Play With your Food? Or Not? My Thoughts on Food in Play.

sensory tub
When I was a brand new teacher, I worked with a wonderful woman who taught me lots about really connecting the children we were working with to what they were learning. She had some very passionate ideas, and one of those was that food should not be used for play.

Her reasons for this made sense to me.

She queried whether we were sending children mixed messages about food when on one hand we ask them to eat what they take and not waste food, then on the other hand we let them paint with pudding mix, or put beans in the sensory tub and then throw it all away when we are done.

For young children the confusion is two fold, we tell them not to play with their food and not to put the toys in their mouth, and then we offer them food as a toy.

She talked about food being a precious resource, and about how many people are not lucky enough to have enough food to eat, let alone to play with. She also talked about food being seen differently in different cultures and how playing with food may be offensive to some people.

For a long time I followed right in her foot steps, because I agree with all of those statements – food is a precious resource, and I want to teach my own children to be respectful with their use and consumption of food and not wasteful.

But as the years went on and I worked in centres that were not as well resourced as that first one, I shifted my philosophy a little and used play dough when we couldn’t afford clay. I still avoided all other food in play… but I couldn’t give up play dough, so I became somewhat of a hypocrite.

Now, many years later, at home with my own kids I am thinking about this issue again.

play dough

As I make up yet another batch of play dough I think about the other foods I use as part of play, food items I’d like to use, and the alternatives.

We could use clay instead of play dough, commercial glue instead of homemade corn starch paste, aquarium rocks instead of rice in the sensory tub, plastic beads instead of pasta for threading… But is using the non-food item a better choice? Taking into consideration the messages I am sending my kids, not wanting to waste food, wanting to teach my children to respect and be thankful for the food we have, as well as other issues like chemicals, transportation, waste and the environment.

When I look at some of the alternatives I use to food in play and weigh up the pros and cons I am sometimes more concerned about the non-food alternatives when it comes to things like the toxic chemicals they may contain, the impact on the environment to make and transport the item and how they will be disposed off. I am beginning to think that some food items are a better choice than non-food items for my kids.

I still firmly believe that food is a precious resource and I am not ok with wasting it. So if we use food in play it needs to be in such a way that we can reuse it or recycle it. Rice in the sensory tub is ok because when we are done we can pack it away and use it again another day. The same can be said of play dough, or pasta for threading, when we are done we carefully pack the items away to use again and when the pasta breaks the chickens will eat it (softened in a bit of water).

I am ok with choosing a food based item in favour of a commercially made item when that item is better for the environment and my kids. So I am ok with making cornstarch paste because it’s kinder to both the environment and my kids than it’s chemical counter part.

I am not ok in choosing food for play when it is a gimmick, or when it is presented in a way that may confuse my children about whether this item is to eat or play with.

So cooked spaghetti in the sensory tub is not for us, neither is painting with cream. I feel those sort of activities do send mixed messages to my kids, there is no way to recycle those items and there are lots of other alternatives you can use that don’t send those messages.

And I do want my children to respect food, to understand that some people go hungry every day of their lives, and that some people believe different things about different foods. So I will always be careful to explain why we are not wasting food and to talk about food, when we are eating it or playing with it.

I’m sure my thoughts on food in play will change and evolve over time as they have done over the past 18 or so years since I started teaching (wow that is a long time!). And how I use food with my own children is different to how I might use food if I was teaching a group of children. But ironically it seems I have come back to my old adage that ‘banning’ things out right never really works. For me there is not many things that are black and white in the world, and lots of things that are many shades of grey.

What are your thoughts on food in play?

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Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:

  1. says

    I was wondering about this when I saw you’d posted something about rice the other day, because it’s always stuck in my mind that you’d written before about not using food for play. I think your middle ground makes a lot of sense though. I think play dough just can’t be given up (certainly not in this house) and we have used different grains/pasta to make shakers that make different sounds, that kind of thing; but I agree, playing with cooked spaghetti or something like that is taking this too far for me too. So basically, my comment is simply that I agree!

