Food Allergies and the Playground

When your child is diagnosed with food allergies, all of a sudden, regular, everyday things, like going to the playground, become something you wonder about.

I had never noticed the amount of food at playgrounds until my children were diagnosed with food allergies and we started to venture out to public parks and playgrounds. 

One day at a busy playground…

I noticed another mom chasing after her lightening fast toddler son. The only problem with this picture was that her son had an open bag of peanuts, one of my child’s allergens. You can imagine that between the running, the bouncing bag, and the toddler trying to eat while running, the peanuts were literally flying everywhere.

This was the first time I had ever considered leaving the playground due to food allergies. I was alone with my 3-year-old son who is allergic to peanuts (he gets hives just from contact and, if ingested, has a very high likelihood of experiencing anaphylaxis) and my 1-year-old daughter.

Those of you mommas who have ventured out with your own toddlers know that managing this on it’s own is a task. Just getting everyone into the car is a feat! But this was the first time I didn’t feel like I could manage both of my kids on the playground while another child was actively dropping peanuts all over the equipment. 

I calmly told my kiddos that it was time to go and we began walking to the car. As we walked along the sidewalk towards the parking lot, we walked right through a crunched pile of peanuts that had been dropped on the sidewalk. My stomach dropped. I had peanuts on my shoes. My severely allergic toddler also had peanuts on his shoes.

Breathe in. Breathe out. 

I held my son’s hand and got my kids to the car. Luckily, I was carrying my daughter so she did not step in this. I kept talking to my son, using my best “fake calm” mom voice. You know, the voice you use when you are losing it internally, but keeping your face calm and brave for your kids.

I had my son stand beside me as I put his sister into the car. I was clear with him that mommy needed to clean the shoes because there were peanuts on them, so we couldn’t touch them. Once I got my daughter situated into the carseat, I removed my son’s shoes outside of the car, using wipes as a barricade between the peanuts and my hands, placed him inside and wiped his hands.

I then stood in the parking lot, wiping off his shoes, my shoes, and my hands while thinking, is this what it is to go to the playground as an allergy parent? Because if so, it is ridiculous. 

You food allergy moms know, I wiped those shoes probably 100 times.

As I drove home, I kept thinking, “Am I overreacting? What is the right thing to do here? Have other moms dealt with this?”

I quickly learned, we will deal with food at the playground.

In our adventures to the playground, we have found crumbled cookie in the tunnel, smashed snickers on the stairs, goldfish littered everywhere, and somehow, not once, but twice, at two separate playgrounds, my children and I stumbled upon scattered pistachio shells (another major allergen for us), all over the ground and playground equipment. 

We also found a playground completely covered in paintball pellets, which is not food allergy related, but I’m making the point, you will sometimes find the most ridiculous things at the playground.

So sweet momma, I’m gently preparing you that you will more likely than not, run into your child’s allergens. 

So what’s a food allergy mom to do? Do you avoid public playgrounds? 

Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Navigating food allergies at the playground is definitely something food allergy families are dealing with. When I asked about this in a food allergy mom group, I had over 130 responses in less than 2 hours on this topic. 

What I found, and what you will likely notice too, is that different families will choose to navigate this differently. There is NOT a right or wrong approach. This makes sense to me because each kid has different needs when it comes to managing his or her food allergies.

As a result, different families have varying logistical safety needs as well as different personal comfort levels with exposure and risk.

Therefore, I cannot give you a “this is what you should do” or “this is the right way to manage this” response.

What I can offer you are things to consider and what we’ve learned.

What is the Concern?

First, it’s important to define what the actual concern is. Managing food allergies can come with a lot of anxiety and I have found that defining what I’m actually worried about helps me to sort fact from fear.

The concern at the playground essentially is if my child’s allergens are on the playground equipment, and my child touches it while playing, will my child experience a serious allergic reaction?

Allergic Living has a helpful article on this to explain this more, click here.

Essentially, it is very rare for anaphylaxis to occur solely from skin contact. A localized reaction, like hives, however, can occur and monitoring of your child for any progression would be needed in this case per your emergency action plan.

However, there is an important clarification that should be made. When we say skin contact, this means just skin contact. This doesn’t include exposure through the eye, nose, mouth or open skin. This could occur when hands that have touched the allergen go into the mouth, eyes, or nose.

Things to Consider:

1. The age and developmental stage of your child. 

Younger children, and children who are in the oral stage of development, love to touch things and put their hands in their mouth. Hands at this age also often make their way onto the face, into the eyes, and so on.

