Equip yourself with these engaging time-fillers so you never have to scramble for something to do when things don’t go as planned!
Let’s face it – the first few days of school rarely go as planned, especially in the early grades. You spend so much time getting ready, and BAM! Something throws a wrench in your plan. An activity goes way too fast. Your students aren’t quite ready for that lesson. Your class just doesn’t have the stamina…they need a break. There are so many reasons why you might need to change course throughout the school day. That’s where time-fillers come in!
They’re easy to implement on a moment’s notice so you don’t have any downtime (because downtime = chaos). Plus, they’re lots of fun, so they’re a great way to build a sense of community.
The list below is broken into two types of time-fillers. There are those that require teacher interaction (perfect for when you’re waiting for a visitor or standing in line). There are also independent activities (perfect for when you need to deal with an interruption or get materials ready for the next lesson).
Of course, these activities work great throughout the year – not just at the beginning! Make sure to bookmark (or pin!) this page and come back often when you need some ideas.
Teacher-Led Time Fillers
These activities require teacher direction and/or interaction, so they’re perfect time-fillers when you have just a few minutes until a visitor comes or the next specials class starts. They’re low-prep but super engaging. That’s why I always felt like these fun little moments were what really built positive relationships with students.
This time-filler is great if your students have the wiggles and you need to get them moving a little bit. All you do is tell your class to touch something in the room, like the letter A, the number 3, or something shaped like a circle.
Once they find something, they touch it (or point to it if it’s too high up). They stay there until everyone has found something. That way you can help those little folks who are having a hard time.
I always had the rule that nobody could be touching the same thing, but that’s just me. It all depends on how many kids are in your class and how many of that item are in the room.
After everyone finds something, then give them something new to look for! You can play as many times as you need to until it’s time to transition to something else.
Find Your Match and Say Something Kind
This time-filler does require a little bit of prep ahead of time, but it will be worth it in the end!
Here’s how it works: each student gets a card. They walk around the room showing each other their cards and trying to find their match. You could do uppercase/lowercase letters, beginning sounds, rhyming words, numbers/groups of objects, sight words, shapes – whatever your class is working on.
Once two students get matched up, they sit together against a wall and chat until everyone is finished. This gives you a chance to help anyone who is having a hard time finding their partner.
Next, stop the music and have the partners say something kind to each other. Not only is this a great way to reinforce an academic skill, but it also makes students feel good! It teaches kids how to give and receive compliments. And trust me, it’s so much fun to hear what they say!
Some students may need a little coaching because they’re shy or don’t know what to say, so I always liked to check around and ask a few partners what they said to each other.
If you have more time, collect the cards, mix them up and play again! They’ll find a new partner and give/receive a new compliment.
To get you started, I’ve created a free set for you! Click here or on the image below to download my Partner Matching Cards: Things That Go Together.
FYI: If you like these, I have math & literacy matching cards in the Little Playful Learners All-Access Club – along with 800+ other resources! Join today to access them instantly!
This is a great critical thinking game that incorporates beginning sounds. Start by choosing an object, then give two clues: the category and the letter it starts with. For example, you might say, “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter P.”
Your students then take turns guessing what it is. If they start saying things like “bear” or “turtle,” remind them what sound the letter P makes. If they’re really stumped, you can add another clue like, “It’s an animal that starts with the letter P and it loves the cold.”
Some great categories are:
- Students in your class
Whole Body Letters
Here’s another time-filler that will get your students out of their chairs and moving their bodies. It’s super easy – all you do is say, “Use your body to make an uppercase A” and see what they come up with!
You can keep it open-ended, or put some rules in place. Can they just use their fingers or do you want them to use their whole bodies? Do you want them to be standing up, or can they lay down to make the shape? Can they use two (or more) people? It’s amazing how creative Little Learners can get with this!
There are also lots of variations of this activity! You could also have them make numbers or shapes. Or, have them work with a few other students to make sight words – each student has to make one letter in the word.
Get in Groups
I’ll admit that I generally used this activity as a morning greeting, but it’s a great time-filler too! The concept is easy, but it’s a little bit challenging for students to figure out and they LOVE it!
Students start by spreading out in the room, then you say, “Get in groups of 4.” They then have to put themselves into groups of 4.
If there are any “leftovers,” I always have them get in a group with me so they don’t feel left out. Then we talk about how many groups there are, and how many kids were left.
Have them spread out, then call out a different number for students to make groups of. However, I’ve found that it’s best to make a rule that they have to get into a group with different people than they did the last time. Otherwise, they tend to always group up with their friends, which is not as much of a challeng. Plus, it can make some kids feel left out.
Count & Sit
For this time-filler, students stand in a circle. Choose how high you want them to count, then each person says a number. Whoever says the last number has to sit down. For example, if you’re having them count to 10, choose a person to start with one, then the person next to them says 2, and so on until someone says 10. That student has to sit down.
Sometimes kids feel bad that they’re “out,” so you might invite them to be creative in how they sit down – they can jump, dance, melt, etc. so it’s a little more fun for them.
A variation would be to have a student sit down on each multiple of 5 or 10. So if you’re counting to 100, anyone who says 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. would have to sit down.