  2. Mardi says

    In my mind we shouldn’t be wasteful of any resource food or not. Therefore I’m happy to use food if we’re getting good use out of it. Sensory rice gets used many times, then some goes to shakers & I spy bottles, some to make “snow” in a collage and some into some experiments and learning how it gets from hard to soft. When we use food though in a non eating context I make sure we discuss the line between playing with food to eat & the activity at hand.

  3. says

    During National Hunger Month, I’ve been thinking about this too — again — it’s something I’ve thought about and dealt with a lot, in my own home and when I ran an after-school program with low-income children. I basically came to the same conclusion as you and share a similar feeling about playing with food. I think food stamping is cute when I see it, but for me I don’t do it because I’ve worked with too many children that rarely get to eat fresh produce. Thanks so much for this post. I think it would be a great post to link up as part of our Go Orange Blog Hop, if you’re comfortable with that. Thanks writing and sharing your thoughts on this difficult subject.

  4. Carol Freeman says

    I am like you don’t like waste so I use some foods that are out of Date and any food that we use then is put into the compost heap after play is finished .
    The children then are taught all about composting food,and then what happens to the compost after it is ready. Then told and partisape by put the composit into the garden to grow more food.

  5. says

    Thanks for your insight. I find that this is an issue I too struggle with a little bit and I do, generally speaking, agree with the overall concept of being able to use food materials for play/exploration/discovery.. so long as it’s not, as you say, just for the sake of it. Where I draw my lines, however, may be different to yours and like yourself, I think I have changed my mind on this issue a number of times over the years.
    For example, I would never cut open a fresh apple just to do apple printing with, to me, that would just be too wasteful, however, if we had a half eaten apple that no one else wanted to eat, that is when I would choose to find other uses for it. A favourite activity for my child is experimental cooking using real ingredients. I use this activity as a way to clear out my pantry/fridge of all the food that would otherwise be wasted. Stale breadcrumbs, old spices and so on.
    How do you feel about using things like bi-carb soda for scientific experiments and discovery? There are some instances where if we did not play and did not experiment with foods/edible products, there are amazing learning opportunities that we would miss, and possible research and findings that would also be missed.
    I really love this article by Deborah J Stewart. It’s certainly some food for thought (sorry, couldn’t help myself) :D and as a teacher, it is hard not to look at all the learning opportunities and want these for children.. Worth a read.
    Thanks for your thoughts :)

    • katef says

      I read that fab post at teach preschool when I was thinking about all this recently, I agree with many of Debs points but I also disagree with some of them.

      If our aim is for children to learn about ‘the world in real and concrete ways’ then I don’t think children learn about ‘food’ when it is presented in non-food type situations. I think there is a lot of scope for young children to learn about food at meal times, exploring it’s textures etc. without putting them in the sensory tub.

      I think cutting up good edible potatoes to make prints with takes that food item out of context and teaches them very little about potatoes (plus there are so many other non-food options you can use for printing!).

      I feel the same about spaghetti in the sensory tub, or painting with pudding. For me the benefits and learning opportunities from those activities just don’t seem worth the other things I may be teaching my kids by using food in these situations.

      I think we need to be aware about the inadvertent messages we may be sending our kids. Out intentions may be fabulous but they may not be taking away from the experiences we present what we think or hope they will.

      I am personally ok with using food ingredients like bicarb as many commercially made consumables like paint or play dough include these kinds of substances.

      I guess my personal line on this is using food components to make resources my children play with is ok by me. Using other food substances in play is ok for me if they are able to be reused or recycled (so not wasted), if there is not another ‘just as good’ non-food alternative, and if it is presented in a way that is not confusing for my kids regarding what is food and what isn’t.

      I guess the crux of it for me is that I want to be aware of the choices I am making for my kids, and I need to make choices that I feel are best for us. So I totally agree with Deb (and the article she linked to) it is about finding balance and figuring out how you feel about this and how it fits your situation.

      Wow that was a long reply.. obviously I am still working through these ideas for myself! Thanks for making me keep thinking!

      • says

        I combine the two… sensory play and mealtimes haha (which I know a lot of parents would just hate). Your article is actually quite timely as just today, I was photographing my Noah (10 months) playing with his baked beans for a baby play post.

