As parents, we all want our kids to develop positive, empathetic attitudes about life, their peers and about themselves. Teachers and school administrators want the same for their students! Character building activities in the classroom provide the time and space for this kind of growth for students in elementary, middle and high school.
What is the Purpose of Character Building?
Character. Or kharassō, to use the original ancient Greek. That word from the long-disused language means “I engrave”. When we talk about the reason for “building character” in someone, that is what we aim to do. We want to “engrave” or impart certain values and meaning within someone. These ways of thinking and ideas that will retain meaning for the rest of someone’s life.
The purpose of character building is one of change. This change is not a reactive, negative change. Instead, it’s a nurturing, molding change that helps build people up into something more than they were before.
This is why character building is essential for use in a classroom among students of any age. It can help them learn important lessons and ideas about fairness and sharing. In addition, it can help older students navigate their own ideas about these topics.
Why is Character Building Important?
Character building is a fantastically useful tool to implement within your classroom. It encourages positive changes and development in attitudes that can support healthy growth as children mature.
If that’s something you can implement within the classroom then it will no doubt be appreciated.
Character Building Activities (include how to modify for each age group)
Next, we have a list of different character building activities you can employ to students of different age ranges. We’ve included tips on how to adapt or alter the activity based on the age of the students. Each activity includes advice on adapting for elementary, middle school and high school students.
We hope you find our list of character-building activities useful and easy to implement into your desired classroom setting!
The Power of Words
“The Power of Words” is an exercise focussing on debunking the urban myth that is the childhood rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
This aspect of character building is aimed at curbing the bad habit of using mean words and verbally denigrating other students. It’s easy for students to pick up bad language habits – be it rude, nasty, or even bigoted. So, teaching them early to not engage in such behavior is essential.
This activity could take various forms, and you should use different character building activities for different age ranges.
In Elementary school, this activity could be done through a couple of different ways. One good technique would be to take a cardboard cutout of a person or cartoon character, and pass it around the class. As you pass it around, have students say something mean about it. As they do so, they have to mark an X on the part of the cutout they commented on. At the end, hold up the cutout, and ask them if the Xs are still there. This is to demonstrate that one’s words stick to a person after we say them.
When adapting this to middle school, try eliciting a celebrity or film/TV character from the class before your lesson. This way, the students will already be engaged with the activity. Print off a picture and stick it to your whiteboard. Have students come up one by one to mark the picture in a similar way to the previous exercise.
For highschoolers, use the same exercise but have them say what other people may have said about this famous person. Then, elicit why the people may have said these things.
Seek Out Diversity
This exercise I call “the flower exercise”. It’s geared towards finding each participant’s unique traits. This activity doesn’t need to change much between age groups, and will change on its own based on the students’ vocabulary.
Have students in groups draw a stem and bud for a flower. Then they discuss different things that are unique about them (not pertaining to physical qualities). After discussion, they get to draw one petal on the flower, labeled with their unique qualities. At higher levels, they can add the positive quality they all share as a group in the bud.
Helpful vs Hurtful
The aim of this exercise is to teach children the difference between helpful and hurtful actions, encouraging them as much as possible to substitute negative actions with positive ones!
For elementary school I would recommend playing the “helpful and hurtful hands” game. Start by drilling helpful and hurtful as words, then move on to drilling several things that “helpful hands” and “hurtful hands” do respectively. These can be of your choosing, I would choose at least 6 statements for each type of hand. After drilling, have the students come up and write the actions they can remember under two different columns – “helful hands” and “hurtful hands” (ideally as full sentences).
To adapt for middle schoolers, change it to “helpful Henry” and “hurtful Harry” – two cartoon characters who look identical apart from different facial expressions. You should present them with a selection of different scenarios, and the students have to guess who did the action: “helpful Henry” or “hurtful Harry”.
For high school students you could adapt the above exercise to be framed around superheroes and the actions they take. Maybe even take time to consider how actions helpful to one person might be hurtful to another to skew for a different perspective!
Strength finder activities range through a whole host of activities, but a favorite of ours is building activities. Provide elementary students (in teams of 4) with masking tape and raw spaghetti, and have them use it to try to build the tallest free-standing towers possible.
For middle and high schoolers, add an element of balancing as a mandatory part of the exercise – for example a marshmallow balanced on top. The winning team gets all of the marshmallows at the end of the exercise.
Highschoolers should be made to analyze their team’s performance afterwards, finding one strength each person had during the activity.
How to be a Good Friend
For this activity, simply have students come to the board and contribute in a way they think of being a good friend. When you have a few suggestions, have students vote on if they think each idea is good. Then, rank them, and have the students chant the new rules. For older students you can have the prompt be “how to be a good friend if…”.
