Challenge level: Highly variable difficulty – both mentally and physically
Group size: Works with any size, better with at least three
Suggested variations: Elimination, opposite a partner
Simon Says is a classic game. I also thought it was a relatively simple game. Then I saw Sensei Wilson play 'Sensei Says' at the karate school. I have never seen Simon Says played with such a vengeance.
Most of you probably know the rules of Simon Says, but just in case here's a refresher:
In Simon says, "Simon" (the instructor) stands in front of the class. Simon gives various instructions, but the kids are to follow only those instructions that are started with the phrase "Simon says". Usually Simon simultaneously gives the instructions and follows along himself.
Example 1: "Put your hands up." (the kids should not put their hands up)
Example 2: "Simon says, put your hands up." (the kids should put their hands up)
So what happens when the child actually does something without you saying 'Simon says' first? I like to start with the child doing one push-up and then getting back in the game. That way the kids can keep participating and also get a good amount of exercise.
As the game proceeds, you might have to remind some kids to do their push-ups. Often this will be because the child doesn’t realize they’ve been fooled. Other times the child might know they were fooled, but don’t want to admit it. It can be tiresome and authoritarian to remind the kids verbally to do their push-ups over and over, so remember that a smile, a surprised look, and a quick stare can have the same effect.
After kids are familiar with the game, I also like to do an elimination variant where students take a seat if they make a mistake, and the last student standing wins.
Kids can get pretty good at this game. So how can you mix it up to catch your kids off-guard and teach them truly impressive focus and listening skills? Here are some of my favorites:
Even as an adult, you know that when someone talks faster it's harder to keep up. If you're not a naturally fast talker, just make sure to get lots of practice. You may want an effect like this.
Vary the pace and inflection of your speech
Make it harder to recognize patterns by varying the speed and inflection with which you speak. You can also throw in pauses of various lengths. Here's a quick audio sample I recorded of myself demonstrating what I mean.
Sell it with your actions
Sometimes kids will get used to watching and copying what the instructor does. But the rule is to do what Simon says, not what Simon does. So mess up what you're doing on purpose, or make your actions mismatch your words (do one thing and say another).
Sell it with your eyes
Raise your eyebrows and open your eyes wide to make what you're saying seem urgent. Once kids are used to you doing this they might rely on it. Then, when you don't raise your eyebrows, sometimes they'll let their guard down.
Simon says (keep it the same)
If the kids are bright, they'll start to pick up on a pattern where if you say 'Simon says', they know something new is about to happen. So say 'Simon says', and then say what they are already doing while you do something new. Some kids will copy you and do the new thing, not realizing you basically repeated your last instructions.
Adding numbers can be a subtle way to trip kids up. In my karate classes, I use 'punch one' and 'punch two'. In another setting you could use claps. Here's the idea:
'Simon says punch one' and the kids punch once. 'Simon says punch two' and the kids punch twice. Now the kids might be thinking about how many times to punch, and forgetting whether or not the instructor said 'Simon says'.
Flip the numbers/give contradictory instructions
I say something like this: 'Simon says if I say punch one, then you punch two times. Simon says if I say punch two, then you one time.' Now if I say 'Simon says punch two!', and a kid punches twice, I got 'em!
Use your every day attention getting devices
During regular class I say “Focus clap one!” and the kids all clap once. I say “Focus clap two!” and the kids all clap twice. Most classrooms have pattern interrupts or focus anchors like these that they use throughout a normal day. And kids can get pretty hardwired to do them without thinking. So use that hardwiring to trick them here.
Okay. Now your kids are really getting it, or they're just a little older. Time to get into your trickiest tricks. Yes, they're dirty. But just as it is with love and war, all's fair in Simon says.
Especially if you have a big group, it can be hard to tell the difference between things like 'Simon says hands up' and 'Simon says hands puppies' (with a well timed pause in the latter). I'm not sure what hands puppies would mean, but you definitely did not say hands up, so if any kid puts their hands up, then you got 'em!
If you're speaking fast, varying your rhythm, and following along physically, you've developed quite the persona for Simon says. Pretend to break that persona. Describe a new rule (like a change from push-ups to situps), then in a normal tone of voice ask, 'Any questions?' and put one hand up in the air. If any kids raise a hand, say 'Simon didn't ask if there were any questions.'
Here’s another one: If you have physical contact like a high-five with your kids normally, try putting your hand up and saying 'Timmy is super focused!' Timmy might just try to high-five you. Whoops!
"If I haven't gotten you yet, raise your hand."
A lot of kids might be very enthusiastic about how good they're doing up to this point. Odd as it sounds, you might trick a lot of those kids with this one because their enthusiasm might lead them to want to show off. When they throw up their hand, look at them and say “Simon says I gotcha now!” Their hand will shoot down very quickly, but by then you already tricked them.
"End" the game
Say "And time! Game over." Then behave as if the game is over. I like to follow it up with "Everybody give yourself a big round of applause" followed immediately by "Oh no! Simon never said the game was over." Evil. And hilarious.
Used in combination, the above tricks make quite an impressive arsenal. But what if even they don't work. Okay, now we're talking really old or experienced Simon says players. Here's my final variation, which I've seen work well with full-grown adults.
Give everyone a partner, and have the partners stand across from one another. Whenever Simon says to do something, only the first kid to do it avoids the push-ups. By making it a race, the kids make more mistakes. And even if they don't, the slower of the two kids will always do some push-ups. You can make the rules so that a tie means no push-ups, or push-ups for both people (a recipe for a lot of push-ups!).
Great things about this activity: This activity requires zero materials, can be done in a hurry when you're crunched for time, and requires very little space. It works nearly as well for both small and large groups, and talking at different speeds and using different tricks can also greatly scale the difficulty.
Lastly, if you have an environment like a karate studio where parents are often able to watch, Simon Says is a great way to get parents feeling engaged with class. They'll watch, and inevitably laugh. Now the students, the instructor, and the parents are all having a great time.