Discussion on food use in the early childhood classroom

Discussion on food use in the early childhood classroom

Considerations when using food for learning purposes in the classroom

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 scientists 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. Young children are our future, so 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 some day think of an amazing idea that we never thought could have possibly existed for the use of a particular food item.

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 experiences in the early years. I believe that by giving young children the chance to explore their environment, this will 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 do not 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 of 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 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, however in the process, I do want to encourage you to make an informed decision.