Why should you do Elf on the Shelf? How to introduce the Elf to your kids? Get all that information and 26 of the best unique Elf on the Shelf ideas! This is a fun, sweet, easy, and magical Christmas tradition that busy moms can do for their kids.
When it comes to the Elf on the Shelf, parents either love it or loathe it.
Personally, I'm in the love it camp. We did a version of Elf on the Shelf at my house for about 10 years, and every time was as magical as the first.
Just for some context, our Elf on the Shelf was actually a stuffed gingerbread girl because we started this tradition before the actual Elf on the Shelf was readily available in stores.
Also, my daughter was terrified of a strange man coming into our house while she slept, and so Mrs. Santa was our bringer of gifts for years and years. (She even called us on Christmas Eve every year.)
Mrs. Santa sent Cookie, our elf, and collected her again on Christmas Eve.
What is Elf on the Shelf
If you don't know what Elf on the Shelf is (have you been living in a remote jungle?), allow me to explain.
This is a tradition where an elf from the North Pole arrives on the first of December and sticks around through Christmas Eve, when it returns with Santa to his workshop.
Every parent does the tradition differently. Whether your elf reports back to Santa Claus each evening, makes a lot of messes, or just simply moves around your home, the Elf on the Shelf adds an element of magic to the holidays for kids.
Sounds great, right?
Well, not everyone loves the Elf on the Shelf.
I'll be the first to admit that this is a commitment for parents. Remembering to move the elf and setting up mischief takes time and energy.
But if you approach it with the right attitude, it can be a really fun experience for the whole family.
Should you do Elf on the Shelf this year?
My answer, for any family whose kids still believe in Santa, is a resounding YES. I think the elf is something that your kids will look forward to, and it doesn't take a ton of time to orchestrate each night.
Minimal effort, maximum response from my kids? I'm all in.
If you're trying to decide whether to give it a shot, consider the following:
Have you had an Elf on the Shelf in the past?
One of the first questions to ask yourself is whether or not the elf has already been a tradition.
If you have had an Elf on the Shelf in the past and don't do it this year, you may face uncomfortable questions from your kids if that elf doesn’t appear on December 1.
This could make your kids think they haven't been good enough this year or they may even question whether Santa is real. They won’t understand why last year, the elf was here, and this year it's not.
Of course, it's different if your children are older and don't believe in Santa any more. That's when I quit doing ours. It just didn't make sense anymore.
But if you do have younger children, you probably want to keep up with the tradition until everybody has reached the same level of awareness.
There is no denying that the Elf on the Shelf creates a magical experience for kids. Finding the elf in the morning adds pure joy to a time of year that's already festive and fun.
Seeing the elf through my kids' eyes was always one of my favorite parts of the tradition.
Elf on the Shelf is a creative outlet for you and your older kids.
Elf on the Shelf is an awesome opportunity to get creative, as you will come up with new ideas or find some on the internet.
During a typically busy and stressful time, Elf on the Shelf is a nice diversion that reminds you what the best of Christmas is all about: fun and family time.
Elf on the Shelf encourages good behavior.
There is no denying that the Elf on the Shelf encourages good behavior.
No matter how you embrace the tradition, your child will believe that the elf has a direct line to Santa Claus. If he or she is being particularly difficult, a simple reminder that the elf is reporting back can be a great way to encourage better behavior.
Your elf can even bring back notes saying that it's noticed certain behaviors and encouraging your child to make some positive changes.
Will your kids love it?
Another question to ask yourself is whether or not your kids enjoy the magic that the Elf on the Shelf brings during the Christmas season.
We all feel mom guilt at times, and scrapping the Elf on the Shelf (especially if you've done it before) will likely feed your guilt.
While we definitely need to consider our own needs, we also need to remember that some traditions are all about our kids. The smiles, the excitement, and the belief in something magical is what kept me doing it all those years.
The Elf doesn’t need to be expensive.
Some people believe that the Elf on the Shelf has to be extravagant with lots of props to buy, but this is simply not the case. You can do as little or as much as you want.
At the end of the day, it’s all about creating magic. Handwritten letters, silly pranks, and just moving the elf can be just as effective as elaborate setups.
