3 Ideas to Get Young Children Learning About and Playing with Food

By Molly Breen

3 Ideas to Get Young Children Learning About and Playing with FoodIn early childhood education, we practitioners are very familiar with the importance of play—in all its many iterations. Play is social, connected, creative, and open-ended. It requires critical thinking and problem-solving, and it both signals and encourages children’s development and growth.

Play is queen in early childhood (and across the lifetime).

But when we plan activities and provocations with a curricular goal or a specific outcome in mind, it can be easy to leave play in the dust. And the kids know it! We all can imagine a time when we gathered our little learners together for a thoughtfully prepared activity that was missing a key ingredient (play), and it went totally off the rails. And suddenly, the hoped-for shared learning felt more like a “have to do” than a “get to do.”

During the summer in my program, we like to experiment with new approaches to learning. Because why not try something new? And here in Minnesota, summer is the season of growing: gardens, farmer’s markets, CSAs (community supported agriculture), and pollinators as far as the eye can see. So this summer, we decided to design a project around garden goods—focusing on what we like and what we don’t like (and why). This intersection of produce and preference could stand on its own legs, but we wanted to make sure that play was also at the center. Here are three ways we are learning together while playing with our food this summer:

1. Every Vote Counts

Using produce from a HAFA CSA, we asked the preschoolers to vote (with stickers) for produce they were interested in trying based on its appearance. The kids each got a strip of stickers, and we labeled the vegetables and fruits with the item name and included photos of ways in which the foods could be prepared. After everyone voted, they got to make “goody bags” to take home the produce of their choosing. And we asked families to share their experience preparing and eating the food together at home. During the voting, preschoolers were eager to taste and try the raw vegetables and herbs—possibly an unusual occurrence for young children. But the playful voting game set the tone, as did their natural curiosity for hands-on sensory experiences.

We had a parent generously offer to sponsor the CSA for us. Think about reaching out to your parent community or the general community near your program to ask for help funding a share or a half share if you want to get into some local produce with your preschoolers!

2. Smooth-ie Moves

We have worked with the organization WithAll to better understand what to do and what to say when it comes to kids and food. We know that kids must have voice and choice at mealtimes and snack times. Using frozen seasonal fruits, yogurt, honey, cinnamon, and dairy or oat milk, we created individual smoothie recipes with the preschoolers. We displayed our available ingredients and gave everyone a note card and markers/crayons. We then invited the children to become our smoothie chefs. They drew or wrote their smoothie recipes and even gave their smoothies names! Then each child came up to the mixing station and (with teacher help and supervision) assembled and blended their ingredients. We took pictures of each preschooler taking the first taste of their creation and then asked them for a simple rating of thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate if their recipe was a winner! Even if the smoothies didn’t get a thumbs up from the chef, everyone tried what they made, and many of the kids wanted to try their friends’ recipes too!

3. Solar-Powered Pizza

I don’t know about you, but I will eat just about anything if it’s on a pizza. And guess what? A lot of children will too! This activity took place across a couple days, but it was worth the effort. Since children are learning about how everything grows and the importance of the sun for producing abundant gardens, we thought it would be fun to harness the sun’s power to cook our lunch. If you’ve never made a solar oven, they are surprisingly easy and effective. Just make sure that when it’s time to cook your food outdoors, your solar ovens are protected from curious critters!

To make the solar oven, you will need:

  • Cardboard box about two to three inches deep with attached lid (the lid should have flaps so that the box can be closed tightly)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Clear plastic wrap
  • Glue stick
  • Tape (transparent tape, duct tape, masking tape, or whatever you have)
  • One-foot-long stick (or skewer, knitting needle, ruler, dowel, or whatever you have) to prop open the reflector flap
  • Ruler or straight-edge
  • Box cutter or Xacto knife (only used with adult help, of course!)

For instructions on how to assemble the solar oven, visit NASA’s Climate Kids site.

To make the solar-powered pizza, we visited a farmer’s market to choose ingredients for our pies. The sky’s the limit for topping a pizza! We had broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, onions, basil, and even fresh mozzarella cheese. We used a store-bought sauce, but you could certainly blend up your own with garden produce. For the crust, you could use tortillas, naan, pita, or really any flatbread (we used pita).

We invited our preschoolers to be pizza chefs in our pizza restaurant. We even named the restaurant: Sun Pizza. We started early in the day so that our pizzas had plenty of time to cook. Each child assembled a pizza with ingredients of their choosing, and we took before photos to share with families. Next came the cooking. We had a good and sunny day, but it still took about two hours for the cheese to totally melt. When everything was finally ready, we had a pizza picnic at our restaurant, and everyone enthusiastically enjoyed their creations! We’d done this project before with s’mores (that was the time squirrels got into our boxes), and it was a gooey and delicious success.

Our exploration of summer produce, local agriculture, and children’s preferences has been a tasty and fun experience because we have been able to keep play at the center of each activity. And yes, things do still go off the rails, but that is to be expected! As teachers, we can model flexibility and creative problem-solving for kids when things don’t go according to plan. But at least when we play with food, there is always something good to eat in the end!

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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