Is it ethical or sustainable to use food in play, and where do we draw the line?


This post was originally shared on our blog several years ago and has been rediscovered in the archives and given a freshen up!


We once shared a post on our Facebook page that got some great responses. The question we posed was: "What is the most bizarre rule you have heard in an early education and care service?" There were some doozies, but one in particular sparked some interesting discussion, and it's not the first time that this issue has been raised. I've had this conversation with many educators in many services and upon asking the question of whether it is ethical or sustainable to use food in play, it seems that the answer isn't exactly black or white. 


If, like me, you are a child of the 80's, there's a very strong chance that you engaged in the fine art of potato printing and pasta necklace creation during your preschool years. I have vivid memories of taking chunks of potato that had been painstakingly cut and carved by my preschool teacher and dipping it in a blob of red paint sitting atop an ice cream container lid. I spent many an afternoon threading dried pasta - some of which had been coloured with food colouring - onto string and then proudly wearing my creations (or better yet, insisting that Mum wore them). Are these all good memories? Absolutely. Would I do these things in practice now, or even twenty years ago when starting out in early education and care? No. 

When I was in TAFE, I remember one of my teachers talking to us about the inappropriateness of using food in craft experiences. They made it very clear that these experiences were not to be used in our practicums or assessments. When questioned further on this, they explained that it could be seen as offensive by families or cultures with limited access to food, or to whom these staple foods are an important part of life. That made sense to me. It seemed quite rational. There were people around the world who were starving, and we (as a society, or collective) were using those foods for play. 

Happy with this reasoning, I made it a non-negotiable of my practice that I wouldn't use food products in children's play. But there was one glaring exception, that seemed to be overlooked in every service that I worked in or visited. 


The "exception" to the no food in play rule

So, what was the exception to the rule? 


Every week, we tipped flour, salt, oil and cream of tartar into a large saucepan and worked our arm muscles to create a smooth dough perfect for rolling, shaping and squishing. Did we think twice about using these food ingredients? No. 

During my many conversations with educators and services now, this seems to be the point where they wonder how this use of food is different to the potato printing and the pasta necklaces? 


All the other factors... 

And this is where we begin to realise that this isn't a simple situation, in fact, it is rather complex. Let's take play dough as an example and look at the factors, arguments and options. 

1. Home-made dough - Home made dough uses food products. Some will argue that these are cheap, basic ingredients. The primary benefit to using home made dough is that we know what is in it, meaning we aren't worried about chemical nasties. It can also be made on site, so we're not having a negative impact on the environment as a result of transporting from elsewhere and we know the working conditions are ethical :)


2. Store bought dough - Store bought dough has a very different consistency and seems to last forever... perhaps a result of the chemicals used in it. While most brands claim to be "safe" and "non-toxic", can we really be certain what is used in it? Furthermore, it usually comes in a plastic tub (sustainability folks!) and we don't know where or how it was manufactured (ethics, fair trading and again - sustainability)

3. Clay - Clay is a naturally occurring material, which can be ethically and locally sourced depending on where you are. However, clay can be more difficult for some children (particularly younger children) to work with, though it is extremely valuable in developing fine motor skills and muscles. 


So, how do we know what to do? How do we make choices about what children can use in their play? 

This is where it becomes obvious just how important reflective practice is. As educators, we have a responsibility to consider a variety of perspectives and ideas, and not to just put a blanket ban or rule in place. If a service were to say "no food in play", then I would expect not to see any home made playdough, or sensory materials (rice, flour, cornflour goop etc) in use. I would also question the use of water in play, given that water is such a precious resource, particularly to those in drought ravaged communities or countries where clean water is not available. 

See - this is where it get's tricky! Is there a right decision? I don't know. Is there a right decision for each service? I think there is. Should that decision remain the same until the end of time? No, of course not. We need to continually reflect on our practices and the choices that we make about the materials that we use in our setting. 


I'll leave you with a story...

About 18 years ago now, Tash and I were working in a preschool room. A large part of our program was tending to the veggie garden. Each afternoon, during our quieter time, the children would feed and water the gardens, plant new crops and harvest the produce. For some reason or another, we decided to plant a pumpkin vine. Did we know that the pumpkin vine would spread like wildfire? Uh, no. But, spread it did. We ended up with plenty of pumpkins too. One day, we spotted a pumpkin that had been hidden under the vine and was well grown but not at it's best for eating. We decided to place the pumpkin on a table in the room. The children spent the next day or so looking at the pumpkin, talking about it, feeling it and questioning why it was there. Some children drew pictures of the pumpkin. A day or two later, we placed a few knives (safe ones, in a service that had a commitment to risk!) on the table with the pumpkin. "Why are there knives?" some children asked. "Why do you think they might be there?" we responded. 

Eventually, someone took the plunge and cut into the pumpkin. For days (perhaps even weeks) they cut and carved the pumpkin - exploring the texture, the seeds, the smell. It was a rich sensory and exploratory experience, and quite a simple one. But, it used a food product. When thinking about providing this experience, we did ask ourselves if it was appropriate to play with food. But, as we rationalised it - the pumpkin wasn't going to be eaten, surely it was better for it to be explored, to be used as a provocation for children's learning  (and then added to the compost bin or worm farm), than to be wasted?


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