Five Favorite Activities for the First Day of Elementary School

Originally posted on August 2, 2015 | Updated on: July 19, 2021

Elementary students are filled with enthusiasm and powerful emotions. Harnessing those attributes in productive ways can be a full-time job in and of itself, which is why the first weeks of school leave us feeling teacher tired like no other time of year. As you head into a year of teaching, keep in mind, the ultimate goals of the first day of elementary school are simple:

  • Make sure each student eats something at some point during the day. 
  • Make sure everyone gets home safely. 
  • Accomplish both of the above goals without any tears. 

I’m only slightly joking. Realistically, you will accomplish much more than those three basics, and doing so takes careful planning.

Core Inspiration's recommended activities for the first day of school in second grade

Below, I’ve shared five of my favorite first day activities for elementary school. These activities help me accomplish the deeper goals I set for the first day of school with my new group of students. These goals are: 

  • Make sure every student feels welcome, seen, and safe.
  • Teach students how to navigate/move safely within their new learning environment.
  • Show students that our classroom is a shared space where they will take ownership.
  • Help students begin to feel that our classroom is their home away from home.

First Day Fave #1: Introducing Routines

The first day of school is where classroom management magic begins each year. The most powerful asset when building a strong classroom management framework is your students. When students feel you truly believe they can care for everyone and everything in their learning environment, they live up to those expectations. Building this belief begins as your students prepare to walk through their classroom door, and interactive modeling of routines and expectations solidifies this belief very quickly.  

Third grade lesson plan on table in folder with classroom welcome banner overhead

From the moment we are standing in line outside our classroom, you can dive deep into interactive modeling for each routine and procedure needed in order to succeed throughout the year. Students can earn everything from how to hang backpacks in a way that shows respect for belongings to how to approach their workspace in the morning so everyone around you feels safe. Nothing is left un-modeled. 

There are times when you may feel crazy modeling every little detail of life in the classroom, but it pays off in the long run. Truth be told, many of the details we can teach through careful interactive modeling are skills our students have never been taught. When students are carefully shown what the expectations are, and how to meet them, they become immensely capable of meeting those expectations. 

If you are interested in seeing all the routines and expectations I model on the first day of school, you can download my free back to school lesson plans here. If you’re interested in learning more about interactive modeling, check out Interactive Modeling by Margaret Berry Wilson

First Day Fave #2: Building a R.E.S.P.E.C.T.ful Community

The guiding principle of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is something I share about often here on the blog and on Instagram. On the first days of school, introduce what the acronym R.E.S.P.E.C.T. means in your classroom, which serves as a foundation for your rule writing in the days that follow. 

Start with a read aloud of Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller, then teach the meaning of each word in the acronym R.E.S.P.E.C.T. using this toolkit. Your students will brainstorm ways to show respectful behavior in relation to each of those words. For example, how we show respect to ourselves, to our property, or while collaborating. We then discuss what happens when someone makes the decision not to show respectful behavior. 

R.E.S.S.P.E.C.T. mini poster about respecting thoughts in the classroom laying next to student brainstorm sheet

After students have spent time learning about, thinking about, and discussing your guiding principle, have them complete a R.E.S.P.E.C.T. contract, which they take home to share with parents, sign, and return the following day. 

The strong foundation built by these activities helps your students work together as a class community to build a respectful learning environment that is strengthened throughout the course of the year. 

First Day Fave #3: Hopes and Dreams Banners

After lunch, read aloud Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, the story of a woman who lives a life of adventure but does not feel fulfilled until she realizes how to make the world a more beautiful place. Briefly discuss the hopes and dreams of Miss Rumphius before launching into a conversation about your students’ hopes and dreams for the school year. This opportunity to share helps communicate that every student’s interests, ideas, hopes, and dreams will be valued in their new classroom community. 

To help students think seriously about realistic hopes and dreams for the school year, try sharing your own hopes and dreams. For example, what your class will accomplish, how they will treat one another, the fun they will have, and the time you’ll spend getting to know one another. 

The heading "What are your hopes and dreams for this school. year?" is featured on an anchor chart next to the book Miss Rumphius, which is the perfect conversation starter for students to brainstorm their hopes and dreams for the classroom this school year.

At first, students can share ideas verbally. Then they can head to their seat where they’ll find a sticky note waiting for them. Have students write between 1-3 hopes and dreams for the school year, then come back to the carpet prepared to share the idea they’d like to add to a class anchor chart titled, “What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?”.

Each child can either read the words from their sticky note themselves before posting it to our anchor chart or asks you to read it for them before posting. 

Smart goals planning sheet with hopes and dreams banner page underneath sitting on the table next to Miss Rumphius book

This brainstorm session can lead into the hopes and dreams banner activity, which helps students set goals that will help their hopes and dreams come to fruition. Each student can use a planner to write three S.M.A.R.T. goals that will help them fulfill their own school-related dream. Then, have students transfer their ideas from their planning page to a creative hopes and dreams banner that can be proudly displayed in the classroom. 

These banners take a few sessions to complete, and can be ready just in time to hang for Back to School Night. They are a perfect conversation starter as parents begin to gather in the classroom before your back-to-school presentation begins.

First Day Fave #4: Only One You Art Project

Elementary students are pretty exhausted after lunch when they are easing back into the school routine, so try spending the bulk of the afternoon hours during the first week doing art, P.E., and team-building activities.

