Creative Childcare Consulting
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Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Should you. or should you not, use food products for craft and sensory experiences in your early learning environment? This is a frequent debate in the field. You may have given it some thought or may not have even thought about it until now.   

Think about all the places you may have seen food used in your journey as an early learning educator. Painting with chocolate syrup? Making aquariums full of goldfish crackers?  Beading with fruit loops? Scooping in a sensory bin of rice? Sprinkling brown sugar on a desert scene?  Others?

While we all would agree that the children enjoy these activities and that there are benefits to the activities, do they really need to be completed with food products? Are there not alternatives that could be used? 

Why is this worth a conversation? Because there are a few things to consider when using food products and the mixed messages you are sending, to the children in your care, when doing so.

First, what does it say about how you value food?  By indicating that food is something that can be played with and experimented with, you are telling children that food has other purposes than fueling their  bodies.   Does this not contradict us when, at snack time  and they are ‘swimming’ their goldfish and we tell them “Stop playing with your food!”  We tell children to eat their snack, have “ one more bite”, or to “just try it’” and, on the other hand, we tell them to ‘waste it’ by playing with it or creating with it.   What sort of mixed message is that?

Secondly, we have to be mindful of our families and their efforts to put food on their own tables.  We have children in our care so their families can go to work to make a living wage that allows them to provide the necessities of life.   When we devalue food, we are devaluing the work done to obtain it.  What about that child whose family struggles with putting food on the table?  What about the child who shows up hungry because there is not enough food in the cupboards or fridge? Imagine  if you are showing up hungry to daycare or preschool and then – next thing you know – you are stringing cereal on pipe cleaners and being told not to eat the cereal.  What sort of mixed message is that?

Thirdly,  we all agree that keeping children safe is part of our responsibility. What about those who have food allergies and sensitivities that may be known or unknown?   Is it really necessary to use a food product to create or explore when there are alternatives that are much safer to use? We all know about the toxicity of bingo dabbers so why do we not give the same consideration to other supplies we are using. What sort of mixed message is that?

Fourthly , during the pandemic, we need to be mindful that many are struggling to make ends meet and that there have been, at times, increased demand for food products. For instance, when the pandemic started, we saw a rush on flour as people worried and started stocking their pantries. Yes, some were just stocking up while others were buying out of necessity.  Is it appropriate, then, that some of that flour may have been used to make playdoh or salt dough in an early learning environment when it was needed as food?  What sort of mixed message is that?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, our classrooms are diverse. We have children that come to us from countries that are not as rich as Canada.  We have children that come to us from countries where poverty and food shortages are a real thing. Is it respectful then to throw a sensory bin of rice on the table and tell a child: “Don’t eat it. Just play with it.”?  This may be a child who has experienced, in one way or another, food line-ups for a bag of rice and now is feeling surprised? anxious? that their teacher is telling them the very opposite of what they have been told by their family and community. What sort of mixed message is that?

We have to consider what messages we are sending to children, and ourselves, when we use food products as materials.  We have to consider how we are contributing to children’s understanding of community and togetherness.  We have to consider the role models we are being for children when it comes to our collective global consciousness around resources. 

But it is so much fun to paint with chocolate syrup, you say.

The children love to bead with cereal or pasta, you say.

They love to create a desert with brown sugar and glue, you say.

They love to play in the rice bin, you say.

But I saw it on Pinterest, you say

All true….but there really is no reason why you should be using food products as craft or sensory materials when there is an abundance of materials and loose parts that are available to us today.    It just requires us to close our cupboard doors, be creative, and look elsewhere.  We have a responsibility to do so.

So, in answer to the question… NO, you should not!

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