Wants Versus Needs

In this lesson students explore why they want the things they want, how it feels not to have everything they want, and how to appreciate non-material possessions that can make us rich in deeper ways.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • Understand the concepts of having, not having and the feelings associated with these concepts
  • Write complete sentences or paragraphs about what they do and do not have and what this feels like
  • Engage in meaningful community discussions about the feelings and issues behind having and not having certain things
  • Analyze and critique media messages that encourage materialism
  • Consider, discuss and describe in writing the possibility of having non-material riches
Essential Questions
  • How does it feel to have more or less than somebody else?
  • How do media messages make us feel about what we do and do not have?
  • Are there deeper possible meanings of the word rich? How can you work to change your own and other’s understanding of the idea of richness?
  • How can we celebrate what we all DO have?
  • Chart paper
  • Notebook
  • Samples of current magazine ads, pictures of billboards near the school and/or current TV ads
  • Thin line markers
  • Watercolors


rich [rich] (adjective) having a lot of something 

materialism [muh-teer-ee-uh-liz-uhm] (noun) interest in having a lot of money or material possessions 

media [mee-dee-uh] (noun) mass means of communication, like TV, newspaper, magazines, billboards, music videos or Internet



  1. What does it mean to have—or not have—something? As a class, brainstorm a list on chart paper of things kids might have that make kids who don’t have them feel jealous. Some common examples might include specific articles of clothing or technology.
  2. In your notebook, write a sentence and draw a picture or write a paragraph describing an experience you can remember of having something that someone else wanted. Then write a sentence and draw a picture or write a paragraph a describing an experience you can remember of someone else having something you wanted.
  3. In a group, talk about the experiences you described. Make sure you discuss how you felt in both of the scenarios you described. Then, in your group or as a class, make a chart showing what it feels like to HAVE and NOT HAVE things that are wanted.
  4. Where do we get messages that encourage us to value material possessions so heavily? As a class, examine magazine ads and/or discuss pictures of billboards or common TV ads. How do they encourage viewers to believe that possessing particular things makes us better or cooler as people? For instance, some ads make it seem like if you wear a particular brand of clothing, you will automatically be popular.
  5. Discuss strategies for avoiding media messages that encourage materialism. Is this possible? What might make it especially challenging, and how can we move past these challenges?
  6. What does it mean to be rich? Does being rich mean you have everything you want? Talk about the idea of being rich and how it relates to the discussion of having and not having. Can you be rich in ways that have nothing to do with material possessions? For instance, you can be rich in family or rich in imagination. As a class, create a chart showing different non-material ways to be rich.
  7. Independently or with a partner, write a poem describing one non-material way you are rich. When you have revised your poem, publish it on thick white paper with a thin line marker. Then, using the watercolors, create a watercolor image over your published poem that represents the idea you wrote about.
  8. When the watercolors have dried, put together all of your class poems into a “What We Have” book. This beautiful book shows all the different ways your class is rich.


Applying What You’ve Learned

Think about the conversations you’ve had and the activities you’ve done as a class around haves, have-nots, materialism and media messages. Create a poster with a counter message in response to a specific company you’ve noticed encouraging materialism to children through its advertising. Challenge yourself to use examples from actual messages you've seen the company use. Revise, edit and illustrate your message with a partner. Share your posters with your classmates and discuss the new messages. Then hang your posters up in your class or around the school with permission.


There are also a number of children’s books that help address issues of class and social inequality, including, but not limited to, Rich Cat, Poor Cat by Bernard Waber, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams, Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco and First Things First by Kristi D. Holl. 


Extension Activity

In small groups, create magazine ads or commercial skits advertising a non-material possession that can make you rich. Share your ads or skits with your class, and compare them to the pieces of media you critiqued as part of the lesson.


ELL Extension

When your class brainstorms the list of ways they are rich, you will notice that these are abstract nouns—words that can be hard to remember because you can’t necessarily connect them to a specific picture or object. Choose five new words to keep track of in your notebook. For each word, draw a picture OR write about a memory that you think will really help you recall this word. Your work will be personal, so think about what’s truly going to help you remember these big ideas.

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