Rhythm Games to Engage and Motivate Young Musicians

Rhythm Games to Engage and Motivate Young Musicians

By NAfME Member Theresa Iacarino

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Rhythm games can serve as resourceful tools in a music teacher’s “bag of tricks” because they motivate students, promote collaboration as an ensemble, and reinforce all the rhythm reading learned throughout the year! It takes focus from each student in order to collaborate and perform circle songs and games. What a treat it is to be able to get a game started and step back to watch your students facilitate their learning and cooperative playing skills. In an age where students are isolated by their single-player computer games, it is important to expose them to the tradition of making music as a community and working together to play and learn.

Take a peek below at some of my favorite songs and games to reinforce rhythm and beat and show how they tie into the Artistic Processes (Responding, Creating, and Performing) from NAfME’s 2014 Music Standards.



  • Rhythm Games by Robert Abramson is a book based on methods of Emile Jacquez-Dalcroze that includes two CDs of delightful piano accompaniments that are used for student movement using hands and fingers and progressing to movement of legs and feet. Some of my favorite games are passing the ball to learn various tempo markings. Students learn how to listen attentively and practice a “quick response” to changes in the music.


rhythm games


  • “I Have, Who Has” Game – Teachers Pay Teachers is a great website with many brilliant music teacher authors who have created resources. One of my favorite products was created by Lindsay Jervis. Her “I have, who has” bundle can be printed and laminated for classroom use. Each student gets a card with two rhythms, one to identify and one to perform, in order to figure out a chain of rhythm patterns. It is a fun and engaging way to assess students with a game! Check out her product here.
  • Poison Rhythm – This game begins with the teacher as the leader. Over time, students will gain the confidence to take on the leader role. Have the group sit in a scattered formation facing the leader. The leader claps a four-beat rhythm pattern that is labeled “POISON”. The poisonous pattern is not to be echoed by the group! The game is played by the leader clapping various rhythm patterns, but remembering to clap the poisonous rhythm in the mix, and the group echo claps the rhythms that are performed. If anyone claps the poison rhythm (even the slightest sound) they are eliminated from the game and sit in their spot.

    If using rhythm sticks, ask students to sit on their sticks to avoid making sounds. It must be reinforced with the group that if the rhythm is not poison, they must echo clap! Otherwise, they are eliminated for being afraid of everything being poisonous. This is a fast-paced game that continues until either one person is the winner or the remaining students are declared victorious and cannot be fooled to “take the poison”.

  • “The Music Ball” – This song is the version I have pieced together after years of singing and playing it without remembering the original source of the song. Other variations may be referred to as “The Magic Ball”. (Click on this link to one of the original versions of “The Magic Ball.”). Students are taught to sing the melody. To prepare students for the movement, have them practice bouncing their fingertips softly on their knees while singing. Prepare them for passing the ball by having students bounce their hands gently on their left knee and then across their body to their right knee. This movement can be tricky as they are crossing the midline (check out this great article on importance of crossing the midline).

    Introduce the beach ball as “The Music Ball” while stressing how important it is for the music ball to be passed on the beat, as it is a musical ball. Extra emphasis can be made on the musicality of the beach ball by drawing notes all over it! To play the game, have the group sit in a large circle, sing the melody, and pass the ball on the beat. The person who holds the ball on the word “out” leaves the circle.


music ball


  • “You are out!” – For practically all games that we play in music class, being out is treasured and a true blessing because now they get to play an instrument! For this game, I set up my large djembe (referred to as “Big Mama” in the room), two tubano drums, and two small djembe before we play. When a child is out, “Big Mama” is waiting for them to come play! As each student is “out”, the students rotate through the other assigned drums. After playing the five assigned (and most coveted) instruments, they can choose from buckets of small unpitched percussion instruments to accompany the song and game. The last person in the game tosses the ball to themselves, becomes “out,” and gets a chance to lead the group in singing the song a final time while playing the large djembe. Other songs may lend themselves to having students play barred instruments on pentatonic scales to accompany songs and games when they are “out.” Keeping the kids involved in something exciting in an elimination game helps a lot of students cope with not winning and being able to see the benefit in moving to the accompaniment group.



