Keeping Students Engaged Part 1: I Spy

Raise your hand if you strive to keep your learners engaged.  My hand is raised.  I may even be hopping up and down in my seat as that hand is raised.

There is nothing worse than looking out at your class and noticing that they are off task or disinterested in what is going on around them, am I right?

One of my favorite ways to keep my students engaged is to provide them with structured activities that encourage engagement.  I thought it would be fun to share these activities over a (mini) series of blog posts.

In this mini series, I'll cover the following structured engagement activities:  
  • Part 1: I Spy
  • Part 2: Scoot
  • Part 3: Quiz-Quiz-Trade (Kagan)
  • Part 4: I Have, Who Has
Like I said, it will be a mini series...just four posts.

Note: When I use say structured engagement activity, I am referring to a learning activity that can be used and reused throughout the year with different skills and content. The content may change, but the activity and how it works does not.  These structures allow students to be successful because they are familiar with them, and they don't get bored with them because the content is always different. With that said, on to today's activity!

Student Engagement I Spy

OK, wait, before I get started, let me just say that I realize that you are probably familiar with some of the structures I'll be talking about.  But, don't abandon ship just yet.  I'd love for you to stick around for the tips and tricks.  Who knows, you might be able to spice things up in your classroom, or streamline a few things.  Oh, and there will be freebies.

Alright, now I'm ready to go.  Are you?

I Spy is one of my favorite structured engagement activities.  Mine, and the kids! You might also know this activity as "Around the Room."  That's what it's commonly called, but somewhere along the way, I heard it called I Spy and thought that was a much more interesting name. Plus, we get to act like spies when we use this structure.  That's right, spies.  But, more on that in just a moment.

What is I Spy? 
I Spy is an activity that gets kids moving as they review previously learned concepts and skills, and practice new ones. In this activity, question cards are placed around the room (hence the other known name, "Around the Room").  Students move from card to card, at their own pace, to answer the questions.

Note: These cards may be fancy, but believe me, fancy isn't required or necessary.  You can write your questions on index cards and it will still be just as effective.  I {pinky} promise. 

I Spy is perfect for encouraging individual engagement within a whole group setting.  And, did I mention that it gets the kids moving?  It's also super versatile.  You can use this activity, or structure, to review and practice any skill within any content area (see the cards in the picture above...the proof is in the pictures, as they say).

How to Play
I Spy is a pretty easy "game" to play.  
  1. Place some numbered questions around your room and give each student a recording page. You can tape the cards to your walls, or set them on the floor...or both!  How many questions you set out is up to you.  If using task cards, you could set out the entire set, or just half of it.  It depends on what the kids are being asked to do, how much practice/review you want to do, and how much time you have.
  2. The students visit each card and answer the question.  There is no need to visit the cards in order. Just remind your students to be mindful of the card they are on so that they can make sure to record their answer in the correct space on their recording page.  
  3. At the end of the activity, go over the questions/answers with your students so that there is some sort of closure to the activity (and you can address any mistakes, misconceptions, etc).
That's it.  It's that easy.

Tip #1: When placing out fewer question cards, you may want to set out duplicates of those question cards so that students aren't crowding around the questions and getting in each others' way.  For example, when I use I Spy to practice answering story questions, I limit it to about four questions because the students need more time to formulate an answer, write said answer, and consult their book, if needed.  Since I have 21 students, it wouldn't make any sense to put out 4 cards.  Instead, I make 3 copies of the 4 questions and place them about the room.  This way, there are only a few kids at each question at any given time.

Tip #2: Your kids will finish at their own pace, so be prepared to have a task for your fast finishers.  I usually have them do something on the back of their paper.  For example, if they are answering story questions, I might have them draw a picture of the setting on the back of their paper.  If we are practicing math facts, I might have them roll the die in their desk to write, and solve, their own number sentences on the back of the page.

The questions you set out can be from a set of task cards or a set of cards specifically designed to be used as an I Spy/Around the Room activity, like this fact family I Spy. 

Click here to grab this fact family I Spy for free. :)

Task cards work great, and can easily be reused when you laminate them, but I also frequently type up questions and print them on bright paper.  Nothing fancy, but it works like a charm.

Tip#3: Make it fun!
Kids like to have fun.  So, why not let them have fun? Remember how I said that my students act like spies when they play this game?  Let's talk about that, because, seriously, it makes this activity fun for the kids.  Like, really fun.

A few years ago, a (brilliant) colleague shared with our team how she taught her kids to act like spies when they play I Spy.  Get it?  That little tip was such a game changer for me!

Ever since then, I have taught my students to move around the room like spies. They creep about the classroom moving from card to card.  They move silently and speak to no one.  After all, they don't know the good spies from the bad spies, and they certainly don't want to be seen by other spies as they accomplish their mission.  I never have to remind them about voice levels or ask them to stay focused when playing I Spy. I don't need to. They are completely into it, every.single.time we play.

Final Note
I really, really, really like using engaging activities that are centered around movement. 7-year-olds need to move.  I work at a school where recess is a at a minimum. And, let's be honest, we can only Go Noodle so many times in one day.  Engagement activities that get my kids moving are a great way to let them move about while they learn.  It's a win-win for everyone!

I hope you were able to take a tip or two away from this post, and be sure to check out the rest of the series:
Part  Two (Scoot) 
Part Three (Quiz-Quiz-Trade) 
Part Four (I Have, Who Has)

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Student Engagement I Spy

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  1. Thank you for this post! I love this idea, and I'm looking forward to your next post. I have a really difficult class this year, and they are NEVER engaged! I'm definitely going to try this idea this week!

    1. Hi Jamie!

      Thank you so much for taking time read and comment on my post. You made my day! I'm so glad you can use the idea. And, here's to hoping the kids love it!

      Have a great week,


  2. Great Ideas! I think I am going to use your tips tomorrow while reviewing for our properties and equations test that we are having later this week. Thank you! I am definitely looking forward to your next post!

    1. I'm so glad you'll be able to use the idea. :) I hope your students have fun moving about while showing off what they know. I'd love for you to stop by again next week for part two, thank you so much interest and support. Here's to hoping that you have a fun test review!


  3. Thank you for your idea - I work in a squatter camp in South Africa. A new teacher in our school is finding the children very lively!!!I am going to share this with her - I will let you know how she gets on! As Principal I am also going to use it when I do class observations and teacher appraisals.

    1. You are welcome. :) I'm so glad you can use the idea and pass it along to your teachers. It sounds like a great activity for that lively bunch of learners. Thank you so much for stopping by today!


I'd love to hear what you have to say!