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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Elementary Career Discovery

By Sarah Ritchie | January 2024

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question that everyone hears at some point in their life, and what do you remember answering when you were seven years old? My answer would have been puppeteer (I love Jim Henson) but would have never guessed school counselor. I was not introduced to careers until it was crunch time during college applications in senior year. So the term “career exploration” was not part of my early school career.

I love teaching about career exploration with my students. Last year, I took my love of play therapy and weaved it into the world of careers. These lessons were developed for elementary (K–3) to help students develop self- and career awareness, and social/emotional and academic topics through play. I was able to secure items through various ways (even without a big budget!). All play items were donated, created or borrowed from staff or families. I got creative with materials because I thought about what kids might use. I pulled in Magnatiles, printed color images and laminated them, borrowed items from specials classrooms and reached out on our school’s email and social media outlets to accept donations of gently used play items.

To start the lesson, we had a brief introduction on what a career is and showed a graphic of the career clusters. We then separated into small groups and began rotating from discovery station to discovery station. I used 8-minute intervals for the stations and that time worked well (we have 45-minute lesson blocks). Each station was set up with approximately four different careers that included play figures, action toys, costumes, print outs or other various play pieces. The discovery stations represented several career clusters and as we wrapped up, I invited a few students to tell me what they learned about a career they explored.

Here are a few of the featured careers we used:
  • Postal delivery worker with envelopes and pretend packages that I created
  • Engineer with drafting paper and Magnatiles
  • Hair stylist with a doll and hair/nail accessories
  • Farmer with seed packets and animal figurines
  • Artist with canvas’ and paint brushes
  • Firefighter with costume gear, trucks and pretend paper fire that magically was then morphed into the play of the Engineers Magnatiles
  • Food service industry with play food, cash register, menu and table settings
  • Dentist with an amazing Melissa & Doug dentist kit
  • Veterinarian with stuffed animals and pretend doctor kit
  • Archaeologist with kinetic sand tray, dinosaur figures and adventure vest
  • and even a school counselor, with my ID badge and walkie-talkie – and a student made a heart to go with it!
This lesson allowed students to explore creativity, teamwork, problem solving, empathy, communication and imagination, with hopes to inspire future STEAM careers.

This lesson was truly a favorite with my students and they look forward to a new and improved set-up this school year. “My favorite discovery station was the vet because we got to help baby animals. It’s cool to learn about different jobs because you’re helping other people, your community or animals” said Marin, one of my creative and unique elementary students.

Contact Sarah Ritchie, a member of the VSCA Board of Directors and 2023 Virginia Elementary School Counselor of the Year, at