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.
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?