Discussion on food use in the early childhood classroom

Discussion on food use in the early childhood classroom2017-04-24T22:45:26+00:00

Any time I share a post that includes the use of food for sensory play, I often get emails or comments from folks that have concerns which include a broad range of issues from….

  • Isn’t letting kids play with food teaching them to be wasteful?
  • Shouldn’t we teach kids that food is only for eating?
  • What message do we send to young children about the use of food?
  • What about the starving children in the world?
  • My licensing agency won’t let us use food.

These are all important questions to be considered and so to give you “food for thought” let me briefly share my own perspectives on the the use of food in the early childhood classroom. But keep in mind, I am always carefully considering my views as new circumstances come my way….

Food for sensory and other uses in the early childhood classroom

I have spent a lot of time considering this issue over the years and I suppose I have come to the conclusion that first and foremost, preschool age children need to learn about their world in a real and concrete way before they are ready to grasp the larger issues in life.

Cognitive understanding

On their path towards discovery, young children need to use all of their senses. I include food in this as well because I think if you want to teach children about food – you need to first give them opportunity to explore it, feel it, taste it, smell it, and even play with it. I think young children need those first hand experiences before we can then build an understanding about the preservation of food and the concern for others. Young children are just not in a place of cognitive understanding to fully grasp or take responsibility for the bigger world issues just yet.

Learning through play

I also believe that if we truly believe that young children learn through play in all areas of life – then this should be true in their exploration of food as well. Beginning with toddlers who work to pick up their pieces and toss them off their tray to preschoolers who run their hand through corn seed. These play experiences teach them not only about food but it gives them tangible experiences to then build on for future discussion.

Developmentally appropriate

Food sensory play also helps children with their own development. The textures, the colors, the smells, the natural elements, the growth, the taste, and the list goes on can all play a role in child development – including such areas as math, science, fine motor control, sensory, language, literacy, and so on.

Our future scientists

I also think that if we truly believe that our future scientists, artists, doctors, chemists are the young children of today then we have to recognize that food is more than just something we eat. Food is used for many products and if we told our current scientist that they were not allowed to explore their food because it is only for eating then perhaps we would truly be missing out on what the possibilities might just be. If young children are our future then I say let’s give them the resources to be fully informed and who knows – perhaps one young child in our care will develop a passion for the feel of corn and think of some amazing idea that we never thought could have possibly existed for the use of some particular food item some day in the future.

Our future artists

Just think if long ago, children or adults were told they could not use food like berries and other products to dye fabrics or make paints because food was considered off limits to anything but for its nutritional value.  As young children are given the opportunity to explore food for its potential uses at a level they can understand and through processes they will enjoy, children will strengthen their understanding of food products and gain a greater appreciation for the value and potential uses of food.


I believe there is greater value in letting children play or explore food products than there is to holding back and only using it to eat with because we fear they will not understand or care about world issues. Those fears are not well supported since preschoolers are capable of caring and part of learning to care is having a broad range of early years experiences. The fact that young children are given the chance to explore their environment will only, in my belief, lead them to greater understanding of their world and the needs and concerns in their world – perhaps even greater than our own.

Finding balance

However, as adults, we will naturally want to seek balance in what we allow young children to explore. I don’t see anything wrong with seeking balance between what you believe is “wasteful” versus what you believe is truly “developmental or educational”. For example – I am not so sure painting with an apple is all that better than painting with an apple shaped sponge. But I do think cutting an apple, exploring the seeds, tasting the apple, and even putting apples in the water table can lead to lots of learning and conversations that foster greater understanding and developmental growth. Finding balance between using food because you want to do something cute with it or using food to foster new opportunities for development, growth, sensory, exploration, and understanding should be considered along the way.

The Fruit Loop Debate

Fruit Loops are an example of food products that are often used to promote various kinds of learning in math, color recognition, and art.  As far as using a product like fruit loops for these purposes – I believe it is much healthier and developmentally beneficial to count, sort, lace, and create with them than it is to use them for almost any other purpose. Using a product like fruit loops for these kinds of learning opportunities allows young children to draw on all of their senses and to put them in action throughout the learning process.  For young children, using all their senses to learn is an important part of the early learning experience.

