recognise that every student gets it every time; this can be very difficult with an able class. It works best when the students do not know the answers, and are having to deduce/guess/choose – for example, the ‘Actions of the League of Nations’ (the students know that the League had nine powers, but which one did they use in each specific situation – you stick the nine cards around the classroom, read out the situation, and let the students go to the one they think would be most appropriate).


Devise a quiz where all the answers are single words which use a common stock of (say 15) letters. Split the class into two teams and give each member of each team one of the letters written on a small piece of card. When you ask the question, not only must the team find the answer, but they have to re-arrange themselves in a line to ‘spell’ (and hold up) the word, using the letters on the cards.

Unlike the other quiz-games above, this requires preparation, and it is quite hard to devise. It is easy enough to find words which derive from a limited set of letters; the problem comes when you need to find specialist, specific words – this game is inappropriate for that, because you quickly end up with an unwieldy mound of letters.

Class Chants

This is a learning game, as much as a quiz-game. Write the information-to-be-learned on the board. The students read it out loud a few times. Rub out one piece of information. The class reads out loud the list, remembering the missing item. Rub out another item, and so on. Sometimes the whole class rehearses the list, sometimes individuals. Continue until the entire list is rubbed off the board, but the students are still able to remember it.

This is good where you have to learn something ‘off by heart’ – a list of dates, or an important quote. Where you have a list, try to give it a ‘sing-song; metre; I have never gone as far as setting it to music, but there is no doubt that this makes it more memorable.

Spicing up your Simple Quizzes
Having said all that, there is still nothing wrong with (apparently) suddenly deciding that ‘we’ll play a game’, and splitting the class into two. Girls versus Boys is still, even in our post-gender politically-correct world, a winner every time.
However, there is no need for your quiz to be a boring, endless sequence of question after question. Play the game in ‘rounds’, and make each round different.
Your first round, of course, will be simple 3/4/5 questions, delivered alternatively, to each team.
But after that round, what about a round:
* Where each team nominates an individual from their own team to answer 2/3 questions
* Where each team nominates an individual from the other team to answer 2/3 questions
* Where each teams makes up a question for the other team (they have to know the answer); give points for how good the question is, as well as for the answer
* Questions where the team can choose the level of difficulty (‘Hard’ questions worth 2/3 points, or ‘Easy’ questions just worth one)
* Accruing questions with ‘clues’ – a hard clue, a further clue and a ‘giveaway’ clue – earning 3, 2 or 1 points
* A ‘Starter for 10’ round, where you ask a question and the first team to answer gets a number of questions just for them.
* ‘Jeopardy’ rounds, where you give the answer and the students have to tell you what the question was.
* ‘Taboo word’ game: give one student a list of facts/events/words and s/he has to describe it to the rest of the team so they can guess it, but s/he cannot use that word in the description
You can always, also, spice up the game with penalties (the perfect way, by the way, to keep control of a lively class during a game) and (appropriate) forfeits.

Drama is one of those activities which seem like a good idea until you try it. Setting a group of students in an imaginary German pub to discuss the terms of the Treaty of Versailles simply ends up with students staggering around pretending to be drunk. Younger boys, in particular, seem unable to devise ANY drama which doesn’t end up in a fight. I used drama a lot in my teaching but – even with older, able classes – always felt I had to remind them that giggling, fighting or pretending to be drunk were banned and would bring their presentation to an immediate, precipitate end!

The key to any drama is to start by being sure what educational goal you are trying to attain. This will define the kind of drama you devise, and the parameters you set to the activity. The students are not doing the drama because it is fun; they are doing so as an education activity. So always mark the presentations, and tell them before you start by what criteria you will be using to do so (e.g. factual content, historical appropriateness/perceptiveness of comments etc.)

Some ideas which I felt worked very well at GCSE are:

Where your students are reticent/shy/unforthcoming/undemonstrative, do not even try to get them to act. Just get them to devise the drama, defining all its elements – the set, the characters and their characters, what they would say/do, lighting and sound effects etc. – and then just pitch that to you.

This is especially good for spatial sequences – e.g. the course of events in a WWI attack, the sequence of movements in the Korean War. Take the class into a large space, define the areas, groups etc., and then move them around physically. Kinaesthetic learning. Finish by asking the students to re-enact without you giving them the instructions.

Two students (or groups of students) in role (e.g. a Russian and an American) get together and argue about events and principles. I always used to attach a reward (e.g. no homework) and use those students who would/could not participate to sit in as judges and declare which of the combatants they thought had won the argument.
This works especially well for the Causes of the Cold War, when you can repeat the exercise, with the same combatants, for each developing event. As the lessons go on, many students become eager to go back and ‘set the record straight’ in the light of their growing knowledge.
I have a wicked ‘misinformation’ Appeasement Argument Game which uses this but gives the pupils conflicting briefings so as to

Public Enquiry/Courtroom Drama
If the students have been investigating an historical problem, the teacher can give them roles, and then ask them questions as though they were giving evidence at a public enquiry. Alternatively, a lesson can set up as a courtroom, and students play the roles of opposing lawyers and witnesses; a ‘jury’ delivers its verdict – guilty or not? Depending on the ability of the class, the teacher can adjust the degree of help from giving them a closely-prepared script to allowing them to extemporise. This takes a lot of preparation, but it is a useful way of introducing the pros and cons of an historical debate to students.
One example of this is the Reichstag Fire Trial.

Little Red Riding Hood
This sequence of dramatic activities is a brilliant drama activity which goes well with any narrative (the road to WWI or WWII, the rise of Stalin or Hitler to power etc.). The dramatic activities allow you to rehearse the factual story, standpoint the different perspectives of the participants, and then apply the knowledge/principles they have acquired to a connected question.

'Washing line'
If you have not come across Ian Dawson’s ‘washing line’ concept, I recommend it.

‘Big’ Games
Over my career as a teacher, I invented a large number of more ambitious ‘big’ games which I played with the students, which I am happy to share.
All I will say, however, by way of warning, is that these games are only as good as their plenary. Like the ‘hook’ in an assembly presentation, there is a danger that the students will leave remembering the activity, but not what you intended it to teach them. So make sure that the last 15-20 minutes of every one of these games is devoted to a discussion of what they have learned from the game, how it has improved their understanding, and to drawing out practical ways this will affect what they write when in the exam.

‘In-their-shoes’ games
These games are at base 'empathetic', because they place the student into an historical situation, and then ask them how they would have acted.  Properly played, these games can be very exciting, but they also help the students understand WHY people in the past acted as they did. 
(It is a particular personal beef that students too often write off the people and politicians of the past as 'stupid' or 'thick', and most of my games are also designed to help students understand the difficulties and problems people faced in the past.)
Note: it is vitally important that these games are followed by an extensove discussion/exposition-plenary, where you reinforce the message and relevance for their course/exam of what they have experienced in the game.
* Causes_WWI_game
* Hitler game
* Versailles negotiation game

‘Rounds’ games
This is a variant of the 'in-their-shoes' games, which sets a number of empathetic tasks - it helps pupils to understand a party's developing thinking/situation. To be honest, this is very hard, and when I have played the Nazi-Soviet Pact Game, I have always found that the pupils find it very hard to understand the messag of the game - it really needs a discussion/exposition-plenary after every round.
* Nazi-Soviet Pact game  (including ppt)