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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253 thoughts on “Student Rewards…That Aren’t Junk Food!”

  1. As a teacher, I am all for eliminating sugary snack rewards at school. However, many of your alternatives take an incredibly large amount of time. For example, movies are not allowed in my district. Thats 30-90 min of class time and more screen time (which they also don’t need). Painting birdhouses? That would be a costly and long project. Most of the time these rewards need to be 10 min or less to fit on our already tight academic budget. Thanks.

  2. Actually, recent research suggests that we are over-incentivizing our children in general. Rewards are helpful in some situations, but their overuse detracts from instrinsic motivation.

    1. Absolutely! Children in other countries far outperform our kids without “rewards”. We should find out what is working for them.

  3. My children’s elementary school does not celebrate with food. For Birthdays, parents or someone close to the child are invited to come in and read to the class. The kids love having a loved one come into their classroom. The PTO also runs a program called birthday books. The librarian purchases books and parents have the option of donating one in honor of their child. The PTO then delivers the book to the child. They make deliveries 2x a month. They’re able to keep the book for a few weeks and then send it into the library. My kids love finding their books and it helps replenish our school library.

    For holidays, room parents and parent volunteers usually run centers that involve crafts or quick fun games, like those you’d see on Minute to Win It.

    For box tops, the top selling class wins an extra recess. This only occurs 2-3 times a year.

    For 100th day projects, kids bring in 100 non-edible items that can fit in a gallon size bag or they can make a poster.

  4. Right up there with food rewards is the never-ending stream of low cost “rewards”. Our daughter comes home with so many pencils, buttons, plastic figurines, stickers, GAH! I feel bad that the school and teachers are spending money on things that I give away or recycle.
    I really appreciate some sort of physical activity as a reward, like the dance party or extra recess time listed above. Kids wear uniforms at my daughters school, so free dress days are occasionally given to kids who volunteer.
    Thank you for this list!

  5. Supply your teachers with givables. They can’t pay for all rewards! I bought them for forty years and only had a few parents offer to buy and bring in. Children don’t need rewards, I have had parents come in and tell me that their children work well with a reward system and would like me to buy certain things for their children! Did they offer to buy? Absolutely NOT

    1. Kathy I totally understand. Our teacher just declares that she is having an event and the parents are to pay for it whether we agree with it or not.

      As for your situation, I would ask for a fundraiser to fund the rewards for the kids. If they chose not to put their money where their mouthes were, then it is not really necessary or important. I think the free items above like sitting in different seats or a rolling chair or an Art Project is far better than any food reward.
      I would even be willing to help.

  6. My daughter is in kindergarten in Huntersville and this is our first time dealing with public schools and the ‘reward’ system in general. I am shocked at how much candy is offered as rewards for EVERYTHING on a weekly basis. Preschool was a just a small taste of how much bigger this problem is in elementary school.
    We do not offer candy at home and only offer (sometimes) unprocessed ‘sweet treats’ (such as our own home made cookies or the occasional organic minimal ingredient cookies from the store). Within the first couple months of school, I could tell this was a losing battle. Me vs school. I feel like I’m treading water in a very large ocean with lot’s of big waves.
    I really need to voice my opinion and somehow make it heard or count, but have been hesitant to. Not sure why , but thats my own issue I suppose lol! I love this site because I know I am not in the minority here. I feel so small and voiceless against the candy issue in school because most people feel it’s totally OK. I won’t judge those that do because everyone makes decisions for their own families that they think are best.
    For me, I do not want my daughter being offered candy all of the time! I like the idea of this list above and will maybe make up a nice email and approach the PTA and or principal with it. Seems like a good place to start. Our school system consists of something like 150+ schools in Charlotte/Mecklenburg… so I don’t want to get involved with the entire district, just the school my daughter goes to (and in 2 years my son). I love her elementary school and every other aspect about it; this is my only gripe with the school.

    1. I feel for you Sky. We have the same problem here. Even voicing our opinion here with the Principal was a losing battle. The School is So-So. My Son’s 4th grade teacher wants to do an “engineering project” with graham crackers, frosting, mints, lifesavers and candy canes as a Reward for all their hard work. Why does it have to be made of edible materials loaded with Sugar? My Son already has compulsive eating issues with Sugar. I consider this an unsafe environment for my Son. (Kind of like holding an AA meeting in a bar.) So when presented with the District’s School Wellness Policy instead of changing the materials to something like Saltines or Salt Dough or changing the project to something that is in alignment with their school wellness policy, they offered to exclude my Son sending him to the Principal’s office instead.

      I found this article that provided some help and pointers.

