5 Easy Low-Prep Substitute Teacher Activities

Prepping for a sub got you down? Check out these 5 easy, low-prep activities you can use over and over again for a substitute teacher!

You know, those beautiful crates wrapped in ribbon with a matching label “SUB TUB”. I envisioned it would sit somewhere near my desk so that the next time my little one or I fell ill, I could sleep with ease knowing the day was totally planned. There would be days, maybe even weeks worth of quality activities for my students to stay engaged while I am gone. And it would be so effectively organized, even the most inexperienced sub would easily be able to follow my plans.

The Sub Tub Never Happened…

I have always intended to create one of those. But, in reality, I am more of the “Drive to school in the AM while sick to throw together plans” kind of teacher. One day I just went in with strep throat (I didn’t know I had it for sure) and pushed myself through a half day (without talking AT ALL) until I had to surrender and go home.

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One time I did manage to throw together this bin but it didn’t last.

And while I still don’t have one of those decorated sub tubs (yet), I have gotten better about having a handful of prepped activities to throw together for an unexpected day off. The best part? I can use the activities more than once throughout the year. So it doesn’t feel as daunting to prep since it’s not for single use. My NUMBER ONE suggestion and MUST DO is for students to have their own book box filled with at least 5 books. I use the book box in all of the ELA/Writing activities so it’s an absolute necessity. Here are some ideas of what I use for a sub:

Math: Bingo

Addition/subtraction bingo is my go-to substitute teacher activity. I typically play this early in the year with my class so they already have boards made. Then, I just stick them in my “emergency sub” bin. But, your students could make their own boards if you just leave the bingo template. I place a set of flashcards to use as the calling cards, some counters for bingo chips, and bookmarks or candy as a prize (optional). I love that bingo can last a solid 30+ minutes and work on fact fluency is something we do all year long. 

Phonics: Skill Scavenger Hunt

Have students fold a piece of blank paper into sections. Write one of the phonics patterns you’ve already worked on like VCe or long e vowel teams. Students spend 15 minutes or so looking through the books in their book box for words that fit the pattern. Then, share out with a partner/group and/or the whole class. I love this because you can use it with ANY phonics skill you are working on. All you need is blank sheets of paper!

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Blank paper is one of my absolute FAVORITE tools for the classroom. Read more ways I use it here.

Writing: Spin Writing Ideas

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This one is my favorite! I have these spinners and I don’t use them nearly enough. I drew 2 circles on the board and labeled one “characters” and one “setting”. Students came up with all of the ideas and then they each got to come up and spin a character/setting to write about. This would be a super simple idea to leave for a sub. 

Of course, you’d have to have the spinners…so if you don’t want to buy them, I made a writing ideas spinner resource for you to use as a pencil and paper clip instead. I love this because it works on generating ideas instead of just giving a prompt. It’s engaging and lends itself to some really creative writing! I always add time to share out stories, too. This entire activity can take a solid hour! 

Reading: Make a Book Quiz

As a class, have students brainstorm questions that they might be asked about a book: Who are the characters? What is the setting? What was the problem? What happened at the end? Then, students pick one of the books from their book box and make a 5 question quiz about it. They can simply use the questions that the class brainstormed together. But, they must look for the answers and write them on the back. After they made the quiz, they can partner up with someone from their reading group and swap books. When they are finished reading, they can take each other’s quizzes.

Science or Social Studies: Review Game Jot, Draw, Pass

This is a perfect review activity. Students get into small groups and you pick a familiar topic. For example, after I teach about polar bears, I ask students to write or draw about things they learned. I set a timer for 1 minute. Have 1 student draw at a time. They write and draw as many things as they can and then pass it when the time is up. If you want to add some friendly competition, count up how many different ideas they recorded, and the team with the most wins. 

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You could leave the substitute a list of topics you’ve covered this year and play 3-4 times. Or, this would pair great with a content area book or kid’s news magazine (I typically always have an unread Scholastic News on hand) to work on comprehension.

The truth is, there is no such thing as “no-prep” for a sub. It does take a little time but with these, you can continue to use the same activities and incorporate whatever skills you are currently working on. As much as sub plans stink, writing sub plans while you are sick is worse. Your future self will thank you if you take 30 minutes of time now to make some copies and print out some plans that are ready to use in case of an emergency! Don’t forget to download the writing spinners freebie!

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