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Uncategorized   |   Nov 23, 2008

How to fill a prize box for free

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to fill a prize box for free

By Angela Watson


Anyone who’s read my book or spent time on my website knows I am NOT a fan of tangible rewards. I use them only as part of a larger behavior mod plan (such as the bead system) that focuses almost exclusively on basic classroom privileges so that prizes are given VERY rarely, and only for an extended, sustained amount of self-control, good decision-making, and social problem-solving. There are so many reasons I feel this way (ever read Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards?), and I’ve written about responsible reward usage in a couple of posts:

The day “reward” became a bad word

Ideas for student rewards and incentives

Rewarding kids responsibly in the 21st century

And yet, I have on occasion given tangible rewards in the form of a prize box. Here’s what I did.

I know that on a psychological level, tangible rewards foster dependence on teacher approval; on a practical level, they’re expensive, difficult to acquire and distribute, and tend to make teachers mad when the kids say “Is that all you haaaave?” I have never heard those words from the mouth of student (after interacting with me for 35 hours a week, the kids can easily predict my reaction to bratty ingratitude, and it’s not pretty.) I have also never spent a dime on prizes, ever. What’s the secret?

Give really weird prizes.

Find a wide assortment of random things that fascinate and amuse children, then throw them in a box. Delight ensues.


Here are just a few of my current prize box contents. These were all from festivals, arts and crafts bazaars, and mall exhibits. My mom collects these for me, mostly: she’s the ingenious creative type who has an eye for this stuff. This pic shows a coloring book, stickers, eraser, magnet, dolphin-shaped pencil, and a glow in the dark bracelet that says ‘Brevard County Waste Management’. Mom got me a bunch of those bracelets, and let me tell you, they are the ultimate symbol of cool in my classroom right now.


These are kids meal prizes from McDonalds, Chick-Fil-A, etc. Sometimes getting a kid’s meal is cheaper than the dollar menu so I order the meal and bring the prizes to school. Occasionally I will tell the guy at the window that I’m a teacher, and could I please have an extra prize or two, since it’s for my students? Pretty please? Usually works.


Random crap that somehow shows up in my house: plastic tote bag, grow-a-daisy pot, hair clip, button, mini dry erase board with magnetic pen, notepad, stickers from those free address labels that charities send (I cut off my name and address and paperclipped all the little bird and flower images to create one gigantic sticker collection), and a plastic name tag holder with safety pin. Name tag holders are another favorite with my kids, especially the kind that hang on a cord, because those can be filled with messages such as “Go away” and suspended from bedroom door knobs.

More items that have somehow ended up in my possession and re-purposed as prizes:

  • Kool-aid single serving packets (the kids pour them in their water bottles)
  • 30 sheets from the massive pile of old cursive handwriting paper we no longer use, rubberbanded together (paper appeals to kids who like to practice cursive and/or play school; rubberband appeals to those who like to craft makeshift slingshots)
  • Baggie of 10 colored paperclips (baggie itself holds value, paperclips are a bonus)
  • Little readers (small 15 page books) from the reading series we used in the 90’s, bundled into groups of like books so kids can give copies to their friends and read together
  • Anything with ‘teacher’ written on it: mug, notepad, pen, etc.; these appear in the teacher’s lounge regularly as goodies from the union, local business donations, and so on
  • National Geographic magazines: the teacher who used to be in my classroom left a massive stack (these must first be previewed for nudity; they are popular after the kids learn to make collages, tessellations, and other projects)
  • Piece of my stationary that says ‘ONE COPY’; serves as a coupon for one photocopy of any school-appropriate drawing, story, letter, artwork, etc. that the child creates (this is done on my personal copier in the room: if I’m feeling generous, I let the child push the button for a little extra thrill; coupon must be redeemed during morning work time when I’m not teaching)

I warned you, there’s some strange stuff. But let’s face it, how many kids, especially in impoverished homes, have access to any of these items? Obviously, this random assortment of objects inspires creativity in the kids. And again, all free.

What do you use for no-cost prizes?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. My kids love coupons. I have Homework passes (may not be used for study nights), Eat lunch with the teacher on Fridays, Get a drink whenever you want today, Use teachers chair at your desk for an hour and choose your job next week. The most popular believe it or not is not the homework passes. It’s Eat lunch with the teacher.

  2. For no-cost prizes:

    Extra recess (You have to work this out with another teacher that you have a good relationship with who will let your student come out during her classtime)

    Free book on next book order (If you have racked up some bonus points, then this won’t cost you!)

    Most of my other freebie ideas were already on your list.

    Oh, one other thing….most of the time if we have a party for a holiday or b-day and a student brings treat bags, they usually have some left over. I just put them right into my treat jar.

    As for inexpensive items…..my students can earn free ice cream from me, but that has to be a high goal so that I am not paying for that all the time. When I do pay for it, is only 50 cents. Also, you can buy the big bags of mixed goodies that are advertised for filling a pinata. It doesn’t cost much and has a variety of items in it. I also buy bookmarks buy the pack, which is a little cheaper, and hand them out occasionally.

  3. Great ideas! I teach in a school that has an elementary school on the same premises, so sometimes little kids that celebrate their birthday drop by to give treats and get a little present. I really have to stock up on such little things, because I hardly ever have anything to give to them. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Last year, I had a nice large classroom, and I had a recliner in it. I started writing little notes on paper that said, “One day in the comfy chair” and putting them in my prize basket. They were always the most sought after prizes. I also had coupons for “Line leader for a day.”

  5. Wow these are all great ideas! I have a prize box in my room too and kids have to work with their table group to rack up enough points to all get one thing from the prize box. I’ve been going to the dollar store to get prizes, but it still gets expensive over time.
    I haven’t tried it myself, but sometimes stores like Rite Aid will donate things for your class if you talk to the manager and say you’re a teacher at a school nearby. Other teachers at my school have done this for holiday parties. It’s something to try I guess- I just feel it’s too good to be true and I’ll get shot down as soon as I mention “free” 🙂

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