For those of you in the early childhood profession…

Lisa Murphy  (the Ooey Gooey Lady) has some made quite a few other points about the use of food in the classroom but rather than sharing her words here – let me send you to read them for yourself: Using Food in the Classroom by Lisa Murphy.

In her article, Lisa addresses such issues regarding the use of food in the classroom as…

  • Point One: Concerns regarding lower income families.
  • Point Two: Making your own informed decision.
  • Point Three: Knowing and upholding your philosophical beliefs
  • Point Four: Taking a position on food and applying your position consistently throughout your program.
  • Point Five: Common Sense Exceptions.
  • Point Six: Providing alternative resources.
  • Point Seven: Understanding what professional organizations like ECERS or ITERS have to say.
  • Point Eight: Understanding what Licensing Agencies have to say.
  • Conclusion: reflection and reaction.
You decide
It is not my desire to persuade you to lean one way or another on the issue of food use in the classroom or at home. You will need to make your own decision but in the process, I do want to encourage you to make an informed decision.


  1. Kylie Bishoff March 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    I hope its ok to save your email, so when questioned in the future I can refer back to this wonderful post. You took the words right out of my mouth, just a lot more elegantly!
    Thank you

  2. [email protected]&Remember March 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Excellent information. I have seen so many comments regarding this on my rainbow rice post & on Pinterest. So many have suggested using old stale rice for play. Hmm, wonder how many people have 10 lbs of stale rice? : )

  3. Trisha March 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    Ditto Kylie. Thanks!

  4. jennifer March 11, 2012 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    I too, believe children need to explore with their senses……. Over the years I have asked families from cultures who may be offended by the use of rice etc for play if they mind and they have all said it’s ok it is a natural instinct for children to play with our food and i have seen many adults do it too over the years….. or they use their sense of smell sometimes before they taste something in a restaurant ……..eg …ew I can’t eat that it has garlic on it etc……. Thanks for the informed response to people who have arguments about why we shouldn’t use food …

  5. jennifer March 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    Sorry, I left out too many commas, full stops and capital letters in that response , hope you can make sense of it.

  6. Vanessa @Pre-K Pages March 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for your informative and insightful post on this hot topic! I have worked in a variety of programs, some that have allowed the use of food for exploration and others that did not. I agree with your perspective and appreciate the helpful info, I am definitely bookmarking this one!!!

  7. Jyothi mcminn March 11, 2012 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    As a director and Montessorian we do use food but a lesson on this is in order when food id used and the signifance of this in our environment and the respect we have for food embracing all cultures that bring forth on our tables. It has to happen , but the teacher is the one to do her homework on this.

  8. Janice @ learning4kids March 12, 2012 at 12:48 am - Reply

    oh, I just LOVE this post and totally agree with the whole idea of finding balance, through informed choices and circumstances. You said it perfectly – children need to explore their world in a concrete way before understanding bigger issues. Thank you!

  9. Liz Hallberg March 12, 2012 at 1:55 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject! In the past I taught at a Preschool for children who were living in crisis. Many of them were in homeless shelters, or living in very, very low income families. Food was not allowed to be used for any sort of play at this school, simply because these kids were in situations where they were struggling to have food to actually eat. That made sense to me, and I worked hard to come up with a wide variety of sensory activities that did not include food. Now, teaching in a private Preschool in a very different environment, we have a lot of fun with food. I did still sometimes feel a little guilty though, thinking back on the kids I worked with in the past. This post reminded me why I do use food in the scenario I have now, and how that really is OK. Thanks!! Also, we make sure to have the kids here participate in food drives, collect canned goods, etc.. just so that they remain aware that not all children have food readily available to them whenever they are hungry (or want to play in spaghetti). I find it’s a great way to have the kids understand, and give back. Thanks again for your post, and for letting me share 🙂

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. March 12, 2012 at 2:38 am - Reply

      I love how you are carefully considering the population you serve in this process – this will always impact any choice we make! Thank you for sharing!

