Experiential Education, Differentiated Instruction Tools

Dominoes, Match Game Cards, and Other Simple Tools to Engage Your Groups

A number of group facilitators and teachers who visit my site asked about the pictures of dominoes they have seen in some of my workshop and classroom activity photo albums. Per these requests, this post offers ideas for using dominoes to engage groups of all kinds in active pair share dialogue, as a group problem-solving activity, and as a way to explore fractions in math class.

Experiential Education, Differentiated Instruction Tools


Dominoes are a playful way to engage participants as they enter the room and a useful technique for creating partners for “pair sharing”, partnered problem solving activities, or reflective dialogue. This partnering method stretches participants to interact with a number of different people in the group.


Facilitation Suggestions:
• Hand everyone a domino (I am amused by how excited learners of all ages are to receive a domino as they enter a class or group session). Dominoes are novel in this era of digital games).
•Ask participants to match up their domino “dots” with another person. I ask them to decide what matching means. This gives them some flexibility, comfort and a sense of choice, control and ownership. In addition to finding their own partner I challenge them to make sure EVERYONE has a partner. This increases the problem solving aspect of the activity and encourages them to interact with many different people in the group.
• When they pair up ask them to share a reflective question, a get to know you question, their opinions on a current events topic, discuss last night’s homework, or their reactions to the lesson you just presented.

•After a few moments of discussion, ask the partners to find another pair who matches them in some way- this is where they get creative (using divisible numbers or turning the domino over). Then have the groups of four share about their previous conversations and offer another question. This naturally moves into a whole group discussion about the topic.

I am continually impressed with how well this method works. I recently used it with 8th graders in social studies class as a way to jumpstart reflection and group discussion around current events. When I arrived to my local middle school right after the terrible March 2010 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan I discovered that our student’s knew very little about what happened. We decided to focus on the event and it’s consequences in social studies that day.


Brain Based Learning

As students entered the room I stood at the door with my box of dominoes and asked them to take one. I was surprised at their level of excitement about being handed a domino as they walked into class- ahhh the power of novelty and anticipation! We asked them to find someone who matched the dots on either side of their domino. We challenged students to not only find a partner for themselves but make sure everyone had a partner. This became a social communication and problem solving challenge because they had to make trades in order for everyone to find a partner. Students ended up connecting with people outside of their “friend group”. When we ended up with an odd set, some students used their creativity and turned the dominoes upside down (the blank side up) stating, “We match this way.”


Students shared with each other what was known about the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan and how they felt about it. After a few minutes of discussion we asked each pair to find another pair in class that matched their dominoes in some way (going from groups of two to forming groups of four). We then asked these groups of four to compare their conversations with each other and discuss why an event happening thousands of miles of way matters to us here in Vermont. This led to a full class discussion as the groups started asking questions of each other and the adults in the room. Participation was active and dialogue was rich. This was one of the more meaningful discussions we experienced with that group. I think having the chance to formulate and practice sharing their thoughts with partners and then small groups before a large group discussion heightened their ability and interest in contributing to the discussion as a whole group.


Variations: There are other game pieces and props you can use in a similar way.


Memory Game Card Match Up:
This fall I was looking for more ways to group students into partners for dialogue activities so purchased a couple of memory match games to use in my classroom sessions. I use them when I want to quickly engage students in paired sharing about the prior days lesson or when I introduce questions to set context for an upcoming activity. As students walk in the door I hand them a match game card and challenge them to find their match and share their thoughts with each other regarding the question at hand.


Popsicle Stick Partners:
Keli Rosso Gould, a teacher I work with uses assorted paired popsicle sticks with shapes or letters printed on them. She mixes them up in a can or jar and uses them as a way to divide partners or choose students for an activity or task. As students walk in the door they draw their stick out of a jar and search the room for their “popsicle stick partner”.


Key Blank Partners:
At the beginning of the school year I was trying to find a new way to engage the middle school students I work with in dialogue about the “keys to making the school year a success”. After a conversation with students about their personal commitment to creating positive group norms and and making the year a success, I went to the hardware store and picked up a bunch of key blanks with two each of the same shape/color to use as a way for students to find matching pairs. We used these with 8th graders following this group norms discussion on “keys to success”. In this particular lesson we used the keys to pair them up and reflect on what they thought was the “key” to making their classroom constitution work and what their personal commitment to the group was going to be. At the end of class I invited them to keep their key as a memento.

