As the number of children with food allergies continues to rise, so does the number of children with celiac disease, diabetes, and other diagnoses that require food restrictions. Also on the rise is childhood obesity, which according to the CDC has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Yet in spite of these eye-opening medical statistics, classrooms across the country continue to celebrate and reward with food, often non-nutritious food.
Like most mothers, I am concerned about my children’s health and wellness (and the health of their classmates). Obviously, the concern that hits closest to my home is food allergies, and the food safety and inclusion issues that come along with food allergies.
Times change, things change. There was a time when public schools didn't provide accommodations for children with learning disabilities, or allow children in wheel chairs access to all schoolrooms and functions. Since 1990, great strides have been made with accommodations thanks to the American Disabilities Act. Yet, this type of exclusion happens to children with food allergies today.
Yes, kids love to celebrate (so do adults!), but why does the reward for a job well done or celebration of a birthday have to be a dessert? Does this fun really need to be based on food? Removing food doesn’t remove the recognition or the party.
So how do we change this? I suggest taking a step back to look at where the true focus should be and what is to be accomplished with each celebration and reward.
A child’s birthday celebration:
- Celebrate the child, not the food.
- Focus on making the child feel special. Find a way to highlight and honor the child for the day.
- Recognize ALL kids for a job well done. (Keep in mind that it isn’t much of a reward to the child if he/she isn’t allowed to safely participate.)
- Continue to focus on education by teaching about the holiday or supporting current curriculum with the celebration.
Once we refocus on the intention of the reward or party then we can understand how to best accomplish the goal, in a fun way, that doesn’t involve food. Create special crafts or artwork for the children to take home as keepsakes. Have group activities or games that get the kids up and moving. Provide a unique educational opportunity that makes learning extra fun. Create memories, move the body, and stimulate the brain. Instead of encouraging unhealthy relationships with food, set the example that food is not the focus of fun. Promote compassion, inclusion and respect for other’s differences.
What about snack time? Especially for younger children, there will be times when a snack is needed while at school. One simple suggestion, which will also help ensure the safety of children with food allergies, is to snack in the cafeteria. The cafeteria is for eating; the classroom is for learning.
For the parents of kids with food allergies that are frustrated with food in the classroom, be sure to work with your child’s school to create a plan ahead of time. I advise seeking a Section 504 plan for your child, which is part of Federal ADA law that promises equal access and nondiscrimination for individuals. Children with life-threatening food allergies may medically qualify for a 504 plan. This plan will identify what accommodations will be made to keep your child safe AND included. Remember, inclusion isn’t about restrictions; it's about allowing everyone to participate safely. Having a safe box of treats that are different than what the other kids eat at a celebration is NOT full inclusion. I encourage you to read more about 504 plans from the experts at Allergy Law Project and Wrightslaw to help you create a plan specific to your child’s needs.
Parents, as you request food free celebrations, I recommend that you create a list of creative ideas to take to your child’s teachers and activity leaders. Requests for food-free celebrations will be better received if you suggest alternatives.
To the teachers and other activity leaders (coaches, Sunday school teachers, troop leaders, etc.): think outside the box when it comes to celebrations. There are so many alternatives. Be the adult that took the time to include every child. I guarantee that it will leave a lasting impression on the child, and a much better one than if he/she was consistently excluded while in your care.
Rather than focusing on food, why don’t we think outside the box and focus on wellness and inclusion.
Share with us: what are your favorite ideas for food free fun in the classroom?
Here are a few food free suggestions from some of our blog readers:
· Have classmates make cards for the birthday girl/boy and make a book out of them.
· Treasure hunt around the classroom.
· Have a parent come read to the class and donate the book to the classroom.
· Bring a special item from home for show and tell.
· Dance party
· Holiday themed parade
· Perform skits
· Have a bubble party outside
· Pajama or hat day
· Nonfood treats: glow sticks, stickers, matchbox cars, bubbles, pencils, erasers.
For more suggestions on food free celebrations, incentives and fundraising, check out FACET’s list of food free fun.