A beginner's guide to Elf on the Shelf: How to play, easy ideas and where to buy one

Wendy Douglas
A beginner's guide to Elf on the Shelf: How to play, easy ideas and where to buy one

Parents with small children will no doubt already be familiar with the phenomenon that is Elf on the Shelf. According to a study last year, there were around 1 million monthly online searches for the children's toy. 

And, love it or hate it, with over 12 million families now in possession of an Elf set worldwide, it seems the new tradition is here to stay. 

So whether you've never heard of it, or your children are only now the right age to be enthralled by this little house invader, read on for your ultimate guide to all things Elf on the Shelf.

How to play Elf on the Shelf

The basic premise, dreamed up by former teacher Chanda A Bell from Georgia, is that the Elf in question is there to watch your child's behaviour in the run up to Christmas. Each night during Advent it runs home to the North Pole to report back to Father Christmas, but is back in the morning when the little ones wake up, ready to start gathering information again. It's basically a spy in elf's clothing.

The job of parents is to find a new place to perch the elf each night after the children have gone to bed. Cue mums and dads coming up with more and more ingenious ways to stage it and of course, the last minute midnight dash downstairs when you realise you've forgotten to move the thing. Because woe betide the parent that punctures their child's belief in the magical world of elves, snowy workshops and Father Christmas.

While it may seem like an added hassle at an already busy time of year, there's a lot to be said for introducing it into your pre-Christmas schedule.

Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition Credit: John Lewis & Partners

It helps children learn self control and develop an understanding of the consequences of good or bad behaviour and, on a more festive note, seeing their eyes light up each morning as they hurry to see where the elf has landed each day, only adds to the Christmas excitement, creating lovely memories for you all to look back on.

So if you fancy getting some elf action this Christmas, invest in the Elf on the Shelf set which comes with the original story book written by Bell and her mother Carol V. Aebersold as well as the pesky elf in question (see below for stockists and associated paraphernalia).

Once your mini mes have given their 'adopted' friend a name, it's time to play. 


Already worrying about how you can find new ways to set up your Elf every night? Then take a look at our pick of the top ten Elf poses to master this Christmas. You never know, you might actually find this fun.

1. Mermaid Elf

Sit your Elf in a well-decorated fish bowl and get them some mermaid attire to dress up in. An exciting theme that could add an extra layer to the 'scout' idea...


2. Daredevil Elf

Have Elf swinging from the baubles like the daredevil it is. A simple way to let the kids know that Elf is all about the fun too. 

Daredevil Elf Credit: Jennifer Onsager/Flickr

3. Naughty Elf

Put the Elf inside a martini glass. The kids may be be a little surprised, maybe have a few questions. Was the class always empty or did Elf drink its content and stumble inside for a nap?

Naughty Elf Credit: Jennifer Onsager/Flickr

4. Friendly Elf

Set it up to look as though the Elf and one of your child's favourite toys – or Elf's friend from the North Pole (Elf on the Shelf have recently come out with Elf Mates) – are spending some quality time together. 

Friendly Elf Credit:  ® AND © CCA AND B, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

5. Clumsy Elf

Wrap the little blighter in the fairy lights, preferably upside down for full comedic effect. You could even have your little Elf stuck in the blinds too. 

Clumsy Elf Credit: Sweet Shoppe Designs

6. Adventure Elf 

Attach it to a tin lid or similar kitchen item and fix both to the banister so the Elf can enjoy a makeshift slide... or have the little scout riding through a snowy Christmas scene. 

Adventure Elf  Credit:  ® AND © CCA AND B, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

7. Clean and Tidy Elf

Have your elf positioned as if it's just about to do its daily ablutions or some sort of household chore. This might encourage the kids to also take care of the house and themselves.

Clean and Tidy Elf Credit:  ® AND © CCA AND B, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

8. Greedy Elf

Lie the Elf down on the kitchen table surrounded by empty chocolate and sweet wrappers. For added authenticity smear some chocolate on its smug little face.

Greedy Elf Credit: I Heart Nap Time

9. Tech Savvy Elf

Let your kids catch Elf in the act of emailing father Christmas a report of their behaviour, they may even catch him taking a little selfie. 

Tech Savvy Elf Credit: Jennifer Onsager/Flickr

10. Cheeky Elf

Have Elf suggesting a snow ball fight and if the weather's right, maybe you could actually go outside and have one with the kids too. 


There are countless ways to entertain your children (and yourselves) with Elf on the Shelf so get creative.

Where to buy one

You can pick up your new family member at a local 'adoption centre' as the Elf on the Shelf fable has it. To you and me that means Argos, Amazon and Mothercare. 

And there's lots of Elf on the Shelf merchandise to make the tradition even more involving. From Elf pets to clothing and letters to Santa to an Elves at Play kit, check out the full collection here.

For more Christmas features and gift guides, see www.telegraph.co.uk/christmas

All the products mentioned in this article are selected and reviewed independently by our journalists. The Telegraph makes money by adding affiliate links to some of the products.