Enabling Environments

Food play – Is it responsible and what alternatives are there?

  • Food play – Is it responsible and what alternatives are there?

Emma Davis reflects on why we should question our use of food in Early Years settings and offers creative alternatives to food play… 

The use of food in play has become increasingly problematic. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, with many families struggling financially, food is a precious commodity.

It may no longer be appropriate to use it frivolously in our small world setups, tuff spots, mud kitchens and role play. This is food that could be feeding families. Using it in play raises questions of morality, especially in light of the increase in food bank use in the last year.

We need to promote the value of food, acting as role models and responsible, respectful educators. 

Use food responsibly  

Although we should be thinking very carefully about how we are using food in our settings, there are some ways in which children can experience the sensory aspects of food play but in a responsible way. 

The issue is more about the potentially wasteful way in which we use food, such as pasta for tipping and pouring, vegetables for paint printing, cereals for farm-focused tuff spots and vegetables in the mud kitchen.

Benefits of using food

There are options to consider, such as using food the way it was intended in cooking, baking and eating. These sorts of activities are beneficial in many ways.

Children develop their physical skills through cutting, peeling, mashing and slicing with kitchen tools. This also helps them to consider ways of being safe when using tools. 

There is also the sensory experience of smelling, touching, tasting and exploring the texture and colour of foods. 

In a food crisis, providing something that children can take home takes the pressure off families. It also means that the child is eating something healthy and nutritious. 

Using food can be great for developing communication and language skills. We can role model vocabulary linked to food or actions, such as ‘squishy’, ‘smooth’, ‘pulp’, ‘segments’ and ‘bumpy’. 

Finding alternatives 

As some settings have used food in play for many years, it can be challenging to think of new ways of working. If we’re not using pasta, rice, lentils, cereals and flour, then what are the alternatives? 

Thankfully, there are plenty of substitutes for food in play – we just need to think creatively! Natural resources are particularly beneficial as these are freely available, especially seasonal treasures such as pine cones, conkers, acorns and sticks.

However, this also involves being responsible in terms of the environment. Take too much and you’re possibly affecting animals who might use this material for shelter or to build their nests.

Other options are shells, pebbles, stones and leaves. All these natural items are incredibly tactile. You can use them for many purposes throughout your setting, from your mud kitchen and maths area to construction and role play.   

Be creative  

Mud play is always popular and makes a great alternative to food-based sensory play. Provide additional resources for children to mix into the mud, adding to the sensory element as well as offering experiences for children to be curious, explore and experiment. 

Try using sand, water, gravel, sticks for stirring, grass, leaves and seeds. Rather than creating vegetable soup in your mud kitchen, children can now serve muddy hot chocolate with added embellishments! 

Flowers which are going past their best are a wonderful resource with so many uses. Add petals to the mud kitchen, have a go at observational painting or drawing, use them in the water tray or create transient art. 

It’s worthwhile asking parents to think of your setting before throwing away wilting flowers. You could even speak to your local supermarket or florist who could keep you supplied with petals! 

Alternatives to food play 

  • Shaving foam 
  • Bubbles 
  • Ice 
  • Sand 
  • Shredded paper 
  • Bird seed 
  • Cotton wool 

Consider ways to combine these resources to extend play experiences. Also think about loose parts you could add, such as:

  • Buttons
  • Lolly sticks
  • Curtain rings
  • Cotton reels
  • Pom-poms 

Involve families 

It’s a great idea to get families at your setting involved. Be bold and make a statement that you are no longer using food for play purposes but also consider how they can help with your non-food play mission. 

If they are out for walks at the weekend, ask families to collect some natural treasures. They could also:

  • save food packaging for your role-play area
  • donate wilting herbs or flowers
  • provide cuttings from trees or shrubs 

Ensure safety 

Just as you would with food, be mindful of children who might have allergies or those who are liable to mouth the resources. In this case, some of the ideas included here could be a choking hazard. Ensure you fully risk assess all the resources you use and adequately supervise play. 

Ethically appropriate

To be responsible educators we need to be mindful of the challenges many families are experiencing at the moment.  How would parents feel if they were to walk into your setting and see food used in activities which they have no means of affording? 

Consider as well the message you are sending to children. Some might be attending having not eaten a proper breakfast – how ethically appropriate is it for these children to have food to play with when they haven’t got food to eat at home? 

We have an opportunity to be reflective in our practice and provision. Use current circumstances to consider your pedagogical approach and values when it comes to play with food. 

Emma Davis is a HE Lecturer in education, writer, mental health first aider and forest school leader.