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How the Game “Red Light! Green Light!” Can Help Us Talk to Children About Food Allergies

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Stop Go image

Do you play the game “Red Light! Green Light!” with your toddlers and preschoolers? It is the classic game where the adult says “green light” and the children go. The adult says “red light” and the children stop. The intervals of when the adult says “stop” and “go” is what makes it fun and exciting for young children. The game is all about “the process” and ends when all the children get to the designated spot (i.e., a wall or fence).

It’s great for developing receptive language skills, gross motor coordination, and social development as children listen for the command, move their bodies according to the command, and participate alongside peers and adults. It takes practice and repetition, and it requires the adult to set a tone of positive encouragement.

They can hear the word stop and see the adult’s full palm extended forward. They can hear the word go and see fingers pointing forward. The game, when played correctly, is active, fun, and best if everyone wins!

But what about the “yellow lights” in the game? Just like yellow lights on the road help drivers know the signal is going to change or to proceed with caution, adding a “yellow light” command to the game gives children the signal to “slow down”and provides a warning that the signal may change. It’s nice a way to adapt and modify the game so that all children can be successful. Try it!

A similar framework can be used to help the growing number of children with food allergies. Think of a traffic light when you want to talk to young children about food allergies and teach the traffic light message using developmentally appropriate strategies.

Consistent modeling and repetition of hand signals and simple action words let children see, hear, and practice the message: “stop!” (full palm extended forward), “look!” (point to eye), “ask!” (palm to sky or raise hand), “go” (fingers pointing forward).

Likewise, nonverbal and preverbal children can use these same hand signals when they communicate with adults. Just like crossing a street, the message needs to be broken down into small steps (one word or hand signal at a time). As the child develops, the steps become integrated. During the early childhood years, we want children to:

Stop, Look, Ask, Go
  • STOP before they eat.
  • LOOK at the food.
  • ASK an adult if it’s okay.
  • GO eat the food only if the adult says it’s okay.

Preventing allergic reactions is the goal. “STOP.LOOK.ASK.GO.” is simple, honest, and concrete language parents and early childhood professionals can use to talk about food allergies with all children. The words are actions and concepts children can say and practice throughout the day in many activities.

When food is offered or served, we want them to “stop” before they eat and “go” eat the food only if the adult says it’s okay. The “look” and “ask” are the “yellow light” steps that require awareness and decision-making. These serve as important first steps of advocacy that adults encourage and model as they “look” at the food label and as they “ask” the food staff whether a prepared food is okay for the child to eat.

Children with food allergies learn by example, and adults can start to model safety steps for them. If infants, toddlers, and preschoolers do not have the words to “ask,” be on the lookout for nonverbal communication. They may point to something or lift their palm to sky to suggest “I don’t know if I can eat this,” or they may just bring the food to the adult as their way of asking whether they can have a particular snack or food.

Knowing how to be safe and what to do around food takes practice and repetition, particularly at snack and mealtime when food is on children’s minds. It is essential for children with life-threatening food allergies, but it’s also beneficial for all children.

Incorporating a “STOP.LOOK.ASK.GO.” group song into the daily routine is one way to give young children some basic self-advocacy skills (hand signals and words) to feel safe and protected.

The group song can even normalize food allergy prevention strategies and create a safer, less risky environment. Like the “Red Light! Green Light!” game, the “STOP.LOOK.ASK.GO.” group song requires the adult to set a tone of positive encouragement and to adapt the message to the skill level of the children who are developing at different rates. Sing the following lyrics to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”:

Stop, look, ask, and go, ask and go.
Stop, look, ask, and go, ask and go.
Check your food and look before you eat!
Ask an adult and go and go and go and go!

(You can watch the song being sung here and share it with others.)

Need an Illinois Early Learning Project Food Allergy Awareness tip sheet to share with parents? Wondering how to explain a child’s food allergies to other adults who don’t have children with food allergies? Share this two-minute parent-to-parent video or other resources developed for the early childhood population by Northwestern University’s Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR), part of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the national Food Allergy Research and Education organization (FARE). These libraries of resources are free, easily accessible, and growing.

Sarah Valaika

Sarah Valaika

Sarah Valaika, MS, is a program coordinator at the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR), part of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At CFAAR, Sarah works on early childhood initiatives and is actively collaborating with Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) on the development of an online food allergy training program for early childhood professionals. She brings more than 25 years of experience working with children, families, and providers in early childhood programs, including 10 years of experience teaching in higher education and professional development settings. Sarah earned a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute in Chicago and is working toward a certificate in infant mental health. She has 15 years of experience with “boots on the ground” prevention and management of multiple life-threatening food allergies for one of her four children.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022