See below for some cheap and free Elf on the Shelf ideas.
How to Introduce your Elf on the Shelf
Whether this is your first year with an elf or your fifth, its introduction is important. How you introduce your elf to your kids will set expectations for the whole month.
Here are a couple of ways to get that introduction right.
Mention the Elf to your kids before December
One of the first things you should do is to mention elves to your kids. They've probably already heard of Elf on the Shelf if they've been around other kids, so they may already be aware and curious.
If this is the first time you're introducing an elf to the household, then you could mention after Thanksgiving the possibility that elves are visiting families in time for Christmas.
You could also say that the elves help Santa Claus to make sure he gets the naughty and nice list right, and you've heard that these elves can be quite naughty themselves.
These little hints help set your kids' expectations, so don't say more than you can commit to. Don't make your kids think the elf is going to make crazy messes and pranks if you don't have time to carry them out.
If this isn’t your first rodeo, it's still a good idea to remind your kids that December is approaching and the elf will be showing up soon.
Plan the Elf's big introduction
December first is traditionally the Elf's big arrival (although mine always came the day after Thanksgiving, so do what you want). Take time to consider how the Elf will come back into your home.
Our elf always arrived in a box on the front step, as if she had been mailed from the North Pole. The outside of the box had a fake shipping label addressed to my kids. Inside the box was a snack for the elf and one for my kids (something fun like a Christmas tree shaped Little Debbie cake) and a letter of introduction from Santa.
Buy the book or the DVD
The official Elf on the Shelf comes with a storybook, and there's also a DVD that you can purchase to explain everything to your kids. You could read the book or watch the movie together so that they fully understand what's going to happen.
Don't get overwhelmed by Elf escapades
The truth is, many parents aren't thrilled about embracing the Elf on the Shelf because it feels overwhelming. There's so much to do in December as it is, why add something else into the mix?
Here are a couple of ways to ensure that you don’t get overwhelmed:
Have a plan for your Elf's antics
One of the easiest ways to manage the Elf on the Shelf is to plan ahead. This could be a list of ideas you have heard about or found online, a Pinterest board where you save the options you want to try, or you could even get a monthly calendar and write down exactly what you plan to do and when. Your plan will help you to stay accountable and organized.
Get inspired by other families' Elves BUT –
Try to get ideas as early as possible so that you can make or buy any props you need. You can find lots of ideas on Pinterest or through a Google search, and I guarantee that you have friends who are doing it themselves.
Don’t compare your efforts to other parents
It is important that you don’t compare yourself to other parents.
Every family does the Elf on the Shelf differently and you also need to factor in your kid’s reactions. Some may not like the elf getting into mischief. Others might love the magic of having the elf moving nightly or bringing back little notes or gifts each day.
You do you.
How to fully embrace the Elf on the Shelf
Once you've started the Elf on the Shelf, the only thing you can do is embrace the fun and go with the flow. The looks on my kids' faces and their delighted giggles were always enough to keep me going from the beginning through to Christmas Eve.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help you fully embrace it yourself:
Get older kids involved
Once your older kids have figured out the truth about Santa and the Elf, it's time to get them involved in making things fun and magical for their younger siblings. I have several photos of things that my older daughter did for her younger sister, including letters and drawings. I included one below.
Go all in
If you think your kids will love it, don’t be afraid to go all in. Set up crazy antics, make little messes, and have lots of fun with it yourself.
You might be surprised that the creativity sparked by your Elf delights you, too. This can be a tradition that you enjoy year after year and one of the memories that your kids will talk about long after you've stopped doing it.
Use the Elf to your advantage
Elf on the Shelf can be a great way to encourage good behavior in your kids. If they've had a bad day behavior-wise, leave a note from your elf stating that it didn't go unnoticed. This was always a great way to encourage better behavior at a time when my kids found it difficult to manage themselves.
Enjoy the magic
Finally, just enjoy the magic. Your kids are going to love their Elf, and they will appreciate whatever you can manage to do.
Elf on the Shelf is another small way to spark joy in December, and something that your whole family can get on board with.
26 Creative & Fun Elf on the Shelf Ideas
When it comes to Elf on the Shelf ideas, it's easy to draw a blank, especially if you have been doing it for a few years.
