Like many schools, Woodland Hills Private School has several students with food allergies, especially nut allergies. And like many schools, they have a strict no-nut policy.
But even with the no-nut policy, the Woodland Hills, California school found that they needed more parent and student education to prevent food with nuts from coming into the school accidentally. That’s when kindergarten teacher Marjorie Natal had the idea to create a lesson using word sorting to help her students better understand food allergies.
“Word sorts are a big part of our school curriculum,” said Natal. “We utilize these sorts with students during reading time and homework. They usually involve children reading words from the sorting list or listening to sounds of a word, cutting the words out, and sorting them by what the words have in common such as beginning sounds, word families, etc. When we wanted to come up with a nut-free lesson, making a nut-free word sort instantly popped into my mind!”
The word sort Natal created includes pictures of popular foods, some containing nuts and some that do not. The children put them in the “Safe for School” column or the “Not Safe for School” column.
“The students with nut allergies were invited to share in front of the class,” Natal said. “We discussed how allergies happen and students with allergies discussed what can happen to them if they are exposed. We looked at pictures of food items included in the nut allergy food group, such as almonds, peanuts, marzipan, walnuts, etc. Students then took the word sort home to work on with parents and discuss with them."
"Students cut out all of the food items, sorted them, and then glued them in the correct category. This gave them a hands-on way to really think about the ingredients of each food item,” she said.
The students learned how common nuts can be in foods and that their allergic classmates can react just by being around nuts. The lesson has also had lasting effects.
“After the lesson, it was so neat to see all of the kids taking the concept so seriously to protect their friends,” said Natal. “They have become so vigilant about the food they bring to school. Kids now carefully inspect labels of all the foods packed for their lunches by parents, just to double check, and make it a point to tell a teacher if they have a peanut butter alternative at school so that their friends are at ease. These are all actions they have taken on their own after the lesson. We are so proud of them!”
This activity has also taught the parents about food allergies. Many parents were surprised to learn that more food items have nuts in them than they realized. And parents of the children with nut allergies have been relieved to know other children and parents understand the threat of food allergies better. Parents are even sharing the activity with others.
“Several parents called me or came to see me saying that they had reviewed it at home with all their child’s caregivers,” according to Seth Pozzi, assistant head of school for Woodland Hills. “This was the first time I felt like parents really understood how serious the policy is.”
Other teachers have started using this lesson in their classes as well and the school hopes to keep expanding their food allergy awareness.
“Next year, we are adding this activity to our new parent orientation seminar,” noted Pozzi. “We are also adding a month-long focus on food allergies during the school year and will be participating as a school in an awareness and fundraising campaign. Having savvy kids is a good line of defense.”
Pozzi recently wrote about food allergies on his school’s blog. His students with food allergies are not his only reason for caring about the issue, he wrote. He also cited the ongoing worry he has for his younger sister, who has a severe allergy.
He and and Natal are so passionate about food allergy education that they are publicly sharing the food allergy word sort to inspire other educators. They realize that policies can be overlooked or forgotten, but education can make a lasting, and life-saving, impression.
“I think there are many parents who simply don’t understand how serious this issue is,” Pozzi said. “They have the lives of other people’s children in their hands when they pack lunch or send birthday treats to school. They are always apologetic if they inadvertently send something that is unsafe, but by then it could be too late. We are on a mission to do everything we can to prevent a food allergy incident from happening in our school.”