Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Don't Play With Your Food!"

When we were young, adults would threaten, "You'll eat it and you'll like it," when children recoiled at a meal, to which we learned to respond, "I'll eat it, but I won't like it." Sometimes an adult would remind us that there were children starving in China (it was always China), to which we learned to respond by offering to mail our uneaten food to those starving children. I was never a particularly picky eater, but many of my friends were, so these are conversations I mostly heard around their dinner tables. There was, however, an expectation in my family that we clean our plates, the rationale being that to do otherwise was wasteful.

Perhaps the most common adult caution around food, however, was the universal scold, "Don't play with your food!" And it's true, I and most kids I knew, played with our food. Eating corn on the cob, for instance, was a kind of game in which some of us ate it round-and-round in a spiral, while others went side. We would eat faces into our pancakes. Spitting watermelon seeds was almost a sport. Orange peel smiles have never gone out of vogue. And spaghetti was an endless amusement with all the twirling and slurping and pretending they were worms or brains or hair.

And the adults would say, "Don't play with your food!"

At Woodland Park, our sensory table is often filled with rice or beans or seeds or corn meal. We have play dough available almost every day, we use paper mache paste, and the food that grows in our gardens is as likely to be used as a plaything as it is to be eaten. Some programs have banned food play. Their reasoning varies, but from what I can tell, most of it boils down the same basic idea that children somewhere are starving and to play with food is a kind of insensitivity to their suffering. I'm as concerned about starving children as the next person, but this food we play with, just as the food we left on our dinner plates uneaten, is not food we are taking from their mouths and it is a lie, albeit well-intended, when we tell children otherwise. I understand that the goal is to cause children to think about those who are less fortunate, but to hold their own good fortune out as something about which to feel guilt or shame, is something I think we ought not to do to children. Most kids have enough innate empathy to feel for the plight of starving children without these sorts of ham-fisted attempts to drive the point home through guilt and shame.

Indeed, from where I sit, children must play with their food, just as they must play with everything that is a part of their lives. Playing with the "stuff" with which they are surrounded is how children deepen their understanding of their world, and to forbid their inquiries is akin to commanding them to stop asking questions.

The preschoolers I teach don't eat meals at school, but we do offer snacks in the form of fruits and vegetables. The snack table is like any other "station" in our classroom, one of the places a child may opt to play. Most of their play around food involves the joy of simply sitting around the table together, dining, chatting, joking, and generally enjoying the company of others in the spirit of eat, drink, and be merry. But, you know, sometimes we have to put olives on the ends of each of our fingers before eating them one-by-one. Sometimes the food on our plate does look like a face. Sometimes a banana peel must be worn as a hat. Sometimes food is better used for something other than eating.

And those orange peel smiles are still, as always, a joy to behold.

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