Friday, September 23, 2016

The Build-A-Bear Bond

A strong sense of community is crucial in any large group of people who need to work together. Coaches and camp counselors have known this forever, always incorporating new and exciting games and activities to get to know teammates, form memories, and eventually create a lasting bond between members. Leadership trainings are purchased and implemented at great expense to companies and staff. Why do teachers expect our classrooms will be any different? 

One of the best things I ever witnessed in an early childhood practicum classroom was the incorporation of a daily morning meeting. It’s something my early childhood professors recommended on a weekly basis, but my cooperating teacher bit the bullet and decided to incorporate it every day. I was a student teacher, after all, so I was about to witness a leap of faith first hand.

In the first couple of weeks, I thought we’d lost our minds. Everyone was talking. Everyone was sharing stories that weren’t relevant to our class at all. One prompt about helping their community turned into a tragic story of one girl attempting to save a friend’s cat that died falling out of a tree. The class began to riot. Many wailing tears were shed by my empathetic 6-year-olds. I thought my cooperating teacher was going to cut all future morning meetings right then and there. 

I rushed to my car that day after my student teaching, flying down the highway to make it to a rehearsal for the high school color guard I coach separately. I peeled into the parking lot and jerked my open bag from the passenger seat. Every single item scattered all over the pavement. Electrical tape, fabric swatches, feminine products, music scores, drill sheets, choreography notes, 14 tubes of red lipstick… You name it. If a guard member needed it, I had it in the bag. I collected all the contents threatening to blow across the parking lot before moving to pick up my team’s favorite possession: their Build-A-Bear mascot. She was dressed like them. She traveled with them. She was there to cuddle with when one of them was having a bad day. She represented them, too; that little bear contained a wish and a goal and a heart from every member on that team. 

My thoughts jumped back to the kiddos I’d just left crying over a cat. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? If my high schoolers could love and appreciate something I thought they’d perceive as completely juvenile, why hadn’t I considered its effectiveness for my first graders? 

Just for the record, there’s absolutely nothing stranger than a grown woman in slacks and a professional name tag waltzing into a Build-A-Bear store, standing in line with a bunch of eight year olds, and then requesting to buy an unstuffed animal, a bag of cotton, and sixteen fabric hearts. But out I walked with all of it stuffed inside one of their signature cardboard houses. I bought a couple of outfits too, outfits that matched the culture and preferences of my students. I went home and dug out some of my old Build-A-Bear outfits from when I had one as a little girl. Then I turned on Netflix and spent the next three hours stuffing and dressing our new classroom cat. Named Lacey, of course, in honor of the tragic story shared in our classroom circle. 

My practicum teacher loved the idea, and I introduced Lacey the next morning. I called everyone to attention in the classroom circle and sat the cardboard Build-A-Bear house on my lap. “Who’s seen one of these before?” Every hand went up: from the girl who got a new bear every year to the little boy in the back who’d dreamed of having a Build-A-Bear since his best friend got one the year before. I pulled Lacey from the box and heard everything from gasping to cheering. It was a major hit. I explained the tradition to my bright eyed kiddos as I handed out a single fabric heart to each child in the room. 

“Lacey is our classroom mascot,” I said, explaining what a “mascot” was. “One of the first things you do when you make an animal at Build-A-Bear workshop is choose a heart. Lacey will have a heart from each and every one of you. So before we get started, I want you to close your eyes, and make a wish. It can be about anything.” 

The children closed their eyes and wished on their heart. I did the same with my heart. 

“Now, I want you to think about our class, and the friends you have sitting around you. I want you to set one goal for yourself this year. It might be to read a whole book by yourself. It might be to make three new friends this year, or write your own story, or to get better at math.” 

The children closed their eyes again and set their goal. I did the same. 

Then we all stood up. “Now rub your heart on your head so Lacey will grow to be as smart as you!!” 

The kids giggled and rubbed their hearts vigorously on their heads. 

“Now rub it on your shoes so she has a soul!” 

The kids hopped around laughing, rubbing their hearts on their shoes. 

“Now rub it on your knees so she needs you!” 

That one was a favorite. 

“Now hold it close to your heart, so she’ll never forget how much we love her.” 

The students held the heart close to their chest and I opened the back of the stuffed cat. Each child took their turn placing their heart inside the cat, and watched with big eyes and smiles as I fastened the back of the animal. 

