Historically, food has been pretty much always been used in play. And over time, from home-made play dough to lentil and pasta collages or rice shakers, edible materials have inexorably become a part of our pedagogy.
When I was an Early Years teacher and setting manager, we had pasta for posting activities, cereals in the tuff spot, vegetables for printing, numbered potatoes in the mud kitchen and jelly for sensory play. This was, I thought, part of an enabling environment, with provision that inspired children to engage.
However, the Covid pandemic changed my perspective and personal values. With job losses, caring responsibilities and reduced working hours, many families experienced a reduced income and therefore less to spend on food.
It was time to question my practice and pedagogy. I asked myself, how would I feel walking into my setting as a parent, seeing food used in activities, knowing I couldn’t afford to buy that to feed my child, let alone for them to play with?
Unfortunately, the use of food for play purposes and as part of continuous provision is becoming ever more problematic.
We’re now in the grip of a countrywide economic crisis where families are struggling, sometimes forced to decide between heating or eating. You might think that this would have altered our practice - but no, there are still endless images posted every week on social media showing foodstuffs used for tuff spot set ups, in mud kitchens, to support fine motor skills and for sensory play.
Let’s think for a second about those families who are struggling to buy basic necessities, those who are having to use food banks.
How must a child feel when they have food in a setting to play with, but nothing at home to eat? What goes through parents’ minds at drop off when they see your marvellous tuff spot farm using a variety of cereals, or your cutting activity using spaghetti, or real vegetables in the mud kitchen?
It’s simply immoral to use food in this way when it has become such a precious commodity. With food bank usage up 14% on last year (according to The Trussell Trust), surely it’s time we moved away from this food-based pedagogy to take a different perspective – one of empathy and compassion.
If children are going without food at home, there will be an emotional impact as well as the physical implications. They could quite easily (and rightfully) be upset at seeing their peers playing with ingredients.
Because the reality is, with this kind of activity, we are being wasteful, prioritising our Pinterest-perfect set ups over the emotional wellbeing of our charges. That doesn’t mean that we can’t employ food as a resource within our practice at all; we just need to be more mindful of purposeful planning.
For example, fruit and vegetables are great for mashing, peeling, slicing and chopping – but why end up scraping the end results into the bin?
Think carefully about the intention, implementation and impact of each activity, so children get the full sensory experience of smelling, tasting, touching and exploring texture, but with something to take home afterwards, such as an apple crumble, vegetable soup or fruit salad.
Finally, yes, it is true that some children can benefit from the sensory experience of food play, especially those who may have difficulties with eating for medical, physical or emotional reasons.
However, this should be in small groups with a particular, needs-based intention rather than as part of continuous provision. For your usual play activities, I beg you, try and seek alternatives.
The writer is a former pre-school manager, now an Early Years lecturer.