If it’s your birthday at Stedman Elementary School
in Petersburg, your day is going to start off with a school-wide celebration.
The principal is going to announce your name over the intercom during morning announcements. You’re going to be invited to walk down the hallway to the main office and pick up your signed birthday certificate. Then you will pick out your own book that you get to keep in honor of your birthday.
What you won’t get is a cupcake in your classroom. That’s because Stedman Elementary is one Alaska school that has changed its birthday celebration policy to recognize children’s special day in a healthy way.
The new practice of handing out books — not treats — started when the staff at Stedman Elementary School realized that they didn’t want to have cupcakes come in to the school for every child’s birthday.
“We decided that we could find other ways to celebrate the birthday that would make the student feel special and recognize the student on their special day,” said Teri Toland, principal of the school that teaches about 230 children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Toland said the kids love having their names announced and walking down to the office to pick up their books. The kindergarten classrooms take the celebration a step further. Every child in the classroom makes a special card for the birthday student. The card says “You are 6 years old today. If I could give you anything, it would be ________.” The children get to fill in that blank with whatever gift they’d like to give and draw a picture of it.
“Children who don’t have a lot of money are able to give a really extravagant gift,” said kindergarten teacher Becky Martin. “They can give a castle or a rocket ship.”
“It makes the giver feel good, and it makes the birthday person feel pretty darn special,” said Erin Willis, Stedman’s other kindergarten teacher.
The kindergartner celebrating a birthday wears a crown for the day. The teachers bind all the birthday cards together into a special book that the student decorates with a cover and then takes home as a keepsake.
The change in how birthday parties are celebrated at Stedman Elementary stemmed in part from changing government standards calling for healthier snacks at school, but also from school staff who wanted a healthier way to celebrate their students on their special days. Toland, who was a teacher at Stedman when the birthday policy changed, said staff talked about the problem. If they considered a classroom of 20 students, that could mean celebrating 20 different birthdays each year, and 20 different days in which students ate sugary treats at school to celebrate those birthdays.
“As parents, we realized that having an extra treat at school wasn’t necessary,” Toland said.
As teachers, they realized that 20 different days of cupcakes in the classroom was causing a disruption to many school days. Furthermore, allowing families to bring sugary treats to the classroom put parents in a difficult position, Toland said. Some parents couldn’t afford to bring in treats for the whole class.
“It kind of differentiates between those who have and have not, and those who can and cannot,” Toland said. The new practice of celebrating students with school-supplied books and not parent-supplied treats removed that issue for families who couldn’t afford to bring in cupcakes and ensured every student was celebrated in the exact same way. The birthday books given to Stedman students don’t cost the school, or the parents, anything. The books are purchased using the proceeds collected from the annual school book fair.
Toland said switching to the birthday book celebration wasn’t an easy change for everyone to make, but the staff stuck with it and over time parents stopped bringing in sugary treats for their children’s birthdays. Healthy snacks, like fruits and vegetables, are still allowed if parents choose to bring them for the class. Toland said parents rarely choose to do that. Toland helps ensure that all parents and staff know the birthday policy by starting each school year with a school bulletin that explains how birthdays are celebrated at Stedman Elementary.
“It’s been a good way to teach kids that we eat healthy snacks,” she said.