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

  • Laura

    Some of the teachers at my kids’ school schedule a monthly birthday party to celebrate all the kids whose birthdays are that month (or over the summer at the end of the year). Parents of those kids coordinate what they’re bringing. They’re still getting cupcakes usually, but having one party beats having 3-4 in some months!

    Sometimes, the class reward for contest winners is an extra PE with the much-beloved PE teacher. As others mentioned, some of the biggest fundraisers at the annual auction are after school activities with teachers or being Coach/Principal for a day during school.

  • Joscelynne

    It’s unfortunate that these “treats” or “rewards” aren’t special, out-of-the-ordinary things anymore. The problem isn’t with teachers and school administrations giving the kids Skittles, it’s the kids getting Skittles at home, school, grandparents, in their LUNCHES (!!!) and every time they go to any store that happens to have Skittles. Pizza used to be a TREAT, not an everyday meal.
    It’s difficult to motivate twenty-five 4- & 5-year-olds with the promise of wearing a silly outfit the following day.
    Also, little edible rewards are for individual motivation, as opposed to group motivation. Kids tend to take better responsibility for their actions when they know that it is only them who can earn themselves the reward. Even with the suggested rewards, how many names can be read over the announcements every day? How many kids can sit in ONE teacher’s chair at the end of the day? How many rolling chairs are there?
    If I want to give a student a gummy bear once a day for being a good listener and getting ready without disturbing anyone, ONE gummy bear or sucker or sugary treat isn’t going to harm the child. It’s the 100 others he’s already gotten that week from umpteen other sources that make my 1 gummy bear seem like a horrible idea.
    Don’t get me wrong, these ideas are great! They’re just not as effective as short-term goal, immediate rewards as, oh, let’s say a gummy bear would be.
    I don’t advocate for food being the ONLY reward for EVERYTHING (at all), because, like I already mentioned, these are GREAT suggestions for rewards toward which kids can work, long-term. (When I taught third grade, I used to have a classroom economy that was a huge motivator for kids! Work long term and the rewards add up! No one was left out. It was fabulous! Lots of extra time and MONEY for me to spend, though, but I thought it was worth it.) Kindergarten doesn’t really lend itself as well to this type of reward. The quicker, the better, for them! :)

  • gail cartee

    Our 4K class counted 10 of 10 items for the 10oth Day of School. Items like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, almonds, banana chips, any dried fruit or seeds/nuts. The kids really enjoy making trail mix.

  • Jen B

    I’ve been primal/paleo for the past 3 years. I am now a stay at home mom, but taught for 7 years before having my baby. I am very careful with what I give my daughter and although we do have our occasional treats, we live an 80/20 lifestyle. As a teacher, it isn’t as easy as this list makes it seem. With first graders, most of the children responded to those kinds of rewards, but my intensive reading middle schoolers did not. They don’t do homework, so homework passes don’t work. They hate reading, so a book would be a punishment. A treasure box would need ipods and 80 dollar headphones to appeal to them. And I tried fruit on several instances, and it was an epic failure. These kids have years of failures and years of eating treats whenever they want. I actually threw out a full can of coke as a student with severe ADHD and other issues came in for the 10th time in a row sporting his “breakfast.” He was pretty angry. I had given him three warnings. I agree that these treats are not helping the situation, but I also feel that as teachers, our goal is to get them to learn. Unfortunately not all parents are their for their kids. Not all students come with the same opportunities. As a teacher, I got to a point where I found that m&ms worked. At the end of class, most of the kids had understood and completed the lesson, participated in class, and got to leave with 3 m&ms each. It’s a difficult situation.

  • Brittany

    Our school bought little plastic charms (probably from oriental trading company) the kids could collect and add to a bracelet or chain. They also did monthly principals lunch for top readers. Rarely they do popcorn at lunch for special rewards. They did a limo ride one time for top fundraising students! Thank you for the list! As a mom of a food allergic child I appreciate non food rewards.

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