      But for next week’s “engineering sugar fest” where they try to somehow keep 9 year olds with little impulse control from eating while building gingerbread houses with only one teacher to “supervise” (you know she will be munching in the background). We will stay home from school opting to go to the Amusement Park, to studying Physics and Engineering of the rides instead, again without sugar.

  7. The only one I don’t like is pouring water on the teacher during a car wash. I think anything like that is disrespectful to any adult much less a teacher. I guess I liked my teachers too much to think of doing that to them. But then again I am from a different decade. I am retired but enjoying subbing. The craft ideas sound fun to me!

  8. Oh I completely agree with schools striving towards this but I have to say that where I teach, the parents, while well intentioned, have made this very difficult. I teach kindergarten and I have a no processed food rule for classroom treats. No cupcakes, no ice cream, no soda, fruit punch, etc. the only exception that I make for this is our 100 day snack in which kids each get ten of ten item to make a snack of 100 items. For this day, the kids so get ten chocolate chips, ten raisins, ten pretzels, etc.. The only reason I make this exception is that it is something that has been done for a long time, the families look forward to it and I make sure there are healthier items in there too. I wish we could do it all unprocessed but it gets very expensive keeping it all dried fruit and such.

    That being said, despite going over this rule (specifically stating that there are no birthday cupcakes) before school starts and at conferences, I have parents regularly show up with 24 cupcakes wanting me to make an exception for their child’s birthday. It is incredibly frustrating for me because I am trying to keep it healthy and fair for all students. Our rule is that you can bring in a fruit, vegetable, raisins or an activity for the child’s birthday. If there is a kiddo who doesn’t bring something, I find an activity to do. The kids love this and it costs less to buy a bag of cuties (small Oranges) than it does to buy 2; cupcakes so I don’t get the problem here. Please keep promoting your ideas, i am concerned for the future of these kids! (And don’t even get me started about lunches from home for some of these kids- white bread Nutella sandwiches, chips, sugar water and a piece of candy…). I have referred many families to your blog for healthy lunch ideas… But so many people just lack basic nutritional information.

    1. I think this world is getting a little too packed off on the whole treat thing. A treat even once a day isn’t going to hurt any of them! As far as lunches go, its up to the parents what they pack in a lunch from home! How fun for a kid to bring raisins in for a birthday treat??!! If it’s obesity people are concerned about, you ought to think about bringing recess back and gym everyday. I’m sure we are not the norm, but we have no tv at our house and no computer time either. My kids get to play leap pads at times for no more than 45 minutes in a day. We don’t do any organized sports either. Anything they eat gets burned off through play. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s 8 kids total too-they always have someone to run and play with. Maybe everyone should just have more kids-not only is it a blessing to have them but they have built in playmates and parents that are kept busy taking care of them. It leaves little time to be in everyone else’s business and what they are feeding their kids and other piddly things. I’m all for eating in moderation but ultimately it’s up to me what my kids are eating since most eating is done under our roof. I think people’s time would be better spent watching what their kids are eating at home and what they are doing in their free time.

  9. Some of these are good ideas but quite a lot aren’t at all practical for the classroom. I don’t use sweets as rewards, but I do highly value ease, efficiency and cost-effectiveness when choosing incentives.

    Routine is also a very important part of each day, especially for students with learning difficulties, ADHD, autism and disabilities. Also, many of these ideas, such as watching a movie in class, take up significant learning time that simply isn’t available. Whilst submitting your list (or a shorter, edited version ) could bring some positive change, perhaps providing your child with sugar-free alternatives is an easy option that works for everyone?

  10. Extra recess is the easiest and most enjoyed by almost all kids. I do have to agree with most of what NDI said. I am a teacher and many of these ideas are more disruptive to the school day than in necessary for a reward. (Camping with the bags and tents…one word…lice.)
    I did no food birthday treats for years and each child got to pick: lunch in the classroom with me and a friend, extra recess, art time (tagged on to the end of recess), or swap seats and sit next to a friend for the day. Easy, and FREE, and does not require something to be sent in, remembered by parents, or rearranging of your whole day. (Does anyone know how bananas it makes elementary aged kids to have crazy hair day, or any sort of dress up day!?!? Let me tell ya, it’s not easy to keep their attention when they are busy worrying about their green Mohawk!)
    I have to say, treats are ok, sometimes, in moderation. To say you never have food treats is a little sad to me. I know it goes both ways, and I obviously agree that not everything has to be a junky treat, but taking it so far the other way is just not necessary.

  11. Why can’t schools just stop food celebrations and rewards altogether? There is no need that food be used to celebrate or as rewards. There are dozens of non-food great ideas for kids in grade school. My kids have allergies and even many so-called healthy foods don’t work for them.

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