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Sticky Fingers: The Benefits of Exploratory Food Play

“Don’t play with your food!” Many of us would have heard our mothers say this, or possibly know that it’s escaped our own lips on more than one occasion. And yes, when your toddler is flinging their bowl of noodles through the air at the cat, or seeing what happens when they flick each individual kernel of sweetcorn as far across the dining room as possible, this instruction might be valid.

However now many more experts would urge you to take pause, and instead consider the benefits of food play.

As you will have already observed in so many wonderful ways, your little person is exploring and learning about their world all the time. From new sounds, smells and textures, to all the myriad of new things they see every day, they are being exposed to an array of sensory inputs. The introduction of solids, and then all new foods that they try afterwards, is no different.

We often think of eating as being just about the taste, but for your little explorer, the introduction of foods is a feast for the senses. They’re considering whether they’ve seen anything like this before, getting a whiff of what it smells like, and then there’s the texture and feel – in their hands, mouths (and sometimes in their hair, down their front or up a nostril!) before they even get to the taste.

Play is a child’s work
It’s often said that ‘Play is a child’s work’ and it’s true. It’s through play that they start to learn and make sense of the world, and all these weird and wonderful things that are a part of it. Children have a natural curiosity and interest in everything around them; they are eager learners and are constantly developing their thinking skills and unique sense of logic.

For Friedrich Froebel, the ‘inventor’ of kindergartens: “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” For all these reasons, many developmental experts promote the practice of food play.

The idea of ‘messy play’ has long had its foothold in the repertoire of parents, early childhood educators and child development experts as a way to open children up to a wide range of sensory experiences. Chances are you’ve had a go at finger painting or created your own science experiments indoors – to pass time on a rainy day, if nothing else.

Most messy play, however, typically steers clear of the generally considered ‘serious’ domain of mealtimes. It may be time to reconsider.

Be prepared to get messy

According to Hannah Gentile, from Nourished by Nature, playing with food is an essential and non-threatening way to feel safe with different tastes and textures, which supports your child to grow up without so much fussiness around eating. Consider how much you would like it if a fork full of something new and foreign came forcefully towards your mouth; parents feed their children this way because it’s easier for them – less mess, and much quicker. However, a baby allowed the freedom to explore food is one who is allowed to understand that they can feed themselves.

And when you come upon your child painting graffiti-like patterns across the highchair tray with their strawberry yogurt, or working on how they can enhance their hairdo using handfuls of mashed potato, take a deep breath, smile and try to appreciate the rich learning experience your child’s senses are receiving.

Also, be sure to have a packet of WaterWipes to hand for the clean up!

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