Prop it like it’s hot: Fun and educational props to spice up your ESL classes!

You will need some props: realia (real objects used to demonstrate vocabulary), some flashcards, and a physical reward system

The basic props you need to teach English online

Props are crucial for teaching English online to kids. If you are teaching English to kids online, you will need a fun, educational classroom backdrop and you will need some props. Realia (real objects used to demonstrate vocabulary), some flashcards, and a physical reward system (star magnets, for example) can go a long way toward making your class really exciting.

a photo of me holding a star on a popsicle stick that says 'wow' that I made to use for rewards when teaching ESL classes

Don’t spend more money on props than you will get paid for your first class.

If you are just starting out, some basic props are fine. A good rule of thumb for the first week: spend as much money (or less) on props as you will get paid your first class.

a photo of the sock puppet I made to teach English online to kids

Some companies will give you money to buy your props before you start. Palfish gives you $20 to start! However, most companies do not. Spend the bare minimum you need to get through your first class. Then, use 15% of your first week’s earnings to invest in props if needed.

If you are really strapped for cash, don’t fret. As long as you are willing to invest some time and can scrounge up some markers and paper, you can make your own.

Shari Lewis smiling and holding her lambchop puppet

If you are nervous that you won’t be able to compete with all the digital camera software masterminds and the ladies you have seen on youtube videos, I have one word for you: lambchop. Shari Lewis needed ONE puppet. Or, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. No one watches Mr. Roger and asks, “where are the AR filters?”. Have you seen the new digital episodes, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”? They’re cute, but… they just don’t emote the same way.

The truth is that a sock puppet and some homemade props can be very charming as long as they look purposeful and lovingly made. And you can make all these teaching English props for free.

The Cutest Props for Teaching ESL Are Free

Remember: You can make a LOT of props for FREE. Some of the most fun props and reward systems I have made have simply needed an 8.5-inch by 11-inch piece of paper and a black marker.

cute drawings of desserts in pink and yellow colors

PRO TIP: You can google “kawaii” anything to find super cute images. Pull them up on your screen. Trace them, color them, and cut them out. Then, tape them to pencils and collect all 5. Or, put a tape donut behind them and stick them to your whiteboard. Or, feed them one by one to a stuffed animal or to the student when they do a good job. Kawaii means cute in Japanese and has an entire, complex visual cultural background. It is also the absolute fastest way to make yourself some free adorable flashcards and rewards.

The Best Beginner Props For Online English Teachers

These are the BASICS you need- consider it your *Prop Starter Pack* to teach English online to kids. With some creativity, you can actually make these props go very far and can use them for the first month until you get paid.

  • WHITEBOARD and whiteboard markers (if you have the extra $8, consider buying some colored ones, too, because then you can do drawing rewards)
  • Puppet/Doll to model dialogue
  • ABC Flashcards
  • Fun headgear/hat (animal ears, for example)
Broke Starter Pack For Beginner Online English Teachers

These are the absolute basics you need to teach young children online and how you can make them for almost free

Total cost: $3. Yup, that’s it. You can draw your own flashcards with a marker if you are handy. Just trace them off your computer screen to make them look nice. I suggest you draw the basics: A for APPLE 🍏, B for BANANA 🍌, C for CAT 🐱 , Emoji faces 😃 to show happy and sad, a STAR ⭐ to show the student they did a great job.

Best Cheap ESL Teacher Props and Where To Get Them

If you are teaching English kids online, you will need a fun, educational classroom backdrop and you will need some props. Realia (real objects used to demonstrate vocabulary), some flashcards, and a physical reward system
  • Target dollar section is your friend
  • Dollar store cheap sticker sheets
  • McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys make perfect rewards
  • CVS discount aisle after holidays (think leftover plastic Easter eggs, bargain sale Halloween decorations) is your friend
  • Dog toys. Yes, I said it: go to the dollar store and you might find a squeaky chicken. These are a major hit for learning about farm animals!
  • Baby toys at Walmart. The toys in my hands in that photo are a squeaky banana that was in the baby toy section, and a squeaky frog that was in the dog section. Surprisingly similar…the dog toy and the baby toy aisle 🤔.
The Best Advanced Props For Seasoned ESL Teachers

If you are fully booked with classes and you want to go in guns blazing, then you can join Teacher2Teacher to buy lots of great props to add to your lessons.

  • weather wheel (a spin wheel to show weather)
  • Calendar, days of the week, months display
  • Emoji faces
  • Interactive Tic-Tac-Toe board with vocabulary words
  • A mega temperature gauge
  • Animal Headpiece – the classics like rabbit ears, and cat ears, but also consider giraffe ears, crab claws, elephant ears, fox ears, and so on.

To organize them, consider bins or shelves next to your desk for easy grabbing. Also, some teachers like to use shoe holders that hang over doors as you can stash stuffed animals in them. Flashcards can be hung in clear see-through file pockets on your wall by your computer.

Next, I cannot stress the importance of going DIGITAL enough.

What do you mean “go digital”?

How to Use Camera Software in Your Online Classroom

Manycam is amazing.

