11 Ways to Celebrate School Birthdays Without Food

Kids playing outdoor balancing game on grass, to celebrate school birthdays without food

Why celebrate without food? What’s the controversy?

Celebrating school birthdays without food might not seem like a controversial topic if you don’t have a food allergy yourself. But as the number of children with severe food allergies continues to rise, many classrooms are looking for ways to celebrate student’s birthdays without using food. Nut allergies are serious and the allergic reactions can be so severe. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) — a leading resource in food allergy research — more than 15 percent of school-aged children with food allergies have had an allergic reaction at school. View FARE's Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S. direct PDF download for more info.

And although nut allergies are one of the most common to result in anaphylaxis, (a severe allergic reaction that is life threatening and requires immediate medical intervention) other children with food sensitivities to gluten, milk, eggs, sesame, soy, shellfish, and fish may also experience a severe allergic reaction from exposure to their offending allergen, or to the cross-contamination of their allergen through a simple birthday treat. Those allergens, in addition to nuts, make up what many call the Big 8. The Big 8 refers to the eight most common food allergens that threaten students. Treats that are free from the Big 8 are often referred to as school-friendly. But, according to FARE's PDF resource linked to above, more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions in people with food allergies. It can be difficult to keep track of all of the growing food allergies presented inside one classroom. And it's for that reason that many classrooms are considering alternatives to birthday celebrations involving food.

Stumped on how to celebrate without food?

Here are 11 ways to celebrate school birthdays without using birthday treats:

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    1. Birthday Cards Made in Class

    Who doesn’t love a good birthday card? Hand written notes are my favorite present. I think the sentimental presents are the best presents you can receive. Kids can make one big card in class, I’m talking about the kind that uses an entire poster, and creates a card from that poster being folded in half. The class can sign their names on the inside with a little note for the birthday kid. It doesn’t have to be a huge card made from a poster board if that won’t work out for whatever reason, I just think the big cards are fun! The kids can make the card during craft time and the birthday kid can do something fun like clap erasers. (Is that still cool?) Alternatives to clapping erasers include: watch a movie, get extra recess time, get extra lunch time, etc. This activity is kind of like having a party if the birthday kid stays in the class to watch a movie. It also provides the birthday child with something they will hold on to for years.

    Teachers, try to get the class to come up with their own card design so it’s that it’s a different design for every child’s birthday. Or, it can stick to a similar design to save time and then the special birthday magic can be in how the students write something special inside. If the kids are young, they can co-write their birthday wishes with their teacher. If students are older, they can write their own birthday messages inside their card.

    An alternative is to have every student in the class make an individual card from construction paper, and then have the class put those cards in the birthday student’s mailbox. Again I think it's important to have every child sign their name. It’s just nice to have the teacher to read over whatever the kids are saying to each other before passing along those notes.

    2. “Things I’m Grateful For” Jar, or Positive Affirmation Jar

    This is a similar idea to birthday cards. But, instead of making a big card, it would be creating little handwritten notes on strips of paper that can be put inside a glass mason jar or a cleaned out plastic jar that’s been brought in by the birthday kids family. Or, skip the jar all together and put the notes inside a paper envelope. If you decide to use an actual jar, maybe the teacher can collect jars for her classroom to make sure that the jars have been cleaned out properly.

    If glass is inappropriate to use given the age of the students in class, scrap the glass suggestion and go for the plastic jars, or the paper envelopes. Then, have every student write something they are grateful for. Have the gratitude be in specific reference to the birthday kid. Ex: “I’m so grateful for your smile! You carry so much joy inside you and are always making everyone else feel that joy. We’re always brought into the fun right along with you.” Or, “Thanks for helping me with our math homework last friday. Grateful for your friendship!”

    An alternative to the gratitude jar would be a positive affirmations envelope. Students can write a bunch of positive things that the birthday child can pull out of the envelope whenever they feel sad. Put a little note on the envelope that says, “Happy Birthday! We’re so glad you were born!” Ex: “Shine Bright!”, “You’re a star”, “You’ve got a friend in me”, “You have the best handwriting in class!”, “You are brave!”, “You are so kind!”. Feel free to come up with your own variations on this activity!