Having had 2 small children, I’ve seen how true this is.

I remember calling my allergist before we were leaving for a trip to Disney World. I asked them what we should do about the rides. Should we wipe them down? What if other people had been eating his allergens on the ride and then he touched it and put his thumb in his mouth?

The advice I got was this:

You don’t need to be extremely anxious about this, but be observant. Be aware. Notice if people are eating in the line in front of you. If they are eating the allergens, wipe down where you’re going to sit. And then have a great time. And that’s exactly what we did. 

What we learned is that at this oral phase, wipes are really useful. My husband and I took my son to the playground at this age, but if we saw something that looked weird, we wiped it off. We were aware of what was going on around us, and wiped hands as needed.

We have also recently discovered Suds2Go, a portable way to wash hands with soap and water which is the most effective way to remove allergens.

If you have older children who aren’t constantly putting their hands in their mouth or touching their eyes and face, rules like, if you see food, don’t touch it, and hand wiping or washing hands after playing can be a great option.

2. Expect that food will be there.

We want our kiddos to enjoy the playground, and they do! We go often. But we have run into enough food on the playgrounds to realize that we need to expect it and have a plan for what to do.

We’ve run into crushed cookies, smashed snickers, peanuts, peanut shells, pistachio shells, goldfish, crumbled doritos, spilled milk, ice cream, an ice cream truck actively selling ice cream cones with crushed peanuts on top, and so on.

The reality is, people allow their kids to eat on the playground equipment. Why it’s essential for parents to allow their children to eat a peanut butter sandwich while going down the slide instead of at the picnic table, don’t get me started.

Ok, I’m started.

First of all, having the kids moving while eating is a choking hazard. Just ask Katie! As a primary teacher, she received training each year detailing the risks of actively eating food on playground equimpment.

Having food on the equipment is also gross and unsanitary. Would you play on the table at a restaurant where others were eating before someone wiped it up? You probably wouldn’t. It just leaves a mess that I guess people thought someone else should have to clean up?

Look, I know parenting is hard. We’re all exhausted. I’m not looking to shame anyone. I’m just being honest and the truth is, eating while on the playground equipment is something I just really don’t get. I think it’s unsanitary. And now that I have children with food allergies, I realize how unsafe it is. I will never understand it. 

Let me be clear. Bringing food to the park is great. Kids need snacks. Moms need snacks. I need snacks. Our friends with diabetes need to regulate blood sugar. I’m pro-food at parks.

But it absolutely does NOT need to be consumed on the actual playground equipment. I don’t agree with the decision to allow kids to run while eating.

In fact, one momma took action in her county and got these signs placed at playgrounds!

So awesome! And a great example of how advocacy and education can make an impact. I’m considering adding this to my list of projects.

Different is Okay

In our family, we have come to expect to find food at the playground instead of being surprised that it is there. We still go. We just do things a little differently than we would have if we weren’t navigating food allergies.

For example, instead of having our kids run ahead of us to the equipment while we head over to a bench, we go play too! We do a quick scan to see if there is anything concerning on the equipment. This means, we crawl through the tunnels, hang from the monkey bars, and go down the slides. Our kids think it’s hilarious. Once we’ve seen that where they are playing is food free, we back off to give them more independent play.

Our kids are only 4 and 2 right now. We use scanning the playground as an opportunity to show them what to do if they find anything on the equipment. For those of you with older kids, maybe create some rules around the park that you can give them ownership over.

For example, if they see food, some rules could be:
  • don’t touch the food
  • don’t touch your face
  • wipe your hands
  • wipe off the equipment

My husband and my personal philosophy is, the world isn’t going to stop eating our child’s allergens. Our job is to learn how to navigate the world safely so that we can teach our kids how to be safe and be a part of a world where their allergens will be present. We have found that this might mean doing things just a bit different.

And different is okay.

Wherever we can participate and feel that our kids are safe, we participate. If we don’t feel safe, we do remove ourselves. Just like in the story above, when another child was actively dropping peanuts at the playground, I did not feel I could manage the safety needs of my kids in that setting. So we left.

In other contexts, we have felt safe at the playground. So we play!

The Right Decision For Your Family

When deciding whether or not to use public playgrounds, the reality is that at some point, you will likely run into your child’s allergen. Defining the medical risk of contact with the allergen is important as well as considering what modifications you could make to still be able to go are important in deciding what is right for your family.