I have done so many different things over the years, some crazy, some messy, and some very very simple. You can't be elaborate every night; you would go crazy. Pick a couple of really cool things, and the rest of the days, just move her from one spot to another.
I thought I had more photos, but apparently I didn't take that many. I've included photos where I could below. Remember that our "elf" was really a gingerbread girl. She looks different but it's the exact same idea.
Don't be afraid to repeat year after year
You may not want to do the same ideas year after year, but your kids may be looking forward to the same old things.
Believe it or not, my kids told me every December that they hoped Cookie would cover the tree in underwear and go fishing in the bathtub and have a fight with the Barbie dolls. It made my job easier because I didn't have to think up a lot of new stuff.
The Elf hangs underwear on the Christmas tree
This was my daughter's favorite prank of all, and it was so simple. All we did was cover the Christmas tree in clean underwear and set Cookie in the middle of it.
The Elf goes fishing in the bathtub
This one was a little more involved, but it was a huge hit. We took a small cardboard box and wrapped it tightly with aluminum foil. Then we used a rubber band to attach a fishing pole from this game to the Elf's hand and add two very small wooden spoons for oars. We put a couple of inches of water in the bathtub, floated the "boat" in the water, and left it for our daughters to find.
The Elf has a feud with the Barbie dolls
This one was fun and went on for a few nights in a row. First, the Barbie dolls taped the Elf to the couch with masking tape. Then they tied her up with yarn and put her in the back of their Jeep. Another night, she got revenge and hung a bunch of them from their ankles from a dining room chair.
The Elf rides on a zip line
One night, we strung up a piece of yarn from the ceiling light to the arm of the couch, and we attached Cookie to the string using a pipe cleaner as if she were riding a zip line. This one was a big hit.
The Elf takes a bubble bath
Every year, our Elf took a bubble bath in a mixing bowl filled with mini marshmallows.
The Elf makes a snow angel
This one was a drag because it made a pretty big mess, but it was only one time, and then I cleaned it up and it was done for the year.
I put a heavy sprinkle of powdered sugar on the table and used the Elf to make a snow angel in the pile.
The Elf writes her name in chocolate chips
This was another big hit because the kids got to eat a few chocolate chips when they woke up in the morning.
The Elf wrote her own name and the names of each of our kids in chocolate chips on the dining room table.
The Elf dyes the milk
This was so simple, and the kids loved it. Cookie put food color in our milk and sat next to it in the refrigerator.
The Elf reads a new book
Our Elf was a big reader, and she was often found with a book open. On the occasion above, she brought a brand new book that the girls had never seen before. It was Fancy Nancy's Splendiferous Christmas.
The Elf is hanging around
My kids always got a kick out of Cookie being hung from something. I don't know why, but it always made them laugh, so we hung her from Christmas ornaments and stuck her in lots of tight spots.
The Elf toilet papers the kids' bedrooms
This one was simple and didn't make a big mess, so we did it every year. All we did was to tape the kids' doors shut with toilet paper. You could also drape some TP on the furniture, decorate your tree with it, have the Elf rolling down your stairs in empty tubes, or even set them up full rolls to create a snowman. Your imagination can go crazy with toilet paper!
The Elf gives the kids a small gift
I always picked up a couple of very small gifts for the Elf to give to our kids. It might have been a box of candy from the Dollar Tree or a couple of tubs of Play-Doh or a small puzzle. It didn't have to cost much at all, but the kids were excited to have a real present in the middle of December. It also helped them to wait for the main event on Christmas Eve.
The Elf leaves a fun breakfast or snack for the kids
I had forgotten all about this one until I was looking for photos of our elf, and I don't know how we came up with it, but I think it's pretty brilliant.
Our Elf on the Shelf made snowmen for the girls out of powdered donuts, orange and brown M&Ms, and pretzel sticks. It looks like the faces were probably made with an edible marker.
Your Elf could also make a mess with cereal or create a station with pancake mix, chocolate chips, and syrup. If you wake up before your kids, you could give the Elf credit for actually making the breakfast, and have hot chocolate chip pancakes waiting at the table and the Elf hanging on the syrup.
