Teaching Middle School Students to Evaluate Wants vs Needs

Teachers and parents alike often find that students of all ages don’t understand the difference between wants and needs. Children often

A Nice Feast: Wants vs Needs

say, “I need it," when they really mean to say, “I want it.” This lesson plan on differentiating between needs and wants is designed for middle school-aged children, but can be modified for any age. The lesson is a series of tasks that increase in complexity to help students understand the difference between need and want. Teachers can modify each activity to fit any age from grade school to high school.

Activities on Wants and Needs

Task 1

Individual students should be given a worksheet with the following information at the top:

A human can live 3 seconds without air, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.

The students are instructed to categorize a list of items according to what they will provide: air, water, food, shelter or fun. The list of items can include the following:

Scuba tank


Inflated balloon


Gallon jug of juice

Bottle of water



Grocery store





Toy submarine

MP3 player


Be creative and add other items that are specific to the local area. For example a coastal region may add sand and seashells while a mountain area may add pinecones and blueberries. The students have five minutes to read and categorize the list. Once time is up have the students get together in groups of three or four and compare their lists. Review the list as a class and discuss why each item is in its category before moving on to the second task.

Task 2

Divide students into small groups or pairs. Give each group a worksheet with the following printed at the top:

Want: something that is desired, but not necessary to live.

Need: something that is necessary for organisms to live a healthy life.

Basic Needs for Humans: air, water, food, clothing and shelter to survive.

Students are instructed to list the items in your home and school that fulfill these requirements. Give each group 5 minutes to list as many items under each category as they can. They may also create new categories that they think are needs and list items under the new category. Review each list with the class and discuss why items are wants or needs. When the discussion is complete ask the class to list three environments where air is not readily available. Have the class vote on which environment they would like to visit. These environments might include under the ocean, on the moon or at a very high altitude.

Task 3

The students can stay in their pairs or groups or can be divided into new groups as desired. Each group will design a method of living for one year in the environment chosen in task 2. The environment must include air, water, food, clothing and shelter. Students will have a limited amount of space Students can create posters, models or presentations to detail their ideas. Each group can present their idea to the class.

Task 4

Students can perform this exercise individually or in pairs as desired. Ask each student to imagine that an alien spaceship flew through the atmosphere of the planet and kidnapped everyone in the world except his or her family. The ship will return in 10 years and bring everyone back. Nothing else is affected at all, so all of the buildings, animals and plants are still alive. Write a story about how his or her family would survive until everyone returns that answers the following questions: How will they find food and water? Where will they live? How will they prepare food? How will they heat or cool their homes? How will they survive the winter? What happens if someone gets sick or injured?

Students should create a presentation for the class to identify what they want versus what they need and present their ideas and solutions.


The first three tasks should be discussed upon completion to verify a complete understanding of the difference between wants and needs. The presentations for task three and four can be evaluated on a five-point rubric scale.

1. Presentation is incomplete and does not properly categorize specific basic wants and needs.

2. Presentation is complete but does properly categorize specific wants and needs.

3. Presentation is complete and properly categorizes specific wants and needs.

4. Presentation is complete, properly categorizes specific basic wants and needs.

5. Presentation is complete, properly categorizes specific basic wants and needs, has a additional information.

These activities will help students understand the difference between wants and needs in their own lives. Students who are interested in learning more can investigate how access to basic needs affects people around the world.


University of Minnesota: Needs and Wants Activity

Lawrence Hall of Science: Processes of Life