  • Roll & “Rock Out” Worksheet – This composing activity allows students to rely on chance to decide which rhythm to notate. All you need is papers, pencils, and dice. Students roll the die, and the number it lands on is assigned to a particular rhythm note value. After completing the worksheet, remind your students to follow the creating process by evaluating what they notated, revising their composition to be a product they are proud of, and practicing it on a percussion instrument before performing for the class or teacher.

rhythm games

  • Beat sheets
    • Kindergarten – This laminated beat sheet is used with kindergarten students to practice keeping a steady beat by touching each beat, which reinforces the skill of reading from left to right ( . . . crossing the midline again . . . ). It can be a handy tool to prep students for circle games where they have to have a quick response to changing the beat for tempo changes!
    • Grade 1 – Students can use the beat sheet to practice drawing how many beat divisions they hear in a rhythmic example (simple or compound) by drawing lines on top of each beat using a dry erase marker. As the year progresses, they can use mini craft sticks to notate rhythm patterns.


beat sheets


  • Grades 1-5 – One of the best notation tools I’ve ever come across is folding a blank piece of paper 4 times over to create 16 beat boxes when the page is unfolded. We call this our “beat sheet.” I relish in the fact that I don’t need to use the copier machine! It takes a few times to get students to learn this fine motor skill, but once they master it they can create a template to compose an organized rhythmic dictation! Have the students use crayons or colored pencils for each 4-beat phrase. Though it isn’t a “game,” this is an engaging way to reinforce rhythmic literacy.

rhythm games



  • “Bean bags, boomwhackers, and rhythm sticks, oh my!” – Simply sitting in a class circle and performing passing games can be a good transition in music instruction. I tend to use the song “The More We Get Together” as we form a class circle. I begin every circle passing game with a simple chant as I begin passing items to the student seated to my right. “1, 2, 3, 4, put it on your neighbor’s floor!” Students tap their prop/instrument during the numbers and then pass it on the floor of the neighbor to their right. If a child needs extra help, seat them to your immediate left (or the left of a very strong student who could help keep the passing pattern going).
    • The crazier the prop, the better! Around Halloween time I have a class set of plastic bones and we pass them around to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. It takes practice to start at a slow pace, but they’ll definitely learn the term accelerando by the end of that piece!
    • Use circle passing games as a weekly class reward or a class opener and work your students up to the point where they can perform the complicated “Cup Song” pattern while singing “Turn the Glasses Over” or other class favorites.
  • Beat Leader/Beat Boss – For primary grades, the beat leader is the person who sits in the front that chooses the body percussion for the class to perform while listening to various pieces of music or songs. They have the ability to change movements as the music continues. Rotate through this process so over a few weeks all students get a chance to be the leader. This activity emphasizes the importance of maintaining a pulse as well as the ability to create varying body percussion sounds and/or dance moves that show a steady beat. For intermediate grade levels, have the class sit in a large circle. Assign one student the job of “detective” and have them stand outside the classroom door as you choose a beat boss in the circle group. The students follow every move the beat boss performs as the detective enters the room, but try their best to NOT get the beat boss caught! As the detective stands in the center of the circle during their investigation, he/she tries to narrow down which student is changing the movements as the beat boss. Choose two new students each round to give more turns!

Rhythm games truly match the Four C’s of 21st century learning: Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. It is my hope that this blog helped spark some ideas on how you can build rhythm skills with your students by playing engaging and motivating rhythm games!


About the author:

Theresa Iacarino

NAfME member Theresa Iacarino has taught elementary vocal music in Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) since August 2005. She holds two degrees from Towson University including a Bachelor of Science in Music Education (2005) and Master of Science in Music Education (2012) as well as a certificate in DOK (pedagogies of Dalcroze, Orff, and Kodaly). She is pursuing a second master’s degree in School Leadership and Administration from Goucher College (expected graduation in 2018). She has led various professional development sessions for the BCPS Music Office and Towson University. Terri has also served as a curriculum writer for the Baltimore County Public Schools Office of Music as well as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Midweek Concert Series. Currently, she teaches at Joppa View Elementary School in Perry Hall, which serves as a “lighthouse school” that pilots a technology initiative with 1:1 devices for all students in grades K-5.

Visit Terri’s web page here.

twitterFollow Terri on Twitter at @iacarinoT to see some of these rhythm games in action!

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, May 22, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)