Today’s post is all about a really FUN topic: using themes in your classroom to increase student engagement. I think the most exciting thing about this topic is that it can relate to any grade level.
We all know that children enjoy learning when it is something that interests them, and research shows that making things interactive keeps kids engaged in their learning. I currently teach kindergarten, and this is my second year in a kindergarten classroom. Last year, I did not utilize a theme within my classroom, but this year I decided to give it a try. For one, it was super fun for ME as a teacher to set things up and have a focus for my overflowing Pinterest boards of ideas. It was also very neat to see the excitement on my students’ faces as they entered our classroom for the first time.
What’s popular for your students’ age groups RIGHT NOW?
Yes, when I was a kid, I was all about Beauty and the Beast, and my brothers were all about GI Joe. Yes, these are still enjoyable, and most students will still like these themes, but are they really popular right now? For boys and girls?
My students’ ages are 5 and 6 years old. I immediately took a look at the toy aisles at Target and Walmart to get an idea of what kids are buying and what they WANT to play with. I also looked at popular picture books and TV shows. These are the things that kids spend their time doing. Why not incorporate them into the classroom? This also makes it easier to find materials for your theme. If kids want it, believe me, you’ll find TONS of it everywhere, especially on Pinterest.
I decided on a pirate-themed classroom after noticing the Jake and the Neverland Pirates show on The Disney Channel and the number of toys and books for this show. I also discovered the level of popularity (at the time) surrounding the book How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and David Shannon. So, popular? CHECK!
For older grade levels, think about movies and music that the students are interested in. There’s a fifth grade teacher at my school that has a Star Wars-themed room that is amazing, and the students totally love it. She made sure it doesn’t seem too “baby” and made it “totally awesome” instead.
Can you make it INTERACTIVE?
This is something I took into high consideration for my group of kinders. A child’s attention span isn’t very lengthy, and a 5-year-old’s attention span is sometimes nonexistent. So how can you make that bulletin board pop? How can you make kids want to dive into the reading corner and devour those books? How can you make that Word Wall something the students will interact with instead of just a pretty decoration? Make sure your theme has a lot of room for creativity and can be interactive.
Think about pirates for a moment: hats, ships, water, maps, islands, treasure. I think I hit the jackpot. Instead of just a poster of a ship on the wall, why not make the ship? Instead of a reading corner, why not make it the “sail away corner?” This year, I have noticed a HUGE increase in student interest in reading independently in the reading corner because the students WANT to spend time there.
Having items be 3D has made a huge difference for my students this year. It gets them touching and feeling and interacting with their learning environment.
How can you INTEGRATE your theme into your lessons year-round?
If you are going to spend the time setting up your room with such a great theme, make sure it is something you can use all year round! How can you utilize your superheroes, dinosaurs, or princesses into your lessons all year? It is obviously not necessary to do this daily and truthfully it will get boring if you do this every day. However, making sure to sprinkle it in occasionally makes the theme work for your class.
This week in fact, as we are learning about maps in kindergarten, we drew a pirate treasure map, complete with a compass rose and a map key. We then wrote about it and gave our maps to our partners to try and find the treasure! It got the students creating, writing to describe, and reading to follow directions. It is the end of March, and my students were just as excited to be pirates this week as they were on the first day of “Kinder-garrrrrrr-ten!”
I’ve been talking a whole lot about pirates, of course, because that is the route I took this year. I do not plan to change my theme every year. It really depends on my students’ needs and interests. This also raises the question: Is an elaborate theme really necessary? No. But keeping students engaged definitely is. Here’s another way to use popular themes to get kids excited.
There are times when I just can’t stand the sight of another pirate hat and treasure chest, and if I hear that student say “Arrrgh, matey!” one more time, I’m going to scream. Changing up your focus is totally fine…for your learning activities! Definitely don’t change up that beautiful classroom! Just making a new focus for a week or so can give you the break you need from your little captains and make sure the students don’t get bored.
I have a student who is completely obsessed with dinosaurs (pink dinosaurs, to be exact), so we had a dinosaur week! We counted dinosaur eggs, we looked for “D” words in our library books, we made dinosaur feet, we wrote about dinosaurs making sure we used finger spaces and our new sight words. This was especially effective for the child who loved dinosaurs, and I saw a huge improvement in her behavior and academic achievement, as she is my lowest student. I have since snuck dinosaur activities in with her homework. 😉 I have a group of boys that drool over anything Spider-Man, and when I found a deck of cards with Spider-Man on them at a garage sale…I cannot even describe to you the looks on their faces when we had a superhero week and used those cards in our math centers.
Yes, holidays are a great and easy way to keep up with changing the themes of your learning activities, but are they really engaging? I’ll admit, Christmas was a huge hit, but Valentine’s Day wasn’t as exciting for my class this year. But using dinosaurs for that little girl made all the difference in the world for her relationship with me, with school, and with her ability to learn.
Here are some themes that I considered for myself this year and, depending on the level of popularity for kids in the upcoming school years, I may incorporate myself!
To get you started for next year’s theme, here’s a freebie for you!
These name badges will work for any grade level. If you like the pirate theme I used in my classroom, check out my blog post from the beginning of the year (on my blog) and my classroom theme downloadable pack in my TeachersPayTeachers store.
I hope that you find that student engagement increases for you when you use popular themes like movies, TV shows, music, toys, and favorite books. It made a difference for my students and myself this year, and I can’t wait to see and share what happens in the years to come! Thank you, Minds in Bloom, for having me!
More About Amanda
This is my first year teaching kindergarten, but I also spent a year in kindergarten as an intern last year. I have taught acting, dance, and musical theater to students of all ages for seven years and have been blogging for just over one year. My blog is Daisy Designs, and it is named after my sweet puppy, Daisy! I love to create materials and resources for my students and my teammates and have a TpT store also called Daisy Designs. There you can find primarily kindergarten-level products but theater products for all ages, as well. I have been married for a year-and-a-half and live in HOT central Florida.