Prep-Once Activities

Bust worksheets and lectures with these activities you can reuse many times over.

We’ve all experienced it—you look up from your lesson to notice a virus spreading among your students. First one, then three, and before long, the whole class is overtaken. It’s a zombie virus … the virus of disengagement. But how do we cure this virus? Is it possible to make every lesson exciting enough to keep their attention?

Middle school students are wired to move, to talk, to connect. And yet, most sit silent and passive for hours a day. In a world of new standards, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations, ever-changing technology, and hormones, we need to reconsider the traditional teacher-centered, lecture-based approach to middle grades education.

If we had endless funds, we could hop on one of the popular sites and purchase a ready-made activity, beautifully produced by some creative teacher, and present a stellar lesson on today’s content. Then we could buy another one for tomorrow. And so on. A few dollars here, a few more there, and a fortune (that few teachers have) would be gone in no time. And we’d spend endless time printing, laminating, cutting, and organizing.

I don’t know about you, but my funds, time, and spouse’s patience would run dry long before I’d finished even one grading period.

No-Prep Activities

So how do we do it? How do we make our lessons exciting and engaging without breaking the bank or losing our minds?

These Worksheet Busters and Lecture Busters are easy, low-cost (or free!) ways to get kids out of their desks, learning in interesting and unexpected ways. And each activity can be reused again and again for virtually any content you teach. No need to make or purchase something new for each standard or skill.

Imagine the response when you dump 30 colorful balls into the middle of your room or tell students to fold their worksheet into a paper airplane … and throw it! Curious? They will be, too. And they’ll want to come back for more tomorrow.

I’ve given a quick overview of each activity here, but more in-depth directions, adaptations, and picture resources are available on my website:

Students fold worksheets into paper airplanes and fly them around the room.

Paper Airplanes
Gist: Students fold worksheets into paper airplanes and fly them around the room, then gather one and continue working.

Materials: Worksheet

Set Up:
1. Make one copy of your worksheet for each student.

2. Push the desks out of the way, leaving an open space in the middle.

To Play:
1. Have students put their name on their worksheet and do one problem of their choosing. Then have them fold their worksheet into an airplane.
2. Line the students up along the outer edges of the classroom. At your signal, they throw their airplane toward one of the other sides.
3. Students grab the nearest worksheet and do one more problem, initialing every problem they do throughout the rest of the activity.
4. Repeat steps 2–4 until the end of playing time or the worksheet is finished.

5. Students get their own worksheet back and evaluate all the answers on it, leaving the original answer but marking any corrections below or beside the original answer. This allows you to track students’ understanding across each other’s worksheets.

Make it clear that students will be graded on what they submit on their worksheet, so it’s up to them to catch and correct their classmates’ mistakes. This brings a deeper level of thinking to a traditional worksheet.

The Musical Deasks activity keeps students moving as they answer questions.

Musical Desks
Gist: Students move around the room, similar to the musical chairs party game, to complete problems on a worksheet.

Materials: Worksheet

Set Up:
1. Slice up a worksheet with numbered problems.
2. Place one problem on each desk.

3. The game may be played with virtually any desk arrangement, or desks may be moved into a large circle.

To Play:
1. Students put their name on a blank piece of paper and number it 1 through however many problems you have.
2. Describe the correct “musical chairs” flow through your desk arrangement. Practice.
3. Play music as students walk (or dance) around the desks. When the music stops, they sit at the nearest desk and do the problem on that desk.
4. Restart the music and repeat. Students should not repeat desks, so they need to go to another vacant desk with a problem they have not done.

5. Continue until you are satisfied that enough worksheet items were covered.


Gist: Each student gets both a question and an answer. Students form chains matching questions to answers, similar to “I have, who has… ?” games.

Materials: Worksheet and answer key

Set Up:

1. Cut apart a worksheet and an answer key. Keep a copy of the answer key for yourself.

To Play:
1. Distribute one random problem and one random answer to each student.
2. Students solve their problems.
3. One student’s answer will belong to a student whose question matches someone else, and so on. On your signal, students try to find the person with their answer. Students keep their own question and answer, but line up next to the people they match.
4. Students form the longest chain possible. In order for their chain to count, all answers must be correct. Students should work together to check all problems. This brings collaboration and evaluation to your basic worksheet.

5. Redistribute problems and answers and repeat.

Low-Prep Ideas

With Strike a Pose, students use their body to indicate their answer.

Strike a Pose
Gist: Plan multiple choice items into your teaching time; students respond by striking a pose.


  • ABCD pose image (see graphic above)
  • Multiple-choice questions

Set Up:
1. Plan multiple-choice items for your lesson.

2. Display the ABCD pose image. (The digital version is available on my website.)

To Play:
1. Give a multiple-choice question as part of your lesson.
2. Display the pose picture.
3. Students strike the pose that corresponds with their answer.
4. Laugh and giggle. Look around to get an idea who’s got it and who doesn’t.
5. Show the correct answer.

6. Repeat.

Caution: Make sure students have room to pose, and remind them that they don’t have permission to karate kick their neighbor.

Hungry Hippos
Gist: Students gather balls to determine which problems they solve.

Ball pit balls (one per worksheet item or one per student)


Set Up:
1. Use a sharpie to write one number on each ball.
1. Push the desks out of the way, leaving a large floor space in the middle.

2. Place the balls in the middle.

To Play:
1. Give every student a worksheet.
2. Divide them into equal teams and have team members sit together near the edge of the playing space.
3. Round 1: At your signal, one player from each team rushes to the pile of balls and gathers one for each member of their team. If teams are unequal, have teams gather an equal number of balls. They return to their team and distribute the balls.
4. Everyone answers the question on their own worksheet that corresponds to the number on the ball and reports their answers to the player who gathered the balls. That person records their team’s answers on their own worksheet and brings it to you to check. This brings collaboration and evaluation to a traditional worksheet.
5. Mark answers right or wrong. The team gets one point for each correct answer.
6. Repeat, with each player taking a turn being the one to gather balls and record answers.

7. The team with the most points wins.

Setting Up for Success

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking. You’re picturing your most challenging period, and maybe a few specific little darlings have come to mind. Perhaps you’re right to be concerned. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Be honest. Let them in on the fact that you’re trying to make learning more fun, but that you’re a little uncertain how this will go. They want to have more fun at school, so they’re likely to cooperate.
  • Talk with them after the activity. Ask them what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to change.
  • Adapt ideas. You know your personality, your students, your content, and your school. Do what works. You’ll find some suggested variations on my website. Consider the reason for the activity. Do you want it to be practice, or do you want some gradable work turned in? Each activity can be adapted for those purposes.
  • ALWAYS have a few backup copies of the worksheet ready. The moment a student chooses not to comply with your expectations, have him or her complete the worksheet independently.

My ideas certainly aren’t the only ones out there. Find what works for you. You can get students out of their desks, and you can do it without draining your bank account. And maybe they’ll even want to come back for more tomorrow.