Student rewards…that aren’t junk food!

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Have I mentioned that I’m tired of all the junk food at my daughter’s elementary school? And I am not talking about what they’re serving in the cafeteria. I am talking about the junk food that’s constantly being used for rewards, parties and activities. Here are just a few examples…

  • “Box top” prizes where winning class gets a donut or cupcake decorating party
  • Skittle sort (why not a button sort, which could even be reused the following year?)
  • Cake for the entire class (from the cafeteria) almost every time a student has a birthday
  • School “spirit” events at fast food restaurants and pizza places
  • “Popsicles with the principal” for top fundraising students
  • Celebrating the 100th day of school by stringing 100 fruit loops onto a necklace (cute idea, but I’m confident some healthier alternatives could be just as much fun)

But rather than just sitting here complaining about these issues, I thought why not do something about it instead?! As you may know, another mom and I teamed up to offer our school a healthier “nut-free” snack list so now we are doing the same when it comes to student rewards. And I’m finding that there’s no better place to brainstorm for ideas than my facebook page (thank you everyone for your wonderful ideas). So without further ado here’s a long list of student rewards…that aren’t junk food! We plan to submit this list to our school administration and PTA and hope you’ll consider doing the same by downloading the printable version. And as always, please leave any additional ideas in the comments below.

Student rewards…that aren’t junk food!

(click for printable version)

Group/Class Rewards

  • Extra playground time
  • Pick different seats to sit in for a day
  • Teacher wearing a silly outfit or hat (let the class decide…one reader even said a teacher wore her wedding dress to school!)
  • Afternoon movie (as an individual reward one student could be allowed to select and bring in the movie for the class)
  • Lunch in the classroom
  • Dress up days…let the class vote!
    • Pajama day (can also incorporate sleeping bags/blankets)
    • Crazy hair day
    • Farmer day
    • Stuffed animal day
    • Backward day (wear clothes backward and even follow the class schedule backward!)
    • Camp out day (kids bring sleeping bags and teacher brings a tent)
    • Hat day
  • Book swap party (each child brings a book they no longer want and “trades” with their classmates)
  • An art or craft party
  • A game the class plays together (like bingo or kickball)
  • If it’s warm outside…water play in bathing suits
  • Plant some flowers or plants together at the school
  • Paint birdhouses together to put up at the school
  • Dance party with music
  • Film a short digital video/documentary as a class (for e.g. each student answers a question for the camera) then watches it together afterward

Individual Rewards

  • Lunch or recess time with the principal
  • Books donated to the school library in the student’s honor with a guest reader to read them to the class
  • Extra computer time
  • Go to “specials” (like gym or Spanish class) with a friend’s class instead of your own
  • Sit with a friend from another class at lunch
  • Gift certificate to the school store
  • Lunch with the teacher
  • Sit in the teacher’s chair or at their desk for the day
  • Use a rolling chair/stool at your own desk for the day
  • Sit next to a friend instead of in your own seat for the day
  • Be the “special helper” for the day (running errands to the office, line leader, etc.)
  • Name read over morning announcements
  • Student asked to actually read the morning announcements
  • Choose the story for story time
  • Let a student be the “principal for the day” or the “assistant principal for the day” or even “teacher for the day” (or just for an assignment)
  • “Stinky feet” which means you get to take your shoes off in class
  • Pick something out of a treasure box with prizes like stickers, pencils, erasers toothbrushes, silly bands, etc.
  • Give out “play money” to students that they can spend in a class-wide auction later in the year (auction items can include games, books, etc. and be donated by parents)
  • If students wear uniforms a “no uniform for the day” pass
  • “Family night” bags that kids get to borrow from the teacher for the evening including “lego night” and “movie night”

School Fundraisers

  • Principal can be duct taped to the wall (our school actually did this last year – students had to buy pieces of tape)
  • Principal can kiss a pig in front of the school if a certain amount of money is raised (another example that really happened at a reader’s school)
  • “Teacher car wash” where kids can “buy” buckets of water and wet sponges that they can throw on teachers in car pool line

Birthday Celebrations

  • Class makes fruit smoothies together
  • Small goodie bags with stickers/activities given out to classmates
  • Each kid is given supplies to a make small craft together
  • Birthday card(s) made by the other students
  • Popcorn birthday parties (popcorn is a whole-grain food) served in “popcorn cones” that the kids make themselves out of paper
  • New book donated to class library by birthday student with their parent as the guest reader


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178 comments to Student rewards…that aren’t junk food!

  • MGS

    Our school has the policy of no birthday food or toys allowed, and I love it! It got to the where I thought at least the junk food was consumable–I couldn’t stand all the crap toys, stickers, and pencils that were taking over my house.sent home. I’ve seen birthday packets come home where everyone has written what they like about the birthday child and draws a picture. That has been fun to read–you learn a lot about your child from them (ie mine might be the class clown). Donating a birthday book is also great–the books get a placard in the front cover recognizing the student.

  • Carrie

    It seems that an underlying question here is one of the value of extrinsic rewards. While I’m completely fine with my son having a cupcake to celebrate a classmate I’d be quite against him getting a cupcake for completing his math, etc, because it teaches him to work for the approval of others rather than for himself. Changing the rewards to be non food doesn’t change the heart of the issue, it just fills my house with cheap plastic crap, pits students against adults, and involves kids watching more tv. These three things are poor “solutions” in my mind. Id love it if the conversation shifted one step back in the process…. What are we trying to accomplish with these rewards in the first place?

    • Diana

      I like your assessment that we need to back up one step and question the need for the reward in the first place. Our swim school has a basket of suckers for kids to grab as a “treat” after their swim lesson. (Shouldn’t learning to swim be the reward?) Anyway, in an effort to reduce kids’ access to junk food, they did try eliminating the sucker bowl. You would think they tried taking away people’s 1st born child they way most parents reacted! So, the sucker bowl is back… :(

      I do disagree with one point you make though, I personally do have an issue with the cupcake itself (regardless of the reward issue.) Just way too much junk food in kids’ lives. If parents want to indulge their children, that’s fine. But does the school really need to do this?

  • Emma

    When I was in grade 2 our teacher had a reward drawer so if u did really well in a test or in class she would let you go to the drawer which was filled with books and sticker sheets etc and you would pick the one you want. Inside it said this book has been awarded to ____ for hard work in class. And the teacher would put your name in for you. Another thing a school I attended did to fundraise was we had various selected students challenge teachers to different things eg a dance off with the principle, arm wrestling, a twist on bobbing for apples, teachers vs kids in tug of war (u would pay to join) etc

  • Corrina

    ya, why so many rewards for going to school. I like to ideas for fundraising and birthdays. thanks

  • Donna

    Ok….Enough about the food reward stuff–others will make the argument that too many video’s too much free time and if your not a teacher try letting the kid sit in a new seat today and then keep them on task especially the unmedicated, suggered up, video junky student you can’t control in Walmart! all while trying to teach, meet core standards, and someone’s unrealistic walk thru telling you your not reaching 100% of the class but lets push the school fundraiser so we can have field trips with a reward of pizza, popsicle or donut party for top sellers. And all those tangible rewards cost the teacher money not the school, district, state or federal govt. So with that said..You all want an external reward that’s why you look forward to payday, quit time, happy hour, and sneaking your extra dessert after kids are in bed. It’s education today and we aren’t going green or healthier with blenders in our classroom to make a smoothy from organic foods you can’t get them to eat anyway!
    Wow I feel so much better. Tomorrow I’ll give the goldfish to xxx for passing the glue to his/her partner and we will get the no worksheet tissue paper glued to the simulated apple I drew on 24+ sheets because we have no copy paper thanks to budget cuts and crappy fundraiser sales.
    Get the point–Qtip the complaints –your not going to fix education by healthy tips.

    • Alicia

      But junk food isn’t free, either, is it? I’m not going to suggest being a teacher isn’t a difficult job, but if you’re going to take the time to read this, why not offer constructive alternatives instead of just unloading your gripes? Or are you just pro-junk food?

    • Diana

      The point of this article wasn’t to “fix education”. Within that context, cetainly junk food isn’t the worst challenge facing our schools. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real issue, nor that we should do nothing to try to improve it. True–in a school with severe poverty, a preponderance of children from dysfunctional families, classroom sizes of 30+, gang viloence, etc., these ideas likely won’t work. (Then again, you probably won’t have a parent at those schools bringing this list in to the teacher…) But these are lots of viable options on this list that would work in many classrooms.

      Sounds like you have a tough job. Stay strong!

      • Monica

        Also, just because we can’t solve the entire problem doesn’t mean we can’t solve small portions of it. Don’t have the mindset of “if we can’t solve the entire problem, let’s just not solve anything about it” is deflating.

  • Sarah

    As a teacher, I appreciate these suggestions, but they are obviously written by a well-to-do parent who may not entirely understand that the education system in general is not all about families like hers. Some things that pop out to me about these: 1) many of the alternatives are costly (Have you ever tried to stock a treasure box full of things that appeal to a variety of students? Hundreds of dollars could be spent here alone, and that’s just one option). 2) Many of the options take much needed time away from classroom learning. 3) Donations from parents? Not at your typical school… 4) Do you know how many kids come to school and only get to eat what icky food is provided to them at school? Carrie and Donna (above) are right on about working for these rewards is no different than working for food rewards and the value of this list in actual education. If your problem is the type of food, most schools/teachers are open to parents sending preferred items for their child. If your problem is rewards in general, that is something that largely falls into the parents’ lap to teach their children to work for the inherent reward of hard work…we call that teaching them to be intrinsically motivated. I don’t often get defensive of teacher critiques but this list just irks me all around. If your biggest issue at school is what type of rewards you approve of and are being used, consider yourself blessed!

  • Jill

    I am a teacher and for the first time this year I decided to try a NO JUNK FOOD policy in my classroom. For b-day celebrations and parties I asked all of my parents to send in healthy foods for their brains and gave them a list of some great options. Most of my parents hugged me they were so thrilled. Only one parent was sad that she could not send in cupcakes and once I explained the quantity of cupcakes they will consume in a year, she understand my point and was happy to think of other healthier options for her son. It’s definitely worth the battle so our children don’t eat junk at every holiday and b-day and class celebration. There are so many other fun options when it comes to food that children will really enjoy! :-) Thankful to finally be on this track!

  • MN Mom

    Wow. I’m both saddened and, quite frankly, disgusted, by some of the teacher’s comments on here. These attitudes ARE the problem. First of all, the point of the original post is to offer alternatives to giving kids junk food for rewards, not an indictment against rewards in general–that was an issue raised by people replying to the article. Secondly, this list provides many suggestions–of course not all of them are going to work for all classrooms. So maybe focus on those few that might work for you rather than criticizing the ones that won’t. And finally, in my opinion, junk food has absolutely no place in our classrooms period. It is 100% unnecessary to provide kids with candy, cupcakes, etc. at school. I don’t expect our schools to fix the culture of junk food in our society, but I do expect them to at least stop contributing to it.

    • Carrie

      It’s a conversation. Diverse views will be shared. Isn’t that the point?

      I don’t believe that anyone in the conversation is advocating for unhealthy children. What I am seeing is some real concern with the idea of

      a) Trading one version of unhealthy for another, equally problematic version
      b) Placing responsibility on teachers that belongs on parents and/or is better off kept out of the classroom altogether.

      I don’t expect a teacher to reward my child for expected, socially normal behavior. Likewise, I don’t really want a school hitting up my 5 year old for fundraising efforts. Fundraising is an adult issue, not a child issue.

      When these types of situations (rewards and fundraising) are eliminated from the classroom equation many of the “junk food in schools” situations are also eliminated.

      If there’s an occasion for group eating at school I am all for the ideas that have been shared – have a breakfast party, healthy alternative, etc. I’d rather there not be junk food in the school.

      But don’t freak out when people express the idea that they don’t want their child spending an afternoon of school (education) time watching a movie that, at best is an age appropriate session of screen time and, at worst, is inappropriate vacuous dribble.

      I care about what goes in my child’s mouth. I care what goes into his mind.

      It’s great to share ideas for alternatives. It’s great to discuss the merits of those alternatives.

  • West MI Mom

    I, too, am tired of all the junk food rewards–at school and even at Sunday school. They have no place in the classroom. This morning my daughter informed me that her teacher said that Pop Tarts—with fruit filling and no icing–are “healthy.” Sigh………

  • Dianne

    Lisa: As much as I am all for what u have to say this is actually the only meal some kids get all day what is there. healthier it could be but at least our American children r getting food. We are taking care of our own for a change. U have to work there in school to see how starving some of our children are in need of food each day and some for weekends.

  • Jennifer

    I am a mom and a teacher and I love the ideas for healthy and non food rewards. Thank you for taking the time to compile this list.

  • Jessi

    Just an FYI (that most teachers either don’t know or don’t follow) showing an entire movie with the sole purpose being reward is against the copyright law. It is not protected under educational use because it is not being used for education, but as a reward.
    This was covered in my recent grad classes and I was not aware previously. I thought I would pass this on since it is listed as a reward on this list. :)

  • Kirsten

    Thank you for the long list of ideas. My school district has healthy food rules but it really depends on a principal as to whether they are followed. Teachers need to be part of the solution i.e. teaching nutrition not promoting junk food. It’s hard to say no cupcakes etc. when they are in other classes. We want students to make good choices and do well without extrinsic rewards but it can be tough to motivate some students, however, that’s part of the job. Just acknowledging the effort or accomplishment can often be enough e.g. showing work to the principal or last year’s teacher, a note home to parents, a bulletin board to recognize outstanding work. I would vere away from any “rewards” that show disrespect to principals and teachers. One of my students favourite activities is playing board games. Fundraising is a whole other issue: schools need to be properly funded. Parents, teachers and community leaders need to continue to seek good and fair education for all.

  • Aubrey

    As an elementary teacher, I have to admit my opinions have run the gamut on this topic. On one hand, when my class is going crazy giving out a quick non-time consuming piece candy to 2-3 well behaved kiddos pulls their attention back immediately. On the other hand, I’ve have 3 kiddos all bring full sized birthday cupcakes on. the. same. day. On yet another hand, I just made a personal commitment to eating real food and now giving food as treats at all just isn’t sitting the right way anymore. While some of the ideas up there are completely impractical from a being able to maintain order standpoint, others have a good bit of merit to them and could easily spark other ideas. I guess the reason I’m commenting is I’d love some feedback on food served during special events. For instance, we just did Dr. Seuss inspired centers that included buttering a slice of bread right side up or down and stating reasons why that was the best way (The Butter Battle Book, opinion writing skills) and Grinch Floats (1/4 cup sherbet and 1/2 cup sprite, introducing adding fractions). As rightly concerned moms, what would your feelings be on foods used in this way? Keeping in mind of course that this type of thing only happens a couple of times a year. I really do want honest opinions, I’m still new this way of living and I want to show integrity in my actions :)

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. I know it can feel like a big shift in philosophy but it is a good one. I think giving candy as a reward in a classroom is problematic simply from a brain function perspective. Sugar is not the best brain food and does not bode well for learning. :) Beyond that, I think food can be used as part of learning activities as long as they aren’t wasted and employ healthy, whole, non-sugary ingredients that are relevant to the topic at hand. Hope that helps. ~Amy

  • Jimae

    I don’t think food rewards at school are appropriate at all and wish treats brought in for celebrations were limited to healthier snacks with less sugar. My kindergartner has ADHD and autism, and his teacher hands out snacks to kids in his class who come to school without one. Apparenlty the snacks are more exciting that whatever I’ve sent him in with (raw fruit and veggies, usually) and he’s begun to ask for what the other kids are getting and refusing to eat what I’ve sent. He clearly doesn’t understand why some are being provided snacks, and I feel like that should not be done in the general classroom but instead maybe the nurse’s office or something. It’s confusing to my child why he is told no, so he gets angry. He told staff he was angry becuase “I’m really hungry” so they had him write me a letter stating “I’m hungry at snack time. I need more food” to bring home with no explanation, so I thought they were saying I wasn’t feeding him! Then I found out that the teacher gave kids who turned their signed report cards in the very next day a “treat” which must’ve been candy because my child told her “My mom doesn’t let me have treats like that” so they gave him a sticker which of course he did not want and was very upset. One week he came home with Lucky Charms (minus the marshmallows, which had probably already been eaten at school…) in his snack container also with no explanation. I was livid! I don’t care if he is offered a treat with others so he’s not excluded, but he should not be begging for sugary snacks when he has a snack from home and resorting to hiding his snack and saying he’s hungry to get the junk food. I personally feel there should not be any food rewards in the classrom, and I also have a home filling up with plastic crap toys that are given out as rewards. Grr!

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