When random pairings are created through objects I notice that participants are more open to being paired with someone outside their usual social circle. As the facilitator you can discreetly arrange certain pairings if needed by subtly handing paired items to selected individuals.



Dominoes Fraction Line Up

For years I’ve used line up activities as a fun “filler’ activity or quick team-builder during transition times. When there are 5 minutes left in class I often will ask students to “line up at the door in order of your shoe size without talking”, or “See how fast you can line up by your birthdays” etc.

Recently I was using my dominoes in a 7th grade math class as a partner dialogue tool after my colleague Yolanda D’Allesio asked me to help her students reflect on the frustrations they were experiencing around problem solving. We used the domino pairs as an entry task partner dialogue activity. Yolanda unexpectedly had to leave the room, so the classroom para-professional Ginny Cunningham, and I started to improvise a plan about what was next. She said “You know, dominoes are fractions, and they have a quiz on fractions coming up. Could we do something with fractions?” This inspired me to ask the students to line up by their “domino fractions”. I was amazed at how well it worked. Once again, the non-hand raisers were taking the lead, helping classmates organize and simplify fractions. We realized that this had become a useful formative assessment tool by seeing which students really understood reducing and converting fractions. At the same time, students were problem-solving, collaborating, using their creativity, and practicing communication skills.


Facilitation Suggestions:
• Hand each participant a domino.
• Ask them to line up by their fraction’s value.
• I don’t tell students where the beginning and end is. The less said by me, the more creativity they will use.


Dominoes Equations: Sometimes in elementary classrooms I challenge students to form one whole group with matches, challenging students to form simple math equations or one large domino grouping.

This is not only an active way to partner and practice math, but it also introduces a game to the classroom that might be new to many students. Good old-fashioned dominoes could be novel to a group of students who mostly play computer games.


I hope this post will inspire you to take a second look at some of the old games and props you have tucked away in a drawer or closet. You might find they can be repurposed as a novel reflection prompt, pair sharing, or problem solving activity. Please share your thoughts on variations of these approaches.


I first started using dominoes years ago as an entry pair sharing activity when co-facilitating workshops with Michelle Cummings. This activity was inspired by the Omnibod activity used by Chris Cavert and Sam Sikes. See Sam Sikes’ Executive Marbles and Other Team-Building Activities book) published by Learning Unlimited, 1998. Michelle’s variation is described in A Teachable Moment: A Facilitator’s Guide to Activities for Processing, Debriefing, Reviewing and Reflection.

  • Aruna - Young Yoga Masters
    Posted at 14:11h, 10 April

    Thank you for the wonderful ideas. I think these are helpful for students and teachers too, to get out of ruts of always going to the same people.

  • Todd Loe
    Posted at 09:04h, 17 May

    My Driver’s Ed class had a lesson on cooperation and passing. I used “pass the can”, “squeeze relay”, and “walk the bridge”. I wasn’t sure how the studens would react to two 1″x6″x8′ boards put end-to-end and having the two groups stay on the boards and exchange places on the platforms but even the self-conscious girls participated and had a good time. The whole class was able to sit down and discuss the subject of cooperation as the critical component of driving!

  • Kevin Kiefaber
    Posted at 04:31h, 18 October

    Thanks for these great ideas! (Now I need to find some dominoes…) Another way of dividing kids into groups or pairs is to give them a playing card when they enter the room. You will need to presort the cards you hand out, depending on what groupings you want them in. If you want pairs, then you have 2 Kings, 2 Jacks, 2 nines, etc. If you want three groups, you pass out three suits and the spades will be one group, the diamonds, the hearts, etc. You can also set them up for two different groupings in the same period if you have one grouping by suit and another by face card vs number. There are lots of possibilities. Like dominoes, there will be lots of kids who aren’t familiar with cards and will need to be taught what a suit is, or what a Jack is….

  • Jen
    Posted at 13:00h, 21 October

    Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for your addition to this post. This fall a guidance counselor I work with suggested using playing cards for this purpose in a group we were co-facilitating and it worked wonderfully.. As you mention it is so true that you need to presort the cards! It is fun to find that old fashioned playing cards and dominoes create such interest in the modern day classroom or group room. It is great to hear from you Kevin. I appreciate your contribution.

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