Playing with Food by Susan McGhee

21st September 2017

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Don’t play with your food…a reprimand many will remember from childhood yet in these days of food poverty, faddy eaters, and food allergies we often encourage children in our care to do exactly that as we use food as a play resource.

Is it time for a re-think? Can we really justify food play when so many families are struggling to put food on the table? When children go to school without breakfast, teachers are providing food for pupils and many families are thrown into a panic at the thought of providing food they just can’t afford during school holidays?

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of food as a plaything but have generally put that down to my inner foodie screaming eat it, eat it, do you know how good that tastes?! I’ve heard the words there are children starving in the world and questioned how the food used for playing here could possibly help children many miles away in countries far from home…but still it niggles at me and just doesn’t feel right.

My musings and sense of something being not quite right led me to dig a little and here are some of the food facts I uncovered:

  • In the financial year 2016-2017 Trussell Trust foodbanks provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. 436,000 to children. (Trussell Trust,
  • Every year in the UK 18 million tonnes of food end up in landfill. This food waste comes from producers, suppliers, retail stores and households. (Food Aware,
  • UK food waste equates to each one of us throwing away 110 kg of food a year, the weight equivalent of a baby elephant. (Love Food Hate Waste,
  • The right to food is a human right recognized by international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, …” (art. 25).

The more I read the more complicated this all seems, we have a right to food yet too many people are going hungry. People are going hungry at the same time as we are throwing away vast amounts of food. We are a modern, developed, first world country yet nearly half a million children relied on foodbank handouts from The Trussell Trust last year (plus many more from other foodbanks around the country). Working families are receiving such low incomes and living costs are so high that they still need the help of foodbanks and community food schemes. It would seem we are in a bit of a pickle here and I guess stopping the children in a local nursery playing with pasta or jelly isn’t going to make a massive difference but perhaps it may trigger a re-thinking of our relationship with food.

Food is for nutrition and sustenance…of course it offers pleasure and eating is often a very sensory experience but at its core we need to eat to survive and thrive.

There is also the right to play as set out in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child which states “That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” I am totally committed to the child’s right to play and in fact think we should all play as often as we can. Play is a wonderful source of learning, exploration and of course fun and I believe we need play to thrive in our lives.

So, we’ve got a right to food and a right to play but should we really be combining these rights by playing with food? There are loads of ideas for food play out there from the sensory experiences of playing with jelly, cream, baked beans, and cooked pasta to using food products in our arts and crafts activities. All of these can be really positive experiences for the children taking part and I’m sure there are many people who will argue the pros they bring to the play experience but there’s no getting away from the fact they do waste food and it’s hard for little ones to understand why it’s okay to play with and mash up spaghetti in a play activity but that isn’t that what we do with it at mealtimes.

I’ve heard and kind of get the argument that sensory experiences with food are safer for very young children who tend to explore the world with their mouths but question this based on the food types often used for babies and young children’s sensory play. Do we really want our little ones eating squirty cream or cheap jelly? Are we including food allergies in our risk assessment processes around food play?

Whilst I recognise there will be settings offering high quality, safe and enjoyable food play activities when I consider the pros and cons I think the cons come out on top and I’m declaring my place in the anti-food play camp. Most sensory experiences can be provided with alternative resources and I’m sure there are many of you offering a wonderful range of non-food based experiences designed to help the children in your care explore the world around them through their senses.

There’s also growing and harvesting food, cooking, and baking with the children, shared mealtimes, self-selection of food choices, self-serving, tasting activities and so many more experiences that use food but don’t waste it and that support the development of a healthy and respectful relationship with food.

If we are to drag our country out of the food mess we seem to have cooked up perhaps we need to start building a solid understanding of the need for food, where it comes from, how to prepare it and how to enjoy it in our youngest children. Perhaps it’s time to stop wasting food and treat it with the life nourishing respect it deserves. Do you really need spaghetti in the water tray?

By Susan McGhee, Director, BNG Training Ltd

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