Seek & Find
This is one of my all-time favorite games to play in the classroom, and it’s always a student favorite too! Here’s how it works:
Place some cards in a pocket chart – they can have letters, numbers, shapes, words, etc. on them. Then hide a smaller object card behind one of them. There are lots of great sets on TpT, or you can just use what you have (I’ve been known to put a sticker on a paper scrap and hide it behind flashcards in a pinch!).
Or, better yet, why not try digital Seek & Find games? You can just pop onto your interactive white board or projection screen! I’ve created a whole bunch of sets that cover wide range of skills and themes – check them out in my TpT store! Here’s an example:
If you think my Digital Seek & Find games are pretty great, you might want to join the Little Playful Learners All-Access Club, where you can download HUNDREDS of digital activities for Seesaw and Google Slides as well as printable worksheets and centers! There are no monthly membership fees – you just pay once and you’re in forever!
Independent Time Fillers
These are activities that allow you to take a few minutes to prep materials, deal with an interruption, or give some individual attention to a student who needs you.
It may take a bit of time to get your class going, but once you have them set up, you’ll be able to shift your focus and do what you need to do!
For the first few days of school, I always had mini-tubs of Play-Doh ready for each student. I actually just had them keep it at their table spots (unless it became too much of a distraction). That way, anytime I had an interruption or something didn’t go as planned, they could just open up their Play-Doh and mess around with it until I could get back on track.
After the first week or so, I would send it home with them. Of course, I still had my bigger tubs of Play-Doh for other purposes, but didn’t need it on a daily basis.
With the Play-Doh, you could have them just explore with it however they want. Or you could give them challenges by asking them to make things like:
- 3 balls
- 2 snakes
- The letter T
- A square
- Their names
You could also have dough mats available for them to make letters, numbers, words, and more…though they would likely need more than just a mini-tub of dough if you go this route. Here are some number mats that are available in my Candy Craze Number ID & Counting Centers set:
You can grab the set in my Tpt store, or you can get them – and hundreds of other great resources – when you join the Little Playful Learners All-Access Club!
Centers like these are being added each week, as well as new printables and digital activities! The best part is, you’ll get lifetime access to all my current and future resources for one low membership fee.
Have you ever heard of Tenzi? It’s a dice game and it’s an early elementary teacher’s dream! I actually use this as one of my 2 early finisher activities throughout the year, but during those first few days, it’s an excellent time-filler.
It does take some whole-group instruction for students to learn how to play. But once they know how, they’ll be able play independently when you need a few minutes.
The most basic way to play is this: each player has 10 dice and you race to see who can roll and get all their dice on the same number first.
However, there are lots of different versions…in fact, you can even get a deck called 77 Ways to Play Tenzi. There are so many great ways to learn about numbers with this game!
The official Tenzi dice sets are pretty expensive – they do come in lots of fun colors and they’re really great quality. But the price isn’t so great if you’re considering getting a set of 10 for each student in your class.
I found packs of 100 colored dice for way cheaper on Amazon that come with 10 velvet pouches to hold them in. Here they are (click on the image to snag some):
At the beginning of the school year, we start with 5 dice instead of 10 – hence the name Fivezi. To teach them how to play, I have my students sit in a circle on the rug. I give them each a set of dice and a container to roll their dice into. That helps keep them from rolling them all over the room!
I had a bunch of plastic containers that were left by the previous teacher in my classroom last year, but before that, I used these paper food boats:
To introduce Fivezi, I would tell them a number and have them start rolling. There’s no racing yet…just getting the hang of it, so we wait until the whole class gets their set of 5 before we move on. We’ll do that once for each number. Then I show them how they can turn it into a race. I get them partnered up and let them play. And that’s it!
Once they’ve played a few times, they can do it independently. And as the year goes on, you can move to 10 dice and add in some different variations to keep them excited about it.
Just for Fun Reading
This is actually the other early finisher activity I always used. But again, it works great as a time-filler at the beginning of the year!
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but I’ve found that sometimes teachers get so caught up in having their students read “just-right” books that we forget to let them read just for fun.
So when you allow them to read with friends – whoever they want, whichever books they want, wherever they want – it feels like a treat to them! I don’t know how many times I would look around my classroom while they were reading like this and would feel such a sense of joy – like…this is right. This is how it should be. Just reading for fun, being social, and learning to love books.
A variation on just-for-fun reading would be to let them each read to a stuffed animal. This is a great option if you have a wild class who has a hard time staying on task when they have the freedom like I just described. It’s also a good way to keep the energy level down for the next activity.
But please, please, please give your class the opportunity to freely read with their friends at least some of the time! It’s so good for them!
Cosmic Kids Yoga
I am the HUGEST fan of Cosmic Kids Yoga videos on YouTube! They’re so engaging because they feature characters and themes that kids love. And they’re not the type of brain break that gets your students wound up – they’re generally pretty calming (but not always – just a word of caution!).
They also range in time from just a couple minutes to over 20 minutes long, which is great when you need to keep your students busy for a little bit longer.
I often used these when I was prepping materials for an art project or craft. I also used them every day after lunch while students were putting their winter gear away and/or using the bathroom. They’re seriously the best!
Here’s an example (Minecraft, yay!):
I’m hoping that having a few time-fillers like these in your back pocket will help remove some beginning-of-the-year stress so that you can breeze through your first days of school! But I know that there are many more ideas out there, so I’d love to know…what do you do in your classroom when you have a few empty minutes? Comment below!
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