A Winning Game for the First Day of School

The first day of school is traditionally spent going over rules and procedures. In high school and middle school, many of us spend the entire day reviewing syllabi and course expectations. As we do this, we watch students’ eyes glaze over in unmitigated boredom. It’s accepted practice to start the school year on a serious note, but it’s also pretty boring for everyone.

What if, instead, you started the school year with games?

When you think about it, games are perfect for the first day of school for quite a few reasons. First of all, they set a tone of teamwork and inquiry. Gaming is also a perfect way to break the ice and introduce students to how your classroom is set up. The best sort of learning is disguised as fun.

Teaching expectations as part of a game will have kids listening, processing, and remembering instead of merely pretending to be awake.

Here’s a game to try no matter what age level you teach.

students collaborating on cardboard sculpture

Name of the Game: What’s in the Bag?

This game challenges students to be creative using predetermined materials and an engaging prompt. It is best played in groups of three to six students. Use the stages of the game to talk about your expectations for classroom atmosphere, material use, cleanup, and listening. Before play, share some brief expectations for work and rules. These will depend on the age of your kids and your personal classroom management style. Below is what I use with my high school classes, but it could easily be adapted for any grade level.

Game Guidelines

  • Treat others with respect.
  • Work must follow the rules of the game or it will be disqualified.
  • A high-quality and visually appealing product must be produced.
  • Each group will present their work to the class at the end of the game.


  • Work must be completed in the allotted time.
  • Each team member must participate.
  • You must use everything from the bag.
  • Work must be able to be picked up and moved at the end of class.

Game Prep

Start with one paper bag per group and fill each with a selection of random materials like paper, found objects, cardboard, and recyclables. Don’t worry too much about what’s inside, just use extras you have on hand. Also, create a list of tasks on paper strips.

Example tasks could include…

  • Make a monster that can move.
  • Create hats for each group member.
  • Make a game that everyone can play.
  • Become a rock band.
  • Make your own version of the Mona Lisa

Have these prompts ready in a bowl for groups to select. Next, set out adhesives, scissors, and any additional materials you want to provide where groups can access them.

students working on collaborative collage

Introducing the Game

Start by telling students the process of the game. Show them where they can access additional materials and describe the process you’d like them to use. Next, review the expectations and the rules of the game. Now, have groups select their tasks by drawing from the bowl. Give the go-ahead to open the bags and start the game!

During Play

Make sure to circulate throughout the room as kids play to help solve any issues that arise. Giving frequent reminders about the amount of time left is important to help groups focus. When time is called, you have the perfect opportunity to share your cleanup expectations. After the room is picked up, have groups share their creations and give feedback.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Games are a great first-day-of-school learning opportunity because they involve students in learning classroom expectations. They also start the school year off with a strong message: that your classroom is a place where they will be asked to think creatively, collaborate with others, and share their ideas.

Have you tried games in your classroom? What are your favorites? 

How else do you make learning rules and expectations engaging? 

Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • Abby Fliehler

    Awesome!!!! These are the types of things I use in my shortened class Imagination Bootcamps but why not use them for the start of the year? Make them apply all of the rules and procedures we go over that day in a fun way!

    • Thanks, glad you like it. Imagination Bootcamps sound awesome!

  • I teach elementary artists. I love this game but was curious what you do with their work. Do you display their creations afterward? Do they take them home?

    • Jennifer Nordensvan

      I also was wondering the same Jillian:-)

    • I love to decorate with student work, so I put what my high schooler’s make up right away. Since you have so many more students in elementary, maybe you could display some in your room and others in the media center or other common area? Another idea – you could talk about recycling and reusing materials and have kids take work apart for the next group.

  • Diana L. Kirschbaum

    It is not uncommon for a teacher to collect ideas that could be used with substitute teachers in the event of an absence. So, in those first few days I trial & test new projects and games that I might consider providing for a substitute teacher. Sometimes I shuffle an activity between grade levels, change a direction for greater clarity, refine game rules etc. It has also given me great insights into how groups work together, students who conflict with others and the newest growth and development of students since the previous year.

  • Jen

    Thank you for this great idea! I did this with my 6th graders this week and was so pleased at the outcomes. They worked together as a team and just when I thought someone wasn’t participating, they stepped up! I am also planning to display the creations at my school.

  • Karin Pacetti

    With elementary students, I hand out toilet paper tubes. They are allowed to use anything in the art room to create an interesting sculpture by the end of class. They can cut up the paper tube but all of the tube must be used. I photograph for website because they always want to take them home.

  • Chris Ziems

    tried this yesterday! it went pretty well. I called it the “sculpture olympics” in light of the season. I was surprised how much cooperation there was with the groups. thanks for the great idea

  • Angela Rago

    Thank You Melissa for sharing this great idea. This is my first week of school. I am now thinking about what to put in the bag. What a great way to ask students to apply and experience expected behaviors rather than talk about it.
    Angela Rago
    Rhodes Elementary School
    River Grove, Il.

  • Melanie Marchio

    I love this idea to introduce rules! I usually have my 6th graders for shortened class periods the first 2 days of school, approximately 30 minutes. Do you see this activity fitting that time frame? Maybe extend it over the 2 30 minute class periods?

    • I typically spend 1 hour on it, so I think it could work well over two classes!

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