Surprise Bag

Have you ever noticed that children can be like magpies whose sharp eyes are constantly seeking out treasure?

Children love to show their treasured items to friends and perhaps that is how the whole idea of “show and tell” began.

In an effort to make “Show and Tell” more appropriate for preschool aged children, I have adopted a method used by many other educators. I like to call it “Surprise Bag”.

Children take home a small paper lunch bag  and must return with an item inside for the class to guess.  They must also decide on three clues or hints to help their friends guess what could be inside the bag.  Parents write the clues on the outside of the bag; we read the clues aloud and then try to guess the surprise.

Toys are not allowed to come in the surprise bag but instead children may bring books, items they have found or collected, something they have made themselves or something handmade by someone else, it could be an award someone has won, a drawing, a painting or even a musical instrument.  If the item won’t fit into the bag, that’s okay.  It just gets disguised or hidden somehow and we still read the clues and try to guess that the hidden item might be.

Another note: only one or two children present something each day.  More than that would draw out the session too long and children would no longer be interested.

Here’s a fun example of what a boy and his Mom decided to bring for “Surprise Bag”.  I just love when parents work with their children to create something and in this case, it really was the child’s idea.  I could tell by how passionate he was in the presentation.  He reminds me of my main character, Katie, in my picture book, Katie Shaeffer Pancake Maker!  His project shows creativity, resourcefulness and determination.


All these items were collected by M and his Mom at the beach and then Mom served as the apprentice by using the glue gun while M directed where each piece needed to go.  Eventually… tada!

A pirate ship created from mostly driftwood plus some rocks and shells.  Incredible.

I cannot remember the clues for the pirate ship creation but… I can tell you that we had 3 clues for another child’s surprise today and nobody could guess.  The clues were:

  1. family
  2. superhero
  3. the place I used to live

The child brought a framed photo of himself as a baby being held by his Mom and Dad.  When we asked why the clue was “superhero” he answered that his Dad was the superhero.  The child was incredibly proud to show his friends.

We do not teach reading/writing because we believe in learning through play and that 3/4 year old children may or may not be ready yet to learn to read.  Sometimes we have children at the preschool who are already reading but they have learned that on their own. We all learn at a different pace and I think of it as the same as learning to walk or talk.  Each child is on a slightly different time schedule. Teacher Tom eloquently describes a similar philosophy on his blog about how children learn to read. I trust that they will eventually learn when the time is right. And the value of play is too great to interrupt.  Children can work on reading when they enter elementary school. There’s plenty of time.

With the clues, it gets interesting.  Sometimes the child has memorized the clues and can recite them all.  I usually ask, “Do you remember any of the clues written here?”  Then if the child does not I read them aloud to the group.  It is a great demonstration about how written communication works.  Children know the clues they discussed at home and realize that by reading, I know the clues too.

Side note: For teachers with older children, Norah Colvin, has some great Show and Tell ideas described on her blog where children share and write class news.  Her ideas are perfect for emerging readers and writers!

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise.  It is not that we seize them but that they seize us.”   -Ashley Montagu

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4 thoughts on “Surprise Bag

  1. I love your “Surprise bag” with its clues for children to guess. What a wonderful idea. It is a great way of encouraging discussion between parents and children too, and helps to cement their bond. The discussion is a great way to develop language and ideas, and it is obvious that this method also encourages creativity. Thank you for the mention and linking to my post, and for introducing me to Teacher Tom. 🙂


    1. Thank you, Norah. You make a good point about encouraging discussion between parents and children; this activity certainly achieves that! It is probably the only “homework” they will ever get in preschool and it never feels like that because they look forward to their turn so much 🙂 I had to mention your post because it was what reminded me to write about “Surprise Bag” in the first place. And Teacher Tom has lots of really valuable insight so I know you will enjoy reading his posts.


  2. Oh my! I can feel the excitement even if I’m not in your class! Such a wonderful way to build community–both among the children, and with their families.

    I also like that you chose not to include toys as items for the surprise bags. It makes it even more exciting to create, scavenge, or play on top of decoding clues and sharing treasures.


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