Physical Development

Children should play with their food

Given the importance of healthy eating to physical development, and the way that many governments have struggled to deal with childhood obesity, not just in the UK but around the world, it’s surprising that we don’t spend more time encouraging our children to play with their food. 

Well, perhaps not during mealtimes (when it can sometimes be a struggle just to keep them at the table) but certainly at playtimes. Children learn about the world through play, and food is no exception.

When Daisy stays with us, I often set aside time in the late evening to create a pretend-play activity that she can wake up to the next morning. It gives her a nice surprise when she totters down to breakfast and it has the added benefit of giving some structure to her morning play. Unstructured play is fine of course, but if Daisy goes for a long period without prompts then her play can devolve into emptying our abundant toy cupboard in search of another novelty.

Setting up shop

During a recent visit, I created a pretend greengrocer shop with some play food for Daisy to enjoy. The items were displayed with a notice board, there was a shopping basket and even a face mask for any customers who had forgotten theirs (Daisy is more cognisant of COVID safety considerations than many adults). The cash register also had a very generous float, as I know that Daisy can tend to overcharge her patrons!

We spent a delightful morning on this activity. I shopped and Daisy selected and packed my purchases in old paper bags that I had saved for the activity. As well as being a great role-play activity, this also gave us the opportunity to talk about food and to practice counting. Later, Mummy and Daddy also visited Daisy’s greengrocer shop and asked Daisy for particular items which she found and packed for her new customers, although some of the orders weren’t fulfilled to exact requirements.

Later, when we packed up the shop together, I asked Daisy to help me sort the play food into two groups: fruits and vegetables. I helped her to identify each one, and we even matched a few pretend play foods with their real life counterparts in the fruit bowl.

Two plates of food are contrasted, one is a china plate with apple, strawberries and banana, and metal cutlery. The other shows the same arrangement, except the food, crockery and cutlery are all plastic.
Plastic and organic – why not combine pretend food with real-life counterparts?

Fried egg, spaghetti and oranges

The UK Government’s Early Years Foundation Stage outlines that children need to learn about healthy eating and to understand the importance of variety in diet. We have a set of play food that includes a really diverse array of food items, so it was an easy step the next day to then change the greengrocer shop to a cafe. 

I arranged the play food into groups – fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods – and as we played in the cafe we talked about how we can put food items together to create different healthy meals. Of course it wasn’t all deadly serious: some exotic dishes, like fried eggs with spaghetti, peas and oranges, did not sound palatable, but they were fun to talk about.

The play food included foods from around the world, some of which (sushi or tacos) are unknown to Daisy. However even these unfamiliar foods can provide a useful introduction to the idea that not every child has the same diet as she does.

From plastic to practice

Role play involving pretend food can easily lead to useful cooking activities – making a fruit salad with an adult gives a child an opportunity to handle different fruits (talking about how they feel and smell) and to practise cutting skills. Occasionally, you can introduce a different seasonal fruit for them to taste test.

A wooden chopping board show display several vegetables - a pepper, a carrot and a lettuce lead - along with their plastic pretend-play counterparts
“This one is real!” A crunchy lettuce leaf passes the sense test.

The opportunity for a young child to taste and enjoy real food can help to broaden their palette; in fact, it can be very revealing, as children learn just how important sight is in dictating our reactions to food. Taste tests stimulate some interesting vocabulary as we wrestle with how to describe taste, flavour and texture – even grownups can struggle with this!

Food provides so much learning play and with current concerns about obesity, it’s never too soon for our grandchildren to understand the importance of healthy eating. All too soon they will be in their early education settings where they will begin to make their own choices about what they eat. Let’s help them make good ones!

Granny Smith says

  • There are many play-food toys available, from low-cost plastic sets to beautiful wooden models. I find that charity shops are a great source, although it’s a good idea to give them a thorough wash before use; they will inevitably go into a child’s mouth at some point!
  • An alternative way to spark conversations about different foods is to use images from magazines or the Internet – you can even make collages together to create some meal pictures.

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