        He was always going to have baked beans for lunch, but instead of feeding them to him, or even putting them in a bowl, I put the baked beans straight onto the highchair tray, half of them cold and half of them warm, and then let him at them!
        I loved the sensory learning he was doing as he swirled and squished them as well as the included sensation of the different temperatures. He also ate them all up (I only provided as many as I would give him for a meal). For me, this was a type of sensory food play that I felt completely comfortable with as I was combining the learning experiences with a practical use and there was no wastage. I think that this is what people should be considering. How comfortable they feel with it. Articles like yours and Deb’s help people to make more informed decisions for themselves and to consider it from different points of view. I think if you’re feeling dodgy about it at all, then perhaps it’s just not the right choice.

  6. Jen says

    Did this teacher also advise not washing children or taking them swimming because they would be confused about the correct use of water?

    • katef says

      I don’t see washing or swimming as wasteful or ‘incorrect’ uses of water… but considering that we don’t have town water at home my children are all VERY aware of how precious water is.

      Just like how we use food in play, we use water sparingly and always try to recycle it, because the risk of not having enough water to drink has been very real for us in past years.

  7. says

    My children are a little out of this playtime now but I just wanted to say great post Kate, really thought-provoking and interesting points!

    I never really used a lot of food in play – playdough, made volcanoes and some rice/pasta.
    Although now we have chickens, I think I would cook up the bits and pieces for them.

  8. says

    i think you struck a lovely balance here. This is something I really need to think about. We have done some food stamping in the past, and I agree, it does send a mixed message. Most of the food play we do is stuff that we use time and again. But as for the food that gets covered in paint, that I threw out.

  9. says

    I honestly hadn’t thought much about this. We do use pasta in collages and old oatmeal in a sensory bin. You have left me thinking deep thoughts about how I do things.

  10. says

    I’m glad I found your article about this as I am struggling with using food for play at present. I grew up in South Africa and seeing the poverty around really made a big impact on me. So, as a teacher I would never use food for play but now as a play therapist at times employed by others, I have to follow their ideas and sometimes use food for play. Reading your insight has put it into perspective for me – so thank you!

  11. says

    beautifully written and well stated, kate! could i repost this on my own blog and/or quote you? i have been wanting to write a bit on the topic, just as soon as i finish and post an entry on “the language of food, the ritual of meal.” well done, you!

    • katef says

      Thank you Mia!
      I am happy for you to use a short excerpt or quote from the post with a direct link back.

  12. Laura Focaracci says

    I think you are putting adult issues in children’s laps. Children learn through play. When they see, smell, feel and play with a food item they are experiencing it in a very real way. Children who are reluctant to eat new foods will often try them after this type of experience. This play can involve art, fine motor or sensory centers. I don’t believe it is a good idea to “waste” food, but I don’t consider using food in art, fine motor or sensory centers to be wasting food. The food is serving a purpose…it is helping the child to learn about food in a different way. As a preschool teacher and parent, I have seen children reject food because adults have put all kinds of adult judgements on eating. For example, “Don’t waste food. Eat all your vegetables. Other children are hungry and you should be grateful.” Let’s keep our adult issues away from children. Let’s be realistic. Two potatoes used by 20 children to paint is not teaching children to waste food. Opening food containers, taking one bite and throwing it in the trash is wasting food. Let’s worry about teaching children to save food for later if they’re not hungry now or save it for a family member that likes it or take a small serving until you see if you’re hungry enough to eat more. These are real ways that children can participate and understand the concept of “wasting food”.

    • katepickle says

      I agree that often we can impose our adult issues into our children’s play, but I also think that the items we choose for our children to play with can and do instill values for our children and that is important. And since we are role models for our children I don’t think we can or should keep ‘adult issues’ away from our kids, instead I feel we should think critically about our choices and values and try to do the best we can in our own circumstances.

      For me personally, if there is a reasonable alternative to using food in play I will always choose that. I do think we often use food in play without thinking and that in some situations (not all) it is wasteful.

      These are my personal thoughts on food in play, and they colour how I choose to use food in play with my children, but I am not setting rules or trying to tell others what to do, merely sharing my thoughts as they have grown and changed over the years.

      As for adults making food a battle ground, well I have some strong personal views on that too which I’ve written about here: