Hobbies, leisure and free time with young learners

Summary: Making a popular topic useful and suitable for all classes

From personal experience I can tell you that free time has the potential to be the best or worst of all topics with young learners – and sometimes both of those things for different students in the same lesson. For some students it can be an opportunity to enthuse about a hobby they love and even find ways of sharing that love with people in other countries. There is also the chance of introducing students to new hobbies. On the other side of the coin, there are bound to be at least some students who won’t admit to do anything but sleeping and watching TV with their free time – and depending on age and/ or nationality that could be most of the class. There is also the chance of students who start off enthused by the topic ending up disillusioned because of their classmates’ reaction to their hobby or by getting completely stuck when trying to communicate something about that hobby in English.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to use the advantages of this topic while avoiding the potential pitfalls, but the difficulty here is that both sides are connected to personalisation – the usually positive process of making the language memorable and the activity motivating by asking students to speak about themselves. One obvious solution is to allow students to both talk about their real hobbies and use their imaginations, e.g. with the use of lying games. Alternatively, you could widen the scope of the discussion by allowing them to talk about past, future and imaginary hobbies such as “If I had lots of money, I would…”

The other, perhaps safer, option is to have students speaking about hobbies generally rather than just their own, e.g. researching and presenting one hobby per group. You can also have an activity where speaking about their own leisure activities is just something to finish off the activity rather than something that must be extended for the lesson to work, e.g. designing questionnaires for most of the lesson and asking each other the questions in just the last ten minutes.

The best ways of making use of any enthusiasm students have for this topic are similar, e.g. making posters about their hobbies and Show and Tell. There are also loads of online resources for every hobby under the sun that students could read and (depending on age restrictions) take part in.

So that you can plan with your own class in mind, the activities explained below are divided into personalised, semi-personalised and non-personalised ones, with the last of those being the safest but also the least potentially rewarding. The activities include a good range of the things that students are likely to really want to say about hobbies, being:
- Where they do it
- Who they did it with
- How long they have been doing it and how they first got into it
- What materials and equipment they need
- Something about the history of the activity, e.g. what country taekwondo comes from and when it came into the Olympics
- Their degree of enthusiasm/ Their feelings about it
- Why they do it
- Their achievements

The activities also show how to tie this topic in with other language points such as:
- Adverbs of frequency/ Present Simple
- Present Continuous
- Present Perfect
- Second Conditional
- The language of likes and dislikes

In many activities below the teacher’s choice of hobbies to include are vital in making the lesson interesting and relevant to the students, with age-appropriacy being perhaps the most important factor.

Young learner practice activities for hobbies, free time and leisure

Personalised activities
Sentence completion bluff
Give students sentence stems that people often use when talking about their free time activities such as “I often play…”, “I sometimes go…”, “I… after school/ dinner” and “I can… very well”. They should fill in most of the sentences, making at least some of the things that they write false information (e.g. the ones they can’t think of anything true for). They then read out one of their sentences for the other students to guess if it is true or false, maybe after allowing other questions about that thing if they are high enough level to do so.

This activity can be a bit tricky to explain. The best way is simply for the teacher to fill in the questionnaire themselves and read out some examples for students to guess the truth of. It is best to start with obviously false ones like “I like playing with dolls” for a male teacher or “I have a pet elephant” so that they can clearly understand that they should sometimes lie.

Sentence completion guessing game
You can play something similar to the game above as a guessing game by asking students to fill in at least half of the gapped sentences and then read out just the part they have written for their group or the class to guess which sentence they wrote it in, e.g. that “cats” is “I like drawing…” rather than “I have… in my bedroom” or “I can…”. It is usually okay if the sentence can be filled with things that are grammatically different from each other as that makes it easier to guess and focuses more on the form of the language.

All around the clock
Ask students how much time they spend at school on a typical weekday and write the lengths of time on the board. They then ask each other questions like “How much time do you spend sleeping/ using a computer/ travelling on buses?” until their partner’s total reaches 24 hours. You can also do the same thing with totals for the whole week (168 hours) to bring in weekend activities.

Bigger hobby numbers
Students try to ask a question about free time activities where their number is bigger than your partner’s, e.g. “How many CDs do you have…?”, “How often do you…?”, “When did you last…?” or “How much money do you spend on…?”

When did you last play with Lego?
This is basically the same as the game above but students must try to find things they did more recently than their partner, e.g. “When did you last listen to music?” “This morning. And you?” “Ten minutes ago, just before the lesson. One point for me.”

Things in common
Students ask questions or make statements about their free time to try and find things that are true for both of them, e.g. “I like television” “Me too!” or “Do you often ride your bike?” “Yes, I do” “So do I”.

Ladder games
Give students a “ladder” of words that can be graded and are useful for talking about hobbies and free time, e.g. an adverbs of frequency one starting with “never” at the bottom and ending with “always” at the top, a similar one for expressing preferences from “hate” to “adore”, or the same for levels of skill from “terrible at” to “an expert in”. Students should ask questions to get answers from their partner that take them one step at a time from the bottom to the top without any mistakes, e.g. going from “How good are you at speaking French?” to “How good are you at speaking your own language?” via “How good are you at playing marbles?” etc for the levels of skill ladder. Any answer that their partner gives which is not the next step up on the ladder means they fall all the way back to the bottom again, but to make the task more manageable they can ask exactly the same questions when they try again. This can also be turned into a competitive game, but there is usually no need as the challenge of getting all the way to the top is enough.

Semi-personalised activities
What hobby would you have if…?
Students answer questions about hobbies starting with something like “What would you do with your free time if…?” and continuations like “if you were rich”, “if you were more sporty”, “if you had more free time” or “if you lived on a deserted tropical island”. Students can then vote on the best answer, guess who wrote which answer, try to find similarities between their answers and other people’s, or guess which answer matches which question.

Guess whose free time
Students guess who is being spoken about as someone else’s free time is described, e.g. they try to work out that I am speaking about my dad when I say “He often plays golf” and “He used to play Lego with me”. The people described can be themselves, people they know such as family members, famous people, or people with certain jobs such as “postman”.

Free time activities definitions game
Students are given a picture and/ or word representing a free time activity and must explain what it is without using any part of its name until their partner guesses what is being described, e.g. “It has four wheels. You can fall off. Boys like it. I have one.” for “skateboard”. Students who are less than a good Pre-Intermediate level and those with less imagination might need some suggested phrases, e.g. “I usually do this in the evening.”, “You need a computer to do this”, “I last did this… ago”, “I usually do this with my…”, “I used to do this when I was…” and “I don’t do this because…”

Before, after or instead of that game students can work together to write the best descriptions of free time activities, e.g. explaining local hobbies for people in another country or area who might never have heard of them.

Hobbies 20 questions
Students are even more likely to need to be given ideas about what to say, but the activity above can also be played with the person who has the hobby card just answering questions with “Yes” and “No” until the others guess what the free time activity is. Useful questions include “Can I/ you/ the teacher/ all of us/ everybody do this?”, “Do you do this every week?” and “Can we do this in a park?”

Students choose a top five or top ten from a list of free time activities for a specific purpose, e.g. “The best brain exercise”, “The best for your health”, “The cheapest” and “The most exciting”. This is in the semi-personalised section of this article because they need opinions and knowledge but not necessarily personal experience to do the activity.

Students write questionnaires to help them choose new hobbies for their classmates with questions like “Are you sporty?” and “Do you want to get more muscle?” This is semi-personalised because the question-writing stage is the main activity and no personal experience is necessary for that.

Show and tell/ Presentations
Students explain a hobby to the class, maybe using real object or picture to prompt interest and help explain. The free time activities can be their own, traditional ones from their country or area, traditional ones from another country or area, ones from history that have disappeared, ones they have been asked to speak about by the teacher and/ or ones connected to one of their classmates – hence the definition of this as semi-personalised. This works best if the teacher makes sure that some, most or all of the research can be done in English, e.g. by providing an encyclopaedia for young learners.

This is basically the same as the idea for presentations above but with students using their own knowledge and research to put together a poster rather than presenting what they have found. If you want to add speaking, then can then stand in front of their posters and describe them to people moving round the class.

Mimes/ Pictionary and discussion
Make a set of cards with usual and more unusual hobbies on them, e.g. “You are making pots” and “You are riding a bike”. Sentences can also be designed to practise can/ can’t, e.g. “I can use a yoyo” (mimed by doing so skilfully) and “I can’t swim” (mimed by pretending to drown). Students mime or draw those sentences until their partner guesses exactly what is written. When they have finished that stage they can then discuss which things they often do, have never done, think would be interesting, etc.

Non-personalised activities
Some of the activities above can have the personalisation taken out of them, e.g. by leaving the discussion stage out of the miming activity above. Others include:

Random collocations pelmanism
Make a set of cards with verbs connected to free time (e.g. “play with” and “collect”) for each group of two to four students, then an equal number of noun cards (e.g. “badges” and “soccer”) on different coloured paper. Each group spreads all their cards face down across the table. One student takes one of each kind of card, trying to make collocations like “collecting cats” and “playing TV”. If the collocation is a common one or they can explain why it might make sense (e.g. “It means collecting toy cats, not real ones”) they get a point and can keep the cards. If they can’t show that they match, they have to put the two cards back into the same places face down. As long as students have a good enough level to explain the connection between cards, you don’t have to design the pack so that there is an obvious match for each one, hence the name of this game.

Crazy combinations
You can also deliberately make the strange combinations like “He is making bicycles” and “She is dressing up a car”. Students mime or draw them until the class guess the sentence, then you can brainstorm more sensible combinations with the verb and/ or noun.

Video predictions
Students guess the hobbies of a character from a single frame of a video or some details about them (age, nationality, kind of animal, etc), then watch and check what free time activities that character does.

Storybooks about free time and hobbies
Surprisingly few books cover a good range of free time activities. Ones I have found include:
- Poems for Small Friends by Bobbi Katz and Gyo Fujikawa (catching tadpoles, taking a dog for a walk, looking after a kitten, picking fruit, walking in the countryside, dressing up, flying a kite, dancing, playing in the snow, climbing trees, reading, drawing, colouring)
- Gran and Grandpa by Helen Oxenbury (visit my grandparents, sing, dress up, do gardening, play tea parties, play doctors and nurses, watch TV)
- Titch by Pat Hutchins (ride a bike, fly a kite, play an instrument, do woodwork, grow plants)

In addition, many books which don’t focus on free time in the text have it in the illustrations, e.g. Owen by Kevin Henkes (play in the garden, play with blocks, draw, colour in, play hide and seek, play in a sandpit, have a bath, watch scary movies, camping, sewing).

Songs about free time and hobbies
Songs were also surprisingly difficult to find, with Playing in the Playground on LearnEnglishKids the only one that did actual free time activities rather than sports or other action words. You could also adapt Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush to have leisure activities like “This is the way I fix my bike (on a weekend morning)”.

Copyright © 2012

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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