Our family has decided to still go to public playgrounds. That doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for your family or for all food allergy families.

Some food allergy families have invested in their own swing set for their backyard so they can avoid dealing with this issue at the public playgrounds.

Others go, but if they see other people eating at the playground, (not necessarily on the equipment) they leave because that is beyond their comfort level. Some families advocate while at the playground and politely ask people not to eat on the equipment.

Different allergy families will agree and disagree on each of these approaches. That’s alright. The point is for you to consider what makes sense for your kids at this age, stage, and current food allergy season.

My hope in this post is to give you the data behind the risk, some things to consider (like child’s age and needs), and some tips and tricks that we use to offer you more insights into making this decision for your family. 

If you do decide to venture out to the playground, here are a few helpful tips and tricks that we have used in our family. 

Playground Tips and Tricks

1. Always have your epinephrine.

In our family, there are no exceptions. If we don’t have it, we go back and get it before we play at the park. For tips on remembering your epinephrine, check out our instagram @thefoodallergymoms.

2. Going earlier in the morning can help.

It tends to be less crowded and less food present than going during lunch or after school gets out. Bonus points if it rained the night before so the equipment is rinsed off.

3. Find the less crowded, smaller gems in your city.

For example, playgrounds in neighborhoods vs big public parks. We found our kids’ favorite playgrounds this way!

4. Some type of wet wipes are a must.

We use them to wipe hands after playing, but they have also come in very handy to wipe food off of the equipment or to pick up food items that were left behind. Remember, hand sanitizer does NOT remove allergens from hands.

5. Consider purchasing a small backpack.

Having something to wear is helpful for keeping the epinephrine and wipes with you while on the playground. I personally am not comfortable leaving our Epi-Pens on a bench where someone could take it. It’s also nice to store your phone and wallet!

6. Have awareness

Be observant. Are other people bringing food? Is there anything on the equipment? Are food trucks nearby? Are there squirrels around?

Katie once watched a squirrel grab peanut shells from a bowl in someone’s yard. The little booger cracked them open under a tree near where her kids were playing. Again, awareness is key.

7. You can speak up!

It’s not out of bounds for you to explain the situation and ask for help from the other parents at the park so your kids can play too. Staying calm, having respect, and offering hand wipes can go a long way.

Yes, there are some people who really cannot handle having to change their behavior to help someone else, but most people just are not aware and genuinely would want to help if they knew.

8. It’s really ok to leave.

I know for me, I don’t want my kids to miss out on anything. So having them leave because of their food allergies is really hard for me. But there were certain times when I just did not feel I could keep them safe. Their safety comes first. So we left.

I have a deal with my kids. I use the phrase, “Sometimes with our food allergies we have to change what fun we’re having, but we will always have fun.”

The deal is, if we ever have to leave an activity, we go do something else that’s fun. And I have the kids help me pick!

When we had to leave the playground, I asked my kids what would be fun to go do. They choose shopping at Target. Haha!

I want to instill in my kids that yes, sometimes we will have to do things differently because of food allergies, but we can still have fun!

This rule also applies to when we are at an event were we cannot eat the food. If we ever cannot eat because of food allergies, miss out on a treat, etc, our deal with our kids is that they get to choose a treat and have double their safe version of what they missed out on, or a treat of their choice. This has quickly changed the sadness to, “WHAT DO I GET DOUBLE OF?!”

We might not be able to eat everything that everyone else can with food allergies, but we will still eat well!

9. Have Fun

I have experienced the stress and anxiety of managing food allergies at playgrounds first hand. I really do understand. But I want to encourage you that we have had way more fun experiences at the playground than stressful ones. We have made such sweet memories as a family.

Our confidence increased when we knew what to do if we encountered our food allergens. If we need to wipe hands or shoes, we wipe hands and shoes. If we need to wipe equipment, we wipe equipment. We have our emergency care plan. We are comfortable leaving if we need to leave.

It is possible to enjoy the playground with food allergies. And I hope this gave you some ideas for how you can enjoy them too.

You’re doing great, Momma. Keep it up.

<3 Lauren

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4 responses to “Food Allergies and the Playground”

  1. Grace Ann Epperson Avatar
    Grace Ann Epperson

    Great article! Love the way you protect them but let them grow. I know what a fine line that must be.

  2. Great article. Any idea how to connect with the woman who had the signs installed? Would love to do that in my area

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