    3. Passing Out Non-Edible Goody Bags

    Skip the cookies, cupcakes and brownies, and opt for a non-edible goody bag instead. Instead of sugar, goody bags can be filled with small presents for the students. Bonus points for gifts that are sustainable and aren’t made of plastic in something that requires a single use and then thrown away. Wouldn’t it be nice to give something that will last? Or something that the kids can use in their everyday life? Be allergen friendly and eco-friendly by giving presents that have a practical side. Parents can bring in fun gifts like engraved pencils (Amazon) with personalized engravings such as “Happy Birthday, Jamie!”, or, whatever it is your child would like engraved to have engraved on the pencil. Maybe they’d rather include an inside joke or have the pencils say “Miss Brown’s Third Grade Class,” etc.

    There are actually tons of ways to make pencils extra glam. You can give away these other options, all found on Amazon:

    I also really like these gold pencils from World Market.

    Here are some more ideas:

    There are also pre-assembled goody bags available on Amazon like this 48-piece party favors set that includes sunglasses, bracelets, and whistles (maybe wait till end of day to pass out the whistles!). Or this goody bag pack of unicorn party souvenirs (Amazon) which includes feather pens and stamps. 

    If none of the aforementioned ideas light up the birthday kid, head to the dollar store and see if there’s anything special over there, just waiting to be discovered. Find some bags to pack the goodies in while there or use these pretty party favor bags (Amazon).

    4. Kids Get to Talk About Their Favorite Book . . .

    . . . and read a few pages with the class for extra credit.

    You can do this one as is, or maybe you can pair this activity with another activity I’ve mentioned, like students making cards in class, or students making gratitude jars/positive affirmation envelopes.

    The birthday kid can talk about their favorite book in a casual way, and read either a chapter or a few pages. If the kids are still learning how to read, maybe have parents come in and do a sort of show and tell about the child’s favorite book with the birthday student.

    For the older kids, this activity might be concerning for students who are shy, or that don't like public speaking. Especially if they are prone to anxiety. You don't want a student stressed out on their birthday! Take a read on your class before assigning this.  A simple alternative is giving students a choice between a few different activities. For example, students can pick their own way to celebrate their birthday. Let them pick if they want a birthday card, if they want to read a section of their favorite book for extra credit, or if they’d prefer a positive affirmations envelope.

    If they seem genuinely excited about getting to read a section of their favorite book, proceed with this one! It's pretty self explanatory and can be a fun way to introduce more literature to class.

    5. No Uniforms Day

    This idea is inspired by childhood and growing up in a private middle school. My private, Catholic grade school had a strict uniform policy. Students weren’t allowed to wear street clothes. Sometimes the school would host a fundraiser where students would pay a dollar in exchange for being allowed to wear street clothes to school as a way to raise money for a charity or a specific cause. In a variation of this idea, private schools with a uniform policy could celebrate the birthdays of students without any food celebrations through allowing the whole class to wear street clothes on birthday days. No dollar or fundraiser needed! The schools or classrooms would simply make exceptions to their regular uniform policy to celebrate student’s birthdays. Everyone in my class loved our no uniform days. The rest of the class would probably start memorizing everyone’s birthdays and create countdowns.

    6. Extra Recess Time Outside

    Kids love any chance they can get for extra time outside during school. Especially younger kids! Treat the kiddos to some much appreciated outdoor activities to celebrate the birthday. It can even be as simple as playing the childhood balloon game Keep Alive, where students form a circle and try to keep a balloon (or multiple!) from hitting the ground. The kids pass the balloon into the air among each other in random order. What fun! And, best of all… just requires an extra 15 minutes, a common party balloon, and a teacher or student volunteer to lend some breath of air.

    Other outdoor activities (preferably on grass) can include watercoloring in a circle, laying down and watching the clouds, birdwatching with a few sets of inexpensive binoculars, or even unstructured free time. The sky's the limit! Well, especially if you opt for the cloud watching. The important thing is that the students have a sense of celebration, appreciation, and freedom.