This counts as one of these character-building activities because it promotes emotional intelligence. The aim of the activity is to have students identify what “pushes their buttons” – also teaching lower-level students a new idiom in the process – and at later stages allow for students to identify what might push other people’s buttons.
For elementary students, begin by eliciting typical emotional associations with feelings (e.g red and angry, blue and sad, green with good) – if your students generate a different color schema that is okay too. Then, draw the colors as different buttons on the board. Have students come to the board and press a button corresponding to how they feel to any given prompt.
Middle and high school students might find the activity more engaging if you have students choose a partner and then come up with that partner and try to answer the questions on their behalf – encouraging empathetic thinking. High schoolers might enjoy this more if a competitive element is introduced.
Walk in my Shoes
In this activity, print out four different pictures of shoes. Write a different scenario underneath each such as:
- “my friend called me a bad name”
- “someone pushed me over”
- “someone gave me a cake”
Then, have different students stand over each captioned shoe picture and say how they would react if they were in that position.
For older students you can make the problems more complex, for example “someone making fun of you for x“. Be careful to avoid potential trauma or anxiety triggers with this exercise.
This activity is really easy. Make some paper pouches for your students, shaped like buckets. Instruct your students to fill out a small piece of paper with a positive comment on and place it in another student’s bucket throughout the day. Ensure that all students get some comments in their buckets. For older ages, you could adapt this in an anonymous debate style, by having three topics as buckets, and students have to anonymously place their opinions on cards inside.
Character Notebook is a good technique for students to track their own character development. Treat it like a dream journal or diary – you want to be encouraging the students to track how their character has built throughout classes! For younger students have them track “good deeds” they have done – keeping a tally of positive action. For older students, they could also keep track of negative actions and have them weigh those actions up and decide if a week has been positive or negative.
Taking it Back (using salt, sugar, and pepper)
This exercise is a messy one, so be careful! What we are doing here is showing the impact of words, and how difficult it can be to “take back” something rude or upsetting you have said. It is similar to the power of words exercise, but with a messier visual metaphor. Take a salt, pepper, or a sugar shaker. Have a student come up and say something mean, and then shake the shaker slightly onto a colored paper towel. After you have done this a few times, ask another student to come up and try to put the substance back into the shaker, and explain why it does not work.
Older students can discuss more complex phrases than just mean words.
Pay it Forward
This activity is all about teaching students to pay it forward – to do good things when someone does something good for you.
For elementary school students do this with a paper chain. Every time someone does something nice for a student, they should add a link to the chain, labeling it “this person did x for me!”
For older students, maybe keep it as a tally chart on the board, with students marking off positive actions done by each student. Monitor carefully to make sure it is done fairly.
Show and Tell
This is a great activity for nurturing the ability of students to articulate their likes and dislikes.
This activity is self-explanatory for elementary school children. Students come up and explain something they like. For middle and high school students have them discuss an idea they have, a person they find interesting, something along those lines.
Bust that Bullying
The best way to beat bullying is to pre-empt it with awareness activities. For elementary school kids an anti-bullying presentation might suffice. However, for middle schoolers and high schoolers I would recommend having the students prepare their own presentations on the topic.
Talk it Out
Again we focus on the power of words, specifically in a discursive setting. We want students to be talking about issues here – for elementary school kids this will be a simple case of talking about how a visual stimulus makes them feel. For older students, use the debate technique of “yes but”. One students states an opinion, and another has to reply “yes but” and provide some kind of rebuttal to their statement.
Do the Right Thing
This is one of the choice-based character building activities. Create a choose your own adventure style slide show with hyperlinked slides and pathways, with a right choice driving the story forward. Once again, more complex choices can be given to older students.
For this, have students in groups write a list of things they are thankful for. For older students you should have them add who they are showing gratitude to for each thing.
Recipe for Success (recipe for what good character looks like)
Bring a cake into the classroom. Have students tell you what they think goes into the cake (for each correct answer reward with a small half slice of cake). Then, transpose this idea onto a drawing of a person, labeled “good person”.
You can add complexity for older kids by using more difficult concepts like “hero” or “good role model”.
This is Me
This character building activity is similar to the show and tell one beforehand. Tell students to think of something they like, or they feel represents them (this is better for older students) and to draw it on the board. The other students have to guess what it is (a la pictionary). For older students, a good variant on this is a charades-style game.
In conclusion, there is a whole host of different character building activities you can use for different class ages. I would most recommend the Power of Words and Strength building activities.