When I recently surveyed ESL and ELL teachers on their favorite games to play with students in class, most of the games recommended involved moving around the classroom or playground.

One reason is these activities are most frequently requested by students — who unsurprisingly are attracted to what’s best for their well-being and learning.

Among research that backs up what these children seem to know are multiple studies conducted by Terrence Dwyer that show that exercise improves academic performance, classroom behavior and social skills.

Young learners love to move!

Preschool ESL teacher Karul Talaba detests board games. Instead, she regularly uses humor and clowning to keep her young learners’ attention. She also finds active playground games fun and especially beneficial for her young students who she clearly sees learn better when moving and playing.

Her students’ favorite game is What time is it, Mr. Wolf? The game is played by a row of students standing side-by-side who in unison ask the time of "the wolf," a student or teacher who stands between them and safety, a wall or fence.

When the wolf responds by saying "two o’clock," students take the corresponding two steps forward. This question and response continues until the wolf announces, "It’s dinner time!" and tries to catch the players as they run past him or her to safety.

Along with teaching proper question formation, counting and time, she uses the game to help students learn and practice the different mealtimes by sometimes substituting the line, "It’s dinner time" with other mealtimes or even, "It’s snack time!"

Games that connect with Common Core Standards

Dorothy Taylor, associate professor at the Educational Opportunity Center at the State University of New York (SUNY) shares two versatile games that she has used over the years and included in her book "Moving Forward: Connecting English Language Learners with the Common Core Standards."

The most popular game with teachers and Taylor's personal favorite is Vocabulary Ball Toss, which is easy to prepare and can be used with different levels of language learners across a wide variety of topics.

An example of Vocabulary Ball Toss.

"I’ve used it with beginners to talk about the weather and higher level students to explain social studies or science concepts," she comments.

In addition to changing the vocabulary on the ball, teachers can change what students are asked to say about the word and the game dynamics. Taylor also adds several ideas for follow up activities to the game based on student level for example an advanced group could use the words in a story or create their own crossword puzzle.

Another versatile activity she recommends is What Did We Change?

Here, one student leaves the room and the rest of the students change one or more things and upon returning the student must guess what was changed. There’s the option of letting the group supply hints which gives them additional speaking practice.

It is an engaging way to practice vocabulary of items around the classroom. For example, Taylor has used it to practice clothing-related vocabulary by untying shoe laces or zipping up a jacket as well as classroom objects.

Vocabulary practice that feels more like a party

Japan-based language teacher Marc Helgesen strongly believes in physical warm-ups for English learners which he likens to warming up for music or gym class. Among the activities he uses to get the blood circulating are fun games that involve an all-time kid favorite — balloons.

In Balloons off your body, designed to help students learn body parts and use of possessive apostrophe "s," students hold hands in circle. Each group of approximately eight students gets one inflated balloon and tries to keep it in the air as long as possible, hitting it with any part of their bodies except their hands.

To practice language, the group calls out how the balloon was hit, for example "from Javier’s foot!" or "with Jackie’s knee."

When it hits the ground, they start again. The same activity — with or without holding hands — can be used to practice lexical sets with the student saying a word when the hit the balloon.

"While this seems very elementary, you can adjust the level to match the learners’ ability. For example, at an elementary level, the topic might be jobs. At an intermediate level, you can specify the types of jobs outdoors jobs, dangerous jobs, high-status jobs, service jobs and the like," explains Helgesen.

Movement activates language learning for all ages

English teacher Martin Eisen regularly uses a large variety of games in his classes to teach and reinforce just about everything that’s taught in an English class — it doesn’t matter whether he’s teaching adults or young children.

Yet he admitted that his all-time favorite is actually a theater improv warmup called clap-snap-stomp! The rhythmic activity a great way to activate students at the beginning of class as well as to get them away from the table in the middle of the class or to wind the lesson up with a laugh.

One can find slightly different variations to the exercise. Eisen’s version starts with saying the actual words "1-2-3-clap-snap-stomp" for a few rounds before beginning to substitute the movement one by one. He sometimes add a bit more vocabulary to the activity by changing the movements.

"I love this activity — it gives the brain a challenge so different from what it’s used to in language class and reinforces Total Physical Response (TPR). Afterwards students absorb the lesson so much better!"