    7. Craft Activity Run by the Birthday Kid/Family

    In this activity, the birthday student comes up with a fun craft they’re able to bring into school for the rest of the class to make on their birthday. Some sort of art craft. For example, the class can make toothpick bridges, bottle rockets, or mouse trap cars. It can be something that fits smoothly inside the regular lesson plan, with the birthday perk being the birthday kid gets to choose which activity the class does. For instance, the teacher gives the birthday student a choice between three different activities that were already related to what the class was learning about, but then the birthday kid gets to choose which one the class gets to do.

    If you want to go outside anything that could be seen as the regular lesson plan, then you can give students a free hour of art. Some other ideas include painting, paper origami, making bracelets, making friendship bracelets, making macramé, or learning how to knit. (Knitting was an actual trend at my high school. No, I am not kidding. A teacher taught someone during free hour and they started knitting during class. It took off like wildfire too–hilarious!)

    8. Show and Tell

    I absolutely love this adorable YouTube video where a few kids explain what “Show and Tell” is, and then go on playing a game in front of the camera.

    Basically, a child will bring in an object that they like, or think is interesting, and tell a little back story on how that object came into their life. Did they buy it with their Aunt on a trip to Disneyland? Did they get their favorite seashell from a beach in California while on vacation? Maybe it's a red rock from Arizona? Or, maybe it's a plush toy that they really love. Maybe it's a plastic T-Rex dinosaur that lights up and walks around by itself. You can make it extra fun by giving the student who is “showing” a crown to wear when they tell their story. Hey, it’s their birthday! The possibilities are endless.

    9. Class Garden

    Your child’s class can even have an indoor or outdoor garden! The idea is that every student plants seeds on their birthday. This gives students the added benefit of getting to watch their plant grow over the course of the school year. They can pick their own seeds or the teacher can give them options to choose from.

    Students can also bring in a birthday bouquet of their birth month flower. As long as the flowers don’t trigger a classroom allergy. We don’t want to go down that route either!

    If a child in your class has a severe allergy to flowers, consider making paper flowers out of construction paper as a way to avoid the real flowers. You can still celebrate each student’s birthday flower on a bulletin board. The bulletin board can still be a “class garden”, and the flowers that pop up or “grow” can appear every time a student has a birthday.

    10. Games: Heads Up 7 Up, Paper Football, Hand Clap Games

    Here’s an article by RockBrook Camp explaining how to play Heads Up 7Up, and here’s a video by Howcast showing you how to play step by step. I used to love playing this game in school. I'm pretty sure the rest of my class liked it as well. It's just fun to try and figure out who picked you. It’s a little bit like solving a mystery.

    Paper football (also called flick football) wasn't really my thing but I can't say it wasn't popular! This game was all over the place in elementary school. I actually still see this pretty well in my memory. Like I said, it wasn't really my thing, but the people who did play we're really into it. Here is a video by Howcast showing you how it's done.

    Another popular game in elementary school were handclap games like Slide, Miss Mary Mack, & Double Double This This. I’ll let the professionals show you how it’s done via this YouTube video.

    11. Extra Music Hour or Theatre Games

    Depending on your school’s set up, kids can have an extra music hour on their birthday. If not, and if music education has to be restricted as it’s done in a specific room with restricted access, then maybe students can play theater games inside their homeroom classroom as it usually doesn’t require any props. There are almost endless amounts of improv games students can choose from!

    Here's an article by Beat by Beat Press that explains how to play the popular theater game Zip Zap Zop! And here’s a link to an article by the same website with a list of a whole bunch of different theatre games to explore!

    Summary for These Ways to Celebrate School Birthdays Without Food

    Food really is only one way to celebrate! There are so many other ways children can say happy birthday to a friend. Goody bags, cards, affirmation envelopes, book readings, no uniform days, crafts, show-and-tells, gardening, games, and an extra hour of music or theatre are just the beginning of things that can replace using traditional birthday food while in school. I’m sure you have a bunch of great ideas too! Share suggestions if you like them, and share your own ideas with your teacher, peers, and fellow parents. Celebrating birthdays without birthday snacks doesn’t have to be boring. It can be just as fun and meaningful, if not more so.