The Elf draws a self portrait
This one is really special to me because it was the first year that my older daughter helped make the Elf for her little sister. She had figured out the truth about Santa and the Elf, and she wanted to make it special for Allie. She drew this self portrait of Cookie and left it for her sister to find.
The Elf drew a picture using cat food
This was a last minute thing that we threw together because we forgot to plan something, but it worked and made the kids laugh. We used cat food to draw a smiley face. You could use mini marshmallows, chocolate chips, M&Ms, dried beans, or almost anything.
Elf on the Shelf leaves a note (from an older sibling)
This is another one that is just so precious to me. My older daughter found a tiny sweater at Target and thought it would be perfect for our Cookie. She put it on overnight, and then she wrote a note to leave for her sister. Here's what the note says:
"Hi Allie and Gracie, Thanks for the shirt. I will tell Santa."
It has a picture of the sweater and a picture of Santa, and Allie (the little one) never even noticed that it was all spelled wrong and scribbled out and messy. She thought it was from Cookie, and that was that.
The Elf hangs out in the freezer
A couple of times, we were at a loss for something to do, so we stuck Cookie in the freezer with a note that said she was homesick and needed to feel like she was back at the North Pole.
The Elf has a movie night
This would be great for a Friday or Saturday morning. The Elf could leave a movie or a coupon for a download, some microwave popcorn, and a popcorn bowl (it could be from your own cupboard).
The Elf makes a hot chocolate station
Another simple setup would be a hot chocolate station. Set out some mugs, hot cocoa powder, and mini marshmallows.
This could also work for a dessert station with bowls, ice cream toppings, and spoons.
Tic-Tac-Bow and other games
If your kids love to play games, you could use the elf to set up some different ones for them to find. Tic tac bow is where you play tic tac toe using Christmas bows as the Xs and Os.
You could also set up the Elf playing a board game with some dolls.
Another fun option is to hide treats underneath some cups, as if she was doing a trick.
The Elf has fun with fruit
Your Elf could draw faces on different fruits such as bananas, oranges, and apples. You could send the fruit in a packed lunch.
The Elf makes a balloon blockade or obstacle course
You have a couple of fun options here. The first is a balloon blockade. You could do this at the door to your child’s bedroom. Tape ribbons across your child’s bedroom door and attach balloons to them. When they wake up, they'll have to break through the blockade.
The second option is an obstacle course. You could do this with string, balloons, streamers, or even tinsel. There could be a path to run or walk, things to jump over, and things to crawl under. You could even have a "tight rope" on the floor.
The Elf attacks the bathroom
The Elf could use Christmas wrapping paper to wrap up the toilet.
She could write a message on the mirror in toothpaste, lipstick, or window crayon. (That works on any mirror or window in the house!)
She could fill the bathtub up with toys or balloons.
She could fill the sink with marbles or make a swimming pool with blue water and a tiny towel.
The Elf gets naughty with your pictures
If you have pictures displayed around your home, then let the Elf get a little bit naughty and deface them. Stick googly eyes on family portraits or use a dry erase marker to draw funny faces. My kids found this hilarious.
When my older daughter was helping, one time, she stuck tiny red pearl stickers over the eyes on every face on the wall.
Let the Elf take some Elfies with your phone
Use your phone's camera to capture some selfies to print out and leave for your child to find. Better yet, take some pictures with the Elf ON your child while she is sleeping. (You know your child. If she would find this creepy, then obviously don't do it.)
The Elf plays with toys
Look to your children’s toys for more inspiration. I mentioned the Barbies above, but you could create setups including snowball fights with toys, playing games together, or having Elf reading to the toys. It gives a whole Toy Story vibe to the Elf on the Shelf and allows for more magic to evolve.
A few last thoughts on the Elf on the Shelf
The Elf on the Shelf and my family's Jesse Tree are my two favorite Christmas traditions. My girls, being 10 and 14, have aged out of both, and I look back on those little kid years with so much affection. They were good times.
I hope you'll choose to do an Elf on the Shelf this year. Write a short letter to introduce him or her to your kids, pick a few ideas above, and just move it around the rest of the nights. Your kids will remember the feelings of wonder and awe for the rest of their lives, and the little bit of extra work it made for you will be 100% worthwhile.