Non-Food Rewards for Kids

A jar of marbles tipped on its side with many marbles spilled out
Using a marble jar to recognize positive behavior is just one way to use non-food rewards for children.

For as long as parents have been trying to teach children how to behave, make desirable choices, and become good adults, they have been using sweets as incentives.

Research is out on the impact of food as a reward for children but even with mixed conclusions, more and more parents are looking for non-food rewards for kids as alternatives to the typical sweet treat to use as a prize for desirable behavior.

Maybe you’re potty training and want to avoid the classic candy reward or you’re working on more significant behavioral changes. If you’d like to have some handy non-food-based rewards up your sleeve on a daily basis, then look no further. I have collected dozens of favorite non-food rewards from real moms across the internet to share here in one place with you!

Use rewards thoughtfully and carefully. If you promise a reward, be sure to follow through. If you give a reward, do not take it back later. If your child earns a larger reward, be sure that it is something they truly value and not something you have chosen for them.

Immediate Rewards

Immediate rewards are those we use in a pinch or present to our kids directly following the desired behavior. Examples include using the bathroom during potty training, being well-behaved at the grocery store, and making their bed. Rather than reaching for the candy basket, bribing with dessert, or offering to buy a treat in the check-out line, you might want to sometimes consider non-food alternatives! These immediate rewards can be as simple as praising your little one, so be thoughtful; if possible, find ways to speak your child’s love language when rewarding good behavior.

superhero coloring book

Some favorites include:

  1. Extra screen-time
  2. One-on-one time with mom or dad
  3. Small change: nickels, dimes, quarters
  4. Coloring pages
  5. Bubble bath
  6. Silly bands
  7. Bubbles
  8. Pick a game to play (board game or on tablet!)
  9. Temporary tattoos
  10. Bedtime story of child’s choosing
  11. Play-doh
  12. Choosing a favorite meal
  13. Picking music in the car
  14. Glow sticks
  15. Crazy straws
  16. Slap bracelets
  17. Matchbox cars
  18. Later bedtime
  19. Get out of one chore for the day
  20. Sit at the head of the dinner table
  21. Art project or messy activity that you do sparingly

Working toward a larger reward

Cumulative rewards are small rewards that accumulate over time for a child to earn a larger reward. Common examples include sticker charts, marble jars,  or cotton ball jars. For these reward systems to be effective, your child needs to be old enough to understand the delayed gratification of consistently good choices and behaviors. Display their reward chart or jar in a prominent location at home and go out of your way to create opportunities to reward your child. Success builds on success!

lego bricks and set

Real moms’ said these are their favorite non-food ways to measure long-term progress toward behavioral changes and for children to earn a larger reward:

  1. Lego bricks
  2. Stamps
  3. Stickers
  4. Cotton Balls
  5. Marbles
  6. Shiny sequins
  7. Rocks
  8. Aquarium stones
  9. Pretend pirates’ gems or coins
  10. Beads to build a necklace

Larger Rewards

Be sure to work with your child to decide on any larger rewards for meeting specific goals or for filling their jars. Your child won’t have much incentive to work toward their goals if the reward is something you chose. Let them decide, but set limits and be specific.

For example, you agree that your child will earn a new Lego set for filling their marble jar. Can they have the $200 set, or will they be limited to a smaller kit? Be sure you and your child are on the same page and working as a team!

Piggy paint nail polish

Though the large reward should always be of your child’s choosing, your child may ask for the cake the size of their head! If you want to steer them toward non-food rewards, here is a list to use as a springboard for creative ideas:

  1. A trip to pick out a new book
  2. Painting fingernails or toenails
  3. Special bath with bath bombs, toys, bath paint, or crayons
  4. Kids’ choice movie night
  5. Playdate with a friend
  6. Visit the trampoline park, zoo, or museum
  7. Parent date to play mini-golf, hit the batting cages, or see a movie
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Mary Vaughn
Mary is an Army wife of 7 years, mother to three wild boys, and owner of a small business helping other moms as a sleep consultant and potty training coach (yes- it is a thing!) called Mother Together. She is originally from Gettysburg, PA, has an undergraduate degree in education from American University in Washington, DC, and taught middle school before following love into the adventure that is a military marriage. Mary proudly considers herself the millennial everymom: rocks the side part, overuses the laugh crying emoji, looks forward to a daily glass of wine, and will probably be buried in skinny jeans. Her hobbies and interests include exploring local businesses and restaurants, camping when the weather is just right, knitting, coffee, and casual amounts of moderate exercise to create balance to her love of cooking. Mary is perpetually seeking new binge-worthy shows and audiobooks, so feel free to connect and share your interests!