    • Sonja March 12, 2012 at 9:23 pm - Reply

      I learned this “rule” back when working in Head Start…in this case, a LOT of the kids were immigrants/refugees. It has boggled me ever since, how to find that balance. In the instances you write of, the kids with less are put at an even greater disadvantage not being able to have these sensory experiences…

      • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. March 12, 2012 at 11:49 pm

        It does seem like the gap only gets wider for disadvantaged kids. It seems that children who do not have opportunities at home for sensory experiences are the ones who may need them the most and yet because they have less they are given less. But I don’t think this is the intention at all – it is just difficult circumstances causing folks to make tough choices.

  10. Kristah March 12, 2012 at 9:19 am - Reply

    I am now working in a center where we are not allowd to use food. The excuse given was there are starving children in the world and here we are playing with it. My question is what is the company doing to help those starving children? I would be willing to donate a bag of beans or box of noodles for every one I used in my classroom in order to provide the children with the experience. Without the foods I’ve used, it leaves less options for the sensory table. I know there are other things to use. I’ve used many other things. But, I’ve also been told don’t use sand or water because it is too messy. So, now how do we offer the sensory experiences of pouring and manipulating to our kids?

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. March 12, 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply

      Your questions reflect many who are in the exact same position as you are Kristah. I hate to think that childcare programs are becoming dismissive of the value of sensory play all together.

      What an innovative idea to have a sensory drive as you proposed! It would be much better to play with a box of pasta and send a box of pasta to someone in need rather than just avoiding the issue all together.

      Eliminating food from sensory play doesn’t address world hunger – it just removes real hands-on experiences for young children and at the same time removes adults from taking or feeling any responsibility for the issues. I think folks make decisions that makes them comfortable rather than making decisions that make a difference. Hmmm, you have definitely given me food for thought! I bet my class would love a year long sensory drive like that!

  11. Sonja March 12, 2012 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    well, if we cook w/kids and then let them eat what they’ve cooked…then maybe seeds and legumes could be used, like lentis and wheat berries…then later sprouted and eaten? Maybe not such a huge quantity of seeds as to fill a water table, but enough to then germinate and grow in a little garden, like peas and corn? Much of my background has been working w/kids new to the U.S., and new to such abundance, and I think that it would confound the consciousness of even those young cognitive minds, to see something that was precious and hard to come by all of a sudden being placed in giant bins to scoop and drive toy cars through. But then, I suppose there are worse things than a shock of sudden abundance…hmmmmm

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. March 13, 2012 at 12:39 am - Reply

      Haha – Sonja! I bet just like any child, they would dive in and play!

      • Jamie October 21, 2012 at 10:16 pm

        Having worked in a setting with preschool aged children from refugee families , I can say that from my experience, no, they would not dive in and play. We have had kids in our program who won’t eat unless an adult eats from the same plate (apparently so that they know their food is safe) and fill their pockets with food, hiding it throughout the classroom because they don’t expect to get more any time soon. Those kids do not play enthusiastically with food in a sensory bin because they don’t have the same mindset that first world kids do – I can appreciate the value of food for sensory experiences but discounting those kids’ experiences is inappropriate.

      • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. October 22, 2012 at 12:56 am

        Absolutely – there are always situations that must be taken under consideration such as what you described above. For children, like the refugee children you have taught and described above, I would imagine the emphasis of the classroom would be on much different needs and therefore what is used to meet those needs would also need to be respectful of those needs. No question about it. Thank you for sharing your insightful experience and perspective. We all share about this topic based upon what our own personal experiences and knowledge of early learning but there is always other perspectives that need to be heard and shared.

      • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. October 22, 2012 at 1:09 am

        However, on a different note – I would like to mention that I have worked with refugee children. I worked with them for three years (but it has been over 28 years ago) and during my time with them, I had a different experience than you described. They were very giving and honest and wish to share with me all the time. They would bring gifts and food they made from home, albeit it was very simple, and felt offended if I didn’t accept it. They loved the various experiences I provided but like you, I kept the food to a minimum or we explored what we would also eat for our snack. I did not find children hiding things. Perhaps it was because we also had a food pantry next door that provided food for their families. I think it is just as important not to portray all refugee children as being kids that do not have a positive mindset or the ability to be forthright in their behavior or decision-making abilities. This is not to discount the need to be sensitive to their situation but to be careful not to assume the worst.