We took Lacey everywhere. She accompanied field trips as a “chaperone.” She walked around the school with us as a “hall monitor.” She traveled to the computer lab to monitor online safety. She also gave several rewards to children. We used positive reinforcement in the classroom through Class Dojo rewards, so they could cash in their reward points for multiple activities with Lacey. 50 points can be exchanged for being the one to carry Lacey in the hallway for a day. 100 points can be exchanged for changing Lacey’s outfit for the week. 300 points can be exchanged for keeping Lacey with them at their seat for a day. That little stuffed cat turned out to be a pretty strong motivator.

She’s good for assignments too. She sits in the reading corner when she’s not traveling, and guards the “prompt bucket,” where students can go to pick up a prompt during free writing if they can’t think of anything to write about. She helps us count the number line during math and loves to operate the timer for center time. But my favorite assignment she’s involved in is the weekend trips, where each weekend, a different student takes Lacey home and writes about all the fun adventures they have with her at home. She is returns to the class on Monday, along with the best writing some of my kiddos did all semester. 

By the second month of school, our first graders really started seeing some major benefits. Not only were discussion prompts far more focused in circle time, but friends were being made. My egocentric students were becoming enthralled with their classmates' cultures and lives. Lacey broke down every diversity barrier that could’ve possibly affected the class. If there was one thing everyone had in common, it was that they all loved Lacey. My creative kiddos lived for show and tell. My analytical ones were making comparisons and connections on the spot. The diversity in our classroom wasn’t just embraced, it was celebrated. These kiddos were smiling. Laughing. Resolving conflicts that arose without the aid of a teacher. They were loving school. They were loving learning. 

I probably don’t need to tell you how rare that is. 

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Build A Bears are expensive!” But when you don’t buy a sound effect, thirteen outfits, and all the furniture they sell, they really aren’t that expensive. Basic bears are 12 to 15 dollars. Hearts are about 50 cents a piece. They gave me my bag of stuffing for free, and you really only need one outfit. I even sew my own build-a-bear costume for my color guard girls so the mascot’s uniform matches the one they wear to competitions. 

Stolen from my high school guard instructor, that little build-a-bear bond has made all the difference, and truly has the potential to make or break your class or team. For my first graders, it was the difference in motivation and excitement for learning. For my high schoolers, it was the difference in stupid drama among teammates. And for the sake of my sanity, I’m not sure which I was happier to see. 

If you love the idea, but aren’t sappy and creative… No worries. Colorguard season is en route once more, so for the first time, I have documented the build-a-bear ceremony for all to steal and adapt. 

Meet Bentley! {Pictured above.} He’s our adorable mascot for our high school color guard, named after their show concept, Bent Outta Shape. He was chosen with love, stuffed with care (by a spoon and some chopsticks…), and breathed into life by the wishes and goals of ten hearts. 

Put it on your side so your friend is always by your side! 
Put it on your head so it’s super smart like you!
Put it on your muscles so it’s big and strong!
Raise it up high so it grows big and tall!
Put it on your knee so you know it needs you!
Put it on your tummy so it never goes hungry!
Put it on your lips for lots of smiles!
Put it on your toes so it’s TOE-tally cool! 
Put it on your hair so it never has a bad fur day!
Put it on your ears so it always listens! 
Drop more suggestions in the comments! 

I’ve found that the more significance you can give it, the better it will be. And if you’re worried about your high schoolers not receiving it well, I’m here to tell you… The second I brought out a bear that was dressed like them, made for them, and was soon to contain a part of them, they turned into six year olds again. Some really bought into the whole thing. Sure, some of them think it’s cheesy, but I have yet to complete the ceremony yet without each person doing every movement. They may talk like they think it’s stupid, but they wouldn’t rub a silk heart on their head, their knees, and their shoes if they truly thought it was dumb. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s a little kid in all of us, especially when we’re contributing to something on a personal level that ten of our best friends are doing with us. 

It’s worth the extra time. It’s worth the extra pennies. It’s my students' favorite part of the year, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite as well. 

If you have any questions, don’t hesitant to email me at, and make sure to show off your own adaptation on the tradition by tagging me {on instagram: @taxistotsandpolkadots} {on twitter: @ttandpd} {on facebook: Taxis, Tots & Polka Dots}. I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with, but more than that, I can’t wait to hear the stories that come along with it. 

(Though I seriously doubt you can beat my cat story. R.I.P. Lacey… ) 

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