In addition to the hopes and dreams banners described above, my favorite art project for the first week of school is based on the book Only One You by Linda Kranz. I learned about this project during my first year of teaching from an amazing teammate and have tweaked it throughout the years. 

Only One You rock fish art project on display next to book

Begin this activity with a read aloud of Only One You. This book is filled with little tidbits of wisdom about enjoying life and making the world a better place with your unique abilities.

After reading the book, invite students to share which two tidbits of advice from the book are their favorites. Each student can write their name on two sticky notes and vote on their favorite tidbits on an anchor chart. This is an easy way to weave some quick data practice into the first weeks of school. 

"my Favorite Advice From Only One You" anchor chart displaying tidbits of advice from book with student names next to their favorite advice. Perfect for a quick back to school data and graphing lesson

Then, have students design a fish that represents their unique interests. The abstract fish outlines can be inspired by the artwork in Kranz’s book.

Once the fish are designed, have students cut them out and mount them to their favorite color paper to be displayed on the wall at the back of the room. You can also have students add a little card to the corner of their project with their favorite piece of advice from the book or their own piece of advice for making the most of the school year. 

Only One You art project templates laying on table next to completed art project

These projects are a perfect display for your walls during the first month of school and are a strong first step in giving students the opportunity to display their personalities and creativity in the classroom. Once you’re ready to take the project down, try storing them in an art portfolio and provide it as an option to display on a “Why Fit In” wall during your Celebration of Learning later in the year.

First Day Fave #5: Letters to Students

After the students head home at the end of the first day, begin writing a letter to each student. These little notes can be filled with words about how excited you are to have each student as part of the class community and highlight a special strength they have already demonstrated during their first days of school. 

First week of school letters from the teacher to students laying on a desk next to an oversized yellow pencil.

To make this project feel manageable, write 2-3 letters each day during the first three weeks, and add them to students’ weekly work folder on Friday of the third week as a special surprise. Seeing your new students’ faces light up as they read their own personal note will be one of your absolute favorite parts of heading back to school! 

First Day Goals Accomplished

When these activities come together during the first day of school and carry on through the first week, you can feel confident that the intentions mentioned above are brought to life.

Activities like these five favorites help build a classroom community where everyone feels welcome, seen, and safe, where students take ownership of their learning environment, where students know how to navigate their classroom with confidence, and where you all feel we have a home away from home. 

Core Inspiration's first day of school lesson plans organized in a pile on desk.

I hope these activities inspire you as you prepare for your first day of school this year. If you have any questions or thoughts about these favorites, please share in the comments below. 

If you are interested in using any of these activities in your classroom, then these resources can make prepping for your first day a little easier (affiliate links included):

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links to make it easier for you to find the supplies shared in this post. To see all my favorite Amazon finds, visit my Amazon Influencer page here.

First Week Back to School Essentials Bundle resource cover

For a look at some of the other resources I use during the first week of school, grab my First Week Back To School Classroom Essentials Bundle.


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21 Responses

  1. I love your RESPECT acronym! And those letters! I love how personal they are, and worth every second and hand cramp! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Retta! I learned R.E.S.P.E.C.T. from my mentor teacher when I was an intern. It has transformed over the years and now it's a huge guiding principle for each school year.

  2. Amazing post and share! Wonderful ideas especially the literature tie-in and activities. I had a wonderful laugh over Despicable Me-Rules. This is a "must do" for the first day of school!!
    Tricia from Tricia's Terrific Teaching Trinkets

  3. Hi Laura, I am your new subscriber! Would you please share where you found the banners you used for Miss Rumphius writing activity? Thank you

    1. Yes, after they selected their multicultural paper color, they traced the outline of the head using a template. The rest (shirt, hair, facial features) was free form.

  4. The link for the video didn’t work for me when I clicked on it. Youtube said the video was unavailable. Can someone send it to me so I have the correct one, please? Thanks!!
    I love all of these ideas!

  5. Maybe a crazy question but, just wondering if any parents have gotten upset with the language in the clip from Despicable Me?

    1. Hi Holly, not a crazy question at all. In my personal experience, I have not had parents upset with the language. This can serve as a great conversation point with your class, if you ask them to identify things in the clip they think would be considered silly but inappropriate to say/do in a professional learning environment. This is useful after you have created class rules and established your expectations for respect. I have done this in the past, and students have picked out some of the words used, as well as the smart-aleck behavior of the oldest sister. There may also be years when you get a vibe from your class and you know showing this clip isn’t an appropriate match. Hope these ideas are helpful.

  6. Hi Laura,
    I am so happy to have found your page, lovely ideas so thoughtful!
    I love the letter to students, what an encouraging idea. I am taking over a new classroom next year and l would like to use them, do you have any samples/templates that I could get inspiration from?
    Many thanks,

    1. Thank you Sophia. I do not currently have any templates. You will be surprised by how easy they are to write after getting to know your students for the first week of school. I usually write why I am excited they are in my class and something they have done in the first week that makes me proud of them. 🙂

  7. Hi Laura,
    I am so beyond glad that I stumbled onto your amazing blog! I can’t wait to start using some of your ideas. I already met with some of my teammates over the summer and we are going to be using your M.A.T.H. Workshops next year. I was wondering…I joined your blog and received a confirmation email but do I need to “login” on the blog or is it just automatic?
    Also, your classroom colors are the same as mine! That makes me especially happy!

I’m Laura Santos

I’ve been an elementary teacher for ten years, and love sharing tips and resources that make differentiated learning more manageable for you. Thank you for visiting.

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