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News flash: some students require motivational activities to do any school work at all. (Just kidding. You already knew that, didn’t you?) When it comes to motivating kids, I see homeschooling parents and school teachers struggling equally. It just goes to show that kids will be kids, no matter what setting they learn in!
During my seven years as a public school teacher, knowing how to motivate reluctant learners was essential. I worked with a high-needs, high-risk population, which means they were frequently the kids all other teachers had given up trying to motivate. My job was to get them engaged, educated and excited to walk across that graduation stage. And though I mourn the few kids I was never able to reach, almost all of them succeeded.
If you’re struggling with getting a kiddo out of bed, into a seat, and/or doing work once in their seat, try a few of my best motivational activities. Some will help motivate your child to trudge through work they hate. Some will engage students so they start enjoying their subjects. And some are so easy, you can start using them tomorrow!
#1 Brain Breaks
This one is ridiculously simple and can be easily tailored to your student’s preferences. Basic science shows that students who get regular breaks during academic time are better able to store and remember new information. Kids are also able to learn/work for longer stretches at a time with regular breaks. (Just like grown-ups! Who would have guessed?) Generally, you should schedule a short break for every 3 minutes times your child’s age. So a five year old could have a brain break every fifteen minutes, and a 15 year old could go for 45 minutes.
Brain breaks are great for getting in physical activity (especially if your child struggles with ADHD or other attention disorders). While you can do something calming like a stretch or yoga break, you can also crank up the energy. Dance breaks are a huge hit with younger students. You can check out YouTube for “brain break dance music” for some wholesome tunes (I know my daughter and her friends love the Freeze Dance song). Some songs also come with choreographed dances kids can learn in five minutes!
Other kids might be more motivated by an artsy brain break. Encourage them to doodle with their pen or pencil for five minutes between sections. You also could print out a coloring page or mandela to focus on. Don’t let them pull out the whole arts and crafts box, however. The point of a brain break isn’t to start a whole new activity. Rather, it’s taking just enough time to relax and build steam to power them through the next lesson.
Whatever type of brain break you choose to have, set a timer where your child can see it (or have them set it themself). This way, they don’t get so caught up in the break that going back to learning becomes a fight. Setting the timer sets the expectation, and it makes transitioning back to learning much easier.
#2 Games (as an Academic and Motivational Activity)
I don’t know about you, but some of my favorite days in elementary school were spent playing “7 Up.” Perhaps sometimes, my teachers just sensed that my classmates and I simply needed a “brain break,” and used games to that end. But games can be so much more than an unrelated carrot to dangle in front of students!
Incorporating games into actual learning processes is sometimes all it takes to wake up a kid’s brain and re-energize them. If your child struggles with spelling, why not play spelling bingo to encourage additional practice? If you’re working on math concepts like greater than and less than, try incorporating dice games!
For some kids (and adults!) the best way to motivate is to give them a checklist of “to-dos.” There is something just so satisfying about scribbling off item after item upon completing tasks.
If you suspect your child isn’t feeling very accomplished or successful recently, and that might be contributing to their demotivation, try this. Instead of assigning “worksheet #12,” chunk their assignments into very, very small pieces. Did they put their name at the top of the page? CHECK! Did they read a paragraph? CHECK! Did the answer questions 1-5? CHECK! Etc, etc.
#4 Use Personal Project Time as a Motivational Activity
One of the greatest things about homeschooling is the freedom and flexibility it gives children to pursue passions. Use this to your advantage!
At the start of each year (or semester, quarter month, etc), have each child describe something they’d like to learn. This could be something big, like Spanish, or something much smaller, like understanding what a “loop” is in coding. Have them write a series of questions they’d like to answer to help guide their project. (This is also a great opportunity for them to practice some critical thinking skills!)
Then, assign project time for the end of the day. If they want to spend time researching how to say “I am a banana” in Spanish, they need to get their math done first.
#5 Understanding Checks
Is there anything worse than looking at a task and not having a clue how to start? Your kids feel that same frustration! I know, you might feel like you explained an assignment or taught a lesson over and over again. However, that doesn’t mean they understand!
I like to incorporate quick “checks for understanding” before sending any kid off to work independently. You might have them repeat back directions to you. You might give them some sticky notes and have them write any lingering questions they have. Whatever method you choose, make sure it isn’t too easy for kids to just say “yeah, I get it” if they don’t.
#6 Experiential/ Learning
When dealing with a really unmotivated learner, sometimes you need to pull out the big guns. Experiences! For some kids, the only time they perk up and listen is when their whole body and spirit is engaged in a motivational activity.
These are easiest to come by in science and history (in my opinion). Field trips to museums, historical sites, and out in nature are familiar to most of us and easy to think of. But you can use experiential learning in every subject! Try some of these…
- Acting out scenes from a book they’re reading
- Using manipulatives (cubes, M&Ms, rocks) to understand mathematical concepts
- Spelling out words by twisting their bodies or hands into letter shapes
- Recreating settings from books with household items
- Writing songs or raps where the lyrics are math facts, equations, or Laws
- Tape out a number line on the kitchen floor, and have students hop up or down it when doing math problems
#7 Project-Based Learning
This is different from having students choose a project based on a favorite interest. In Project-Based Learning (or PBL), the project is how students learn their academic material. If you choose PBL, you likely won’t be able to use a traditional curriculum set with workbooks, a textbook, and a yearly timeline, but the rewards in motivation can be tremendous.
Designing PBL units can help get kids away from simply regurgitating information and the boredom that sometimes comes with that territory. Instead, it gets them asking deep questions and learning how to research the answers for themselves. This can be scary for you, as the teacher, because you might not know the “right answer” when you start your project together. However, this is a great way for kids to experience real-world uncertainty in a safe environment.
So there you have it! Those are my top seven motivational activities for students. Don’t forget to check out ALL our motivational games for students before you go!
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.