  12. Tammy March 13, 2012 at 1:04 am - Reply

    In my ECE classes it was driven into me to not use food in play. I get it but, playdough is made from white flour (which is not good for us to eat), same with the the non whole wheat pasta, M&M’s and fruit loops are great for sorting, counting and graphing ( and make a yummy treat as long as it is only one set of hands using them), there are so many processed foods that are not good for our bodies that can be used for learning and sensory play. I justify junk food use ( and yes an occasional small treat of it afterward). I have a harder time using beans and popcorn seeds (mostly because of a chocking hazard. I usually have children under 3 around). And pudding and jello can also be put to good use too for the same reason. I have never worked in a school that frowns on food for play and I have worked in acredited schools (most issues are due to chocking hazard more then using a food concern with licensing. Your idea looks fun and I may try it someday. Thanks.

  13. Amber April 15, 2012 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I agree…excellent post! I’ve worked in programs which state that we were not to use food products and I understood where they were coming from being it was a program for low-income families. Really wasn’t respectful to “play” with food when there may be some families who don’t even have enough to eat at home. So I tend to get to know my families and encourage others to get to know their families before they make a decision regarding this topic. A question for you…have you ever dyed your spaghetti with food coloring or liquid watercolor?

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 16, 2012 at 11:08 pm - Reply

      I have not dyed Spaghetti with any type of color. I had thought about it for the children but then decided they would enjoy the process of painting it more than just playing with what I had already prepared:)

  14. Debs - Learn with Play @ home May 5, 2012 at 6:14 am - Reply

    Thank you for writing this wonderful post. I’m hoping it will allow the children at my daughters 3 year old kinder to have the same experiences as your kids. Debs 🙂

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 5, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

      I hope it will too!

  15. Janet August 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    This is definitely a hot button issue, and I feel strongly that food should not be used for art or sensory activities. There are so many other mediums that do not offend cultural preferences, send the message that food is so plentiful that we can play with it, etc. We use flour, oil and water for playdough, feed corn in the texture table (then put it out for the squirrels), etc. We have many families for whom items like rice and beans are a primary food source. I can’t imagine that they would be pleased to see children playing with it. Using food as a learning experience (like your apple example) and then having children eat the food is a very powerful learning experience. But gluing fruit loops to paper when you could use beads, milk caps or any number of non-edible items? I just don’t see the connection to learning when any other number of items will lead to the same experience.

    Children in our program receive 2 meals and 2 snacks per day, and there is plenty of opportunity to “play” with their food. All of our meal times are relaxed and at the child’s pace and while we encourage the use of utensils, it’s certainly not uncommon to see little fingers where a fork should be! I’m not saying that this is the same as playing in a table full of cooked spaghetti noodles, but it is still an opportunity to “play” with food.

    Believe me, this has not been an easy policy to maintain, but I do think it is worth enforcing. All of my teachers, at one time or another, have asked about using a food item that is not on our “approved” list. If they can convince me that it is indeed developmentally appropriate and that the item will be used to it’s fullest extent, then I usually ok it. One of the best experiences ever was when the children got to “gut” a pumpkin, roasted the seeds and made a pie (even though it wasn’t a pie pumpkin). Lots of sensory experiences in that one pumpkin! Priceless!

  16. Debs September 7, 2012 at 2:35 am - Reply

    Have I mentioned lately that I love this article? 😉

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. September 7, 2012 at 3:37 pm - Reply

      Haha – no but you can mention it as often as you like! LOL!

  17. shanaaz April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    I love the way you think and I will definitely like to learn more from you as you inspire me. God bless you

  18. H April 17, 2018 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    I look at playing with food as a teachable moment for the children.
    To talk to them about other people around the world, and how they struggle to have food available like we do, and how fortunate we are.

    I also think, that should we not then be living in nice houses because people in other parts of the world don’t. I see playing with a sensory bin with Pasta, lentils, rice, etc as a wonderful resource to use to talk to children about other places around the world that are less fortunate. Using books etc to extend their understanding of the world around us, and the differences that are there.

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