Using the Gym for Content-Area Lessons and Games


Games tap into our brains’ natural tendency to seek out novelty and rewards. That’s why games can be so effective as an instructional tool; they drive students to be excited, involved, and persistent in learning a new concept.

Although you can certainly play educational games in your classroom, your school’s gym offers a great space and numerous resources to help you create and implement games that will engage your students. When I taught middle and high school, I often collaborated with the P.E. teachers to create games that met both of our content standards. Not only was it beneficial for our scope and sequences, but it also helped students see that learning can take place not only at a desk, but anywhere in the building.

This article gives you tips and examples for using the gym to teach in your content area.

Tips for Creating Effective Games

Let’s investigate some tips for creating strong and effective gym-based games.

Remember that your game should be content-based.

Games are great for capturing students’ attention, but remember that your game is a curriculum tool. Thus, the first step in designing a good game is to look at your standards and objectives and determine the curricular goal for the game. The game should follow the same pattern as any good lesson. It should have a hook, the game itself, and a closing wrap-up activity.

Determine the kind of game you are going to implement.

The gym gives you many options for games. For example, in addition to a wide-open space, you have access to equipment such as cones, balls, jump ropes, and Hula-Hoops. Think about how to use the entire space of the gym and how the equipment can help to drive the game play.

Develop appropriate scaffolds.

As with any other lesson, it is necessary to develop appropriate scaffolds to help all students participate in the game in an effective way. Gym-based games often involve a high level of physical activity, so think through which of your students may need help and how to keep them involved. In addition, since the game also has an instructional focus, make sure to determine the kinds of scaffolds your students may need to help with comprehension and navigation of the game content.

Set up the game.

Make sure to set up the game before class starts. Doing so helps students understand the basic layout of the game as they enter the gym. Setup may include dividing the gym into different stations, placing equipment at those stations, or posting clues around the gym walls.

Establish the rules.

Before playing the game, review the rules with your students. Make sure they understand the learning objective as well as how to play the game. Doing so will help students understand both behavior expectations and what they should get out of playing the game.

Evaluate student performance.

Just as you would observe students during a regular classroom activity, watch them play the game to see what they’re getting out of it. Is the game effective? What changes might you need to make for next time?

End the game with a strong wrap-up.

When the game is finished, have your students submit a reflection to help them think about what they learned during the game, what was meaningful to them, and how the game helped them understand the content.

Some ideas for wrap-up activities include:

  • 3-2-1 summaries
  • Reflective journals
  • Picture summaries
  • Learning blog or vlog

Game Ideas

Now, let’s look at some examples of games that you can implement with the equipment found in most gyms.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts are a great activity for any content area, and the gym is an excellent place to stage them. It is big and allows you to plant clues across a large area while still being able to watch your students.

When hiding clues, you can use the gyms equipment to help shield clues or to provide obstacles or challenges for students. For example, you could have a clue that requires students to jump rope for one minute before opening it.

You can use traditional written clues, or you can incorporate technology through the use of QR codes. With QR codes, students simply use their cell phones or iPads to scan the code and view the clues, which could be text, images, or videos. A good resource to help create QR codes is QR Code Generator.

Race for the Term

This game is a great way to introduce, review, or assess vocabulary terms or other course concepts. The setup is rather simple. It runs like a relay race. At one end, students are given a term or concept, and at the other end are the definitions or answers. Students must run to the other end to find the answer. You can paste the answer on cones and have them arranged in a way that requires students to examine each cone before finding their match and racing back to the team. The team that collects all of their cones and makes the correct matches first wins.

Here are some examples of content you could review with this game:

  • Vocabulary
  • Math functions or problems
  • Important dates
  • Steps in the scientific process
  • Steps in an experiment
  • Important events
  • Types of sentences
  • Genres of fiction
  • Parts of an equation

Stranded on an Island

This is a fun game that helps build teamwork and problem-solving skills. The premise is that students are stranded on Gym Island, and to get off the island, they need to reach the other side to signal for help. However, to get to the other side, they must make it through a perilous set of challenges. As students progress from one station to the next, they must work in teams to solve the challenges.

Because the challenges can be anything you want them to be, you can use this game in any content area. In a P.E. class, the challenges can be different physical activities, such as jumping jacks or sit-ups. Or for a math class, the first station might require students to solve a series of math problems and then explain their process at the next.

Don’t be afraid to be imaginative with this game. For example, instead of naming the challenges Station A and Station B, you could call them Blue Lagoon and Fiery Mountain. You can even use butcher paper to create lagoons and volcanoes to help students feel immersed in the game.

Vocabulary Hot Potato

This is a fun game that makes use of the gym’s ball supply. Just as in regular hot potato, the students toss the ball between each other while sitting or standing in a circle. However, unlike regular hot potato, you do not use music to start and stop the game. Instead, give students a concept or vocabulary term and have them throw the ball between each other. As they catch the ball, they have to think of a word that complements or explains that term. They have 3 seconds to say their word and throw the ball. If they cannot in those 3 seconds, they are out. You can also have them spell out a word as they toss the ball, each person saying a different letter.

However you choose to format the game, the key is to have students toss the ball as they add to the word list or spell out the word. By having to throw the ball as well as think of a word, students are using different parts of their brains and, because of this, will be more engaged and focused.

Bringing Games to Your Curriculum

Put simply, games are fun and engaging. By using gym-based games, you can increase your students’ engagement and interest in a topic in ways you may have never seen before. Remember, the key is to make instruction more robust and provide students opportunities to move, laugh, compete, and problem solve all at the same time.

Interested in learning more? Advancement Courses offers K–12 educators more than 200 online courses that are self-paced and designed for your professional development, covering both foundational topics and emerging trends. Here are a few that can help you bring games into your curriculum:

  • Level Up! Student Achievement Through Gamification and Game-Based Learning: In a gamified learning environment, the coursework is the game and the students are the players! Take an in-depth look at games, gaming culture, and game design to identify the characteristics that make it such a powerful learning tool. Regardless of whether you use technology, you can incorporate games into your instruction to leverage their benefits.
  • Sports and Games: Using Instructional Models in PE: The days of uninspired and unorganized play are over! It can sometimes be a struggle to find activities that both engage students and align with national standards. However, this course will give you the tools you need to do just that. You’ll develop strategies for identifying competency-based, goal-oriented games that are appropriate for K-12 physical education, as well as tools for evaluating students as they develop a lifelong interest in fitness.

About the Author

Elizabeth Contreras is an adjunct instructor at Brookhaven College and previously taught at the secondary and middle school levels. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of North Texas and an M.A. in History from Texas Woman’s University. She was awarded one of three Foreign Policy Association NYU Great Decisions Institute scholarships in 2008, and her work creating a program for underprivileged students that sponsored scholarships and enabled 50 students to attend the 2013 presidential inauguration was featured on Univision Dallas.

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