You can put your students into Ponyville (My Little Pony) landscapes and collect all the ponies, put funny AR stickers on them, drive Peppa’s family car and add a family member as the kid answers questions correctly, collect all the Minecraft characters for preteens, and so on.

I have pulled up 5 chicks, 5 funny pigs, or 5 cupcakes, or 5 digital stars so many times as a last-second reward if I needed something fast for a class I did not have time to prep for.

Manycam provides endless opportunities to make your online kids’ class interactive.

It is also very helpful for teaching high school students. If you have a class about, say, the minute body parts of earthworms…it might be difficult to have props for that. With manycam, you can always pull up an image from a website or a youtube video of an earthworm, though. You can use the live screen capture feature to display anything on any website to your student. Drawing an anthill on a whiteboard is great for a 5-year-old. But watching a youtube video of a massive anthill excavation is more appropriate for a 15-year-old, and manycam lets you do that.

Manycam provides endless opportunities to make your online kids’ class interactive.

Manycam also lets you put the video of your student into your video so you can interact in the same scene. Teachers pay digital ping pong with their students, race their students through game boards, feed their students with digital rewards, and so on.

How To Use GoogleSlides with the Online Classroom

GoogleSlides groups on Facebook and the amazing teachers who contribute to them will *change your life*. These teachers use the platform google slides to make interactive rewards for the kids. Then, they *share* these rewards with you for free! It is a space for sharing free resources and it is incredible. Everyone makes presentations and then shares them. You don’t have to make any to participate, but you will want to. The best classes I have taught have incorporated physical props and digital props to create truly dynamic environments. Google Slides helps you do this. It is especially fantastic for having interactive rewards with the kids. You can do a “find your star” game and uncover funny videos and gifs that will make students really engage with the lesson.

It’s also ideal for making rewards for especially boys, that are sometimes more difficult to find great rewards for.

How to Use a Green Screen Set-up In Your Online Classroom

Arts and Crafts Supplies Can Go Really Far

Have colored paper and colored markers on hand and you can always make a reward or prop. I have made many that have been a big hit:

  • make a fortune teller with the vocab (draw pictures of the words and the kids have to guess the word)
  • fold-out pictures– my favorite is making fold-out animals and having them eat stars each time the child does well
  • step-by-step drawing rewards. I show a lot here because drawing rewards work particularly well for Palfish as the student has many colors and also a drawing slide built into the platform.
  • make Chinese lanterns to discuss culture
  • make a simple hat– paper hats are so incredibly easy to make and always fun, interactive, and customizable too! Here are three ways to make a cute paper hat with your students.
  • make a pirate telescope. Rolled-up paper makes a great telescope to demonstrate “to look” or to model “I see a _____”. Make a telescope and have the student draw a treasure map or play “I spy” and have them find things in the room (I spy something red…what i it?)
  • simple origami (make a cup, make a fan, etc.)

Your Hands Are Your Best Prop

Don’t underestimate how many fun things you can make with your hands and a marker. I listed some ideas below and there are some more ideas in my rewards post, too.

  • “where’s my thumb!?” trick to demonstrate the verb “to hide,” “to trick,” or even “scared”
  • make a snake! Interlock your fingers. Use your pinky for the snake’s tongue. Watch videos online to practice.
  • itsy bitsy spider fingers crawl up and down while teaching skip counting forwards or backward
  • funny hand man to play “soccer.” When teaching sports, I like to encourage the kid to crumple a piece of paper into a ball. I crumple one into a ball too. We then make soccer players with our upside-down hands and “kick the ball” – a goal is if one of us hits the camera directly! Then, you put your hand over your eye and act really hurt. Pretend you can’t open it again for the rest of class, and you’ll get a laugh out of the most stoic of kids.
Sometimes, just using your hands
and encouraging the student to follow along can be the greatest prop of all

Consider Using Company Specific Props

Companies that are geared toward teaching kids will often have a fun mascot. Consider buying a stuffed animal of the company’s mascot and dressing it up as a reward. You can even buy cheap clothes (such as Halloween costumes) for small dogs to fit your stuffed animal. These can also be used to teach the names of clothing items, the seasons, and colors.

Many companies also have teacher groups where teachers share their best props for teaching kids online.

If you are anything like me, you will promise yourself you will be a minimalist but you end up drowning in props. This is my actual “office”. This isn’t even my full-time teaching area! It is where I teach when I am visiting my dad. He is a saint. He lets this monstrosity exist in his living room because he loves me. I’m thirty-four, guys, so this is pretty embarrassing. But my dad puts up with a lot. Presumably, it’s also because he never has guests.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day (or during the night if you are in the US and pulling those all-nighters for Beijing!), whether you go minimalist or maximalist doesn’t matter. You can use a star and a whiteboard, or you can drown in a menagerie of toys. Just pick what works for you and rock it because it’s you that will make those props really pop.

Happy teaching!

Related Keywords: props, classroom rewards, Skinner, operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, realia, flashcards, printable props, do-it-yourself props, props for online teaching

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.