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Don’t Play With Your Food!

When I was young, I remember how my mother would tell my sister and I not to play with our food. Typically, this happened during meal times and my parents felt strongly about it simply because its culturally impolite to do this during mealtimes and when we are supposed to be EATING the food before us. However, this statement is being brought to light within the classroom environment as most of our sensory play curriculum consists of foodstuff. Here are some things to consider before we decide if we should be pro- or anti- food products in our ECE curriculum…

What is ‘food’?
First, let us take a minute to define ‘food’. According to Wikipedia, food is “any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for the body… is usually of plant or animal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food). Likewise, Dictionary.com also adds that food is meant to “promote growth” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/food).

With this in mind, anything edible, which helps us grow and is nutritious, is considered as food.

Early Childhood Education
As teachers, we all understand that children learn in ways that are different from adults. Young children explore through their senses, through active, hands-on activities and through movement, which forms the foundation for future abstract thinking/learning (and we know this from the research and works of Piaget, Montessori, Dewey, Smilansky). Children are born with the innate ability to learn about the world that they live in and our goal is to provide them with a stimulating, inviting, developmentally appropriate, safe and conducive environment to explore and experiment, free from imposed objectives or agendas.

These underlying principals guide us when we make decisions about early childhood education and more so when we have to plan classroom activities/curriculum for our students.

A teacher/parent’s role is multifaceted and full of challenges. In addition to that, we also have to play a part in being responsible people in our attempts to find sustainable ways to preserve our world that we live in. We can do this by developing the awareness about different ways to use our resources so that we are not wasteful.

So going back to the topic in question, instead of deciding about whether or not to use foodstuff in our home or classroom activities, I urge you to think about how you can create a more sustainable classroom environment which shows appreciation for everything that we have, edible or not. Here are some things we can think about when preparing activities for young children:

1. Before you embark on an activity, think about using the things that you have BEFORE buying new things,
2. Before you use anything (especially disposable items), think about how you can reuse it later in similar or different ways so that you can get the most out of it,
3. Before you throw anything away, think about how you can reuse, reduce or recycle it.
4. If you are going to use organic items (like foodstuff, which, by definition, is just about anything edible), think about how it can be eaten eventually,
5. If you are going to buy something inedible, look for things, which you can use in different ways and for different purposes so that you can maximize its use.

Here are some ideas that you can try at home or in the classroom:
1. Promptly store dried food products in airtight containers with silica gel packets after use (eg. Rolled oats, coloured rice, uncooked pasta) so that it can be preserved in pristine condition and reused several times.
2. Use home made paint as much as possible. This is great for veggie or fruit stamping activities as it can be rinsed off later and the fruit or veggie can be eaten afterwards.
3. Add a little salt to home made play dough and when it’s not in use, store them in the fridge in airtight containers so that you can reuse them again. Besides, I have found that young children love cold play dough for a change.
4. Instead of disposable table liners, try reusing old shower curtains, which rinses off easily and can be used for many hours of art projects.
5. If you have any unwanted clothes, which can’t be reused by other people, cut out all the buttons, zips, sequins and beads to be stored for craftwork.
6. Teach children how to handle and prepare foodstuff. Have them scrub and wash apples and oranges at the water table or let them cut fruits and veggies, let them combine and mix cake and muffin batter. Children who understand, respect and appreciate food will be less likely to ‘play with their food’ during meal times!
7. Start a compost. This is a great way to put all uneaten food to good use!

While keeping the underlying principals in mind, be creative and think about how you can come up with new ways to use the resources that you have. After all, what better opportunity is there for us to teach responsibility, creativity and being environmentally friendly besides being good role models?

For those of you who are interested in finding out more about the underlying principals for dealing and working effectively with young children, may I suggest you read this book ‘Cool stuff your parents never told you about parenting’ written by yours truly.

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