Student rewards…that aren’t junk food!

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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  • Comments

    1. Debbie |

      After reading this list, I realized that my elementary school did most of these things. Sure we had the occasional birthday treat, but most of the time for rewards they were non-food related. Thank you for the reminder :)

      wonder why schools have moved away from non-food times and substituted with cookies and cake. I have many fond memories growing up and they did not contain food. We need to move our schools back to this.

    2. Leah |

      Thank you so much for this list. I am the Box Tops coordinator for my school and I work in a 3rd grade classroom. I see student store full of candy and ice cream floats for Box Top winners. Thank you for the ideas. I want to do my part to make our school better.

    3. Kate |

      While your ideas are great, most of these can’t just be done without permission from the school. As a teacher, I can’t just decide today is movie day nor can I let my student go to another class for Specials. I like a lot of these ideas and implement many in my classroom. However, just remember, most schools don’t let teachers just make these decisions on their own. They need permission and it is hard to come by at most schools nowadays. Rigor is key and watching a movie, dressing up, and even recess are not considered rigorous at my school.

    4. Linda |

      What I want to know is why do kids have snack time. I never had snack time in school. I think that my son eats his snack and does not eat lunch. when he comes home from school he is starving. I do not remember coming home starving ever from school. Plus, I often stayed after school for club meetings and sports practice.

      • laura |

        So true!! In kindergarten, my daughter had snack at 9:30, lunch at 11, and another snack at 1:30. Add an after school snack and her dinner was wasted every night. Then I stopped sending snacks and her lunch was gone every day and she ate supper again. Even she said she didn’t need the snacks! To make it worse, there was no “approved” snack list, so most of the kids had pudding cups, Oreos, chips, etc.! It drives me crazy how society has embraced this notion that kids need constant access to snacks and drinks.

    5. katie brown |

      Thanks for these! I am the PTA president at our school and have been committed to eliminating junk food as prizes. These ideas are a big help. In February of this last year, we did a box tops drive and the reward was a school-wide paper wad fight in the halls. It didn’t cost anything (we used paper from the recycle bin) and everyone loved it…including the teachers!

    6. Mary |

      Any ideas for “employee appreciation” that don’t include treats but are inexpensive?

    7. Sarah |

      I see your point. But some of the suggestions are so time consuming for the already too busy teacher. Also, since a calm learning environment is important, some listed ideas seems counter productive.

    8. Laura |

      In my daughter’s 1st grade class last year, the birthday child chose a small rock from the teacher’s assorted collection (any bag of river rocks, gemstones, etc… would work). The class sits in a circle and passes it around, each giving the birthday child a compliment or friendly wish. The teacher sent it home tied in a bit of cloth. My daughter loved this and remembered what everyone said. She keeps it on her nightstand :) I love that over the course of the year, each child gives and receives kind words!

    9. Greg |

      You are obviously not a teacher, lady. To the VAST MAJORITY of these it’s a big ole, ABSOLUTELY NOT!!

    10. Pat |

      While I encourage reducing food snacks, as a former principal and teacher I find this list very unrealistic. Most take time away from valuable teaching time and many subject staff to humiliating circumstances. I think if you consulted with school staff you might come up with a far better list of “alternatives” that supported your goals AND the main educational goals of school!

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