Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

October 10, 2015

5 Reasons Why Kids SHOULD Play with Their Food & How to Help Them

By: Heidi Liefer Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, CLC
  1. Play is the way kids learn.
  2. Play and experience builds the brain – the more you interact with food (or anything), it builds connections that will provide more processing power about that subject.
  3. Positive experience allows the senses to acclimate to the touch, feel, smell, or sight of whatever they are experiencing.
  4. Independent play builds interest, confidence, and motivation.
  5. Play allows for kids to learn about variety – bumpy/smooth, hard/squishy, cold/warm.

Whether the goal is greater variety or simply any oral intake at all, play is an important step.  Kids are born explorers, but some are naturally more cautious of new or messy experiences.  Little ones who have motor deficits, medical limitations, or fearful past experiences with food are especially likely to need some help and encouragement to get started.  Unfortunately, many adults are better with structured “activities” and have a hard time with play, especially messy play.  If free play doesn’t come naturally to you, here are some ideas to get you started.  It will be messy, so go outside, put a drop cloth down, put on some old clothes and roll up your sleeves. Clean up can come at the end, so you don’t disrupt the creative “flow.”

Getting Started

  1. food eat eating spaghetti sauce pasta noodlesSit securely – Be seated at a table or a small space on the floor, so your child can’t just walk away.
  2. Sit to the side – This interaction is about your child and the food, so make sure the food is front and center.
  3. Start small – If food is new or scary, a lot of pieces will likely be overwhelming; One spoon of pudding, a small tablespoon of peas, a piece of bread should be enough.
  4. Go for visually interesting foods – Consider bright red berries, peas, and blueberries that roll around, and spaghetti noodles that you can drag like a snake.
  5. Add props — Consider a fun bowl to drop things in. A toothpick or cocktail fork can spear things (depending upon the age of your child for safety reasons).  Slightly older kids might like a small truck to drive through the pudding “mud.”  As they become interested, try to remove the tools quietly to allow for more “hands-on” play.

Jump right in!

  1. Model play – Make it look like fun!  If you add sound effects and place pieces within their reach, it will allow them to come to it on their own.  Let them start when they are ready.  If you sit next to them, rather than across from them, the activity of your hands will get more attention than your face, and keep the focus on the food.
  2. Drive it – Pretend the chunk of cheese is a car, and drive around the tray.  It is OK to crash and knock over the pile of peas.
  3. Swirl it – Fingerpaint with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Sound effects do help.
  4. Dip it  – Dip food in puree, chocolate sauce or gravy, and use it to dot the paper.  If it looks good, you can lick it off, but don’t expect your child to follow.
  5. Paint it – After you dip, use the food as a brush to paint on the table or tray.
  6. Squeeze it – Consider foods like peas that squish and squeezing out pouches on the tray or even out in the yard!
  7. Drop ‘em – If kids are particularly anxious, they will at least “clean up” by dropping the unwanted foods into a cup.  It is OK to clean up, as long as they pick up the pieces and don’t just swipe the whole tray clean.
  8. Be realistic – The goal is PLAY, not eating.

HAVE FUN!  Sing, make noises, and laugh.  Even if you are just playing with the food for 5 – 10 minutes, that is a good start.  As your child becomes more engaged and self-directed, you can slowly fade out of the activity.  Remember, the purpose of this activity is to have the child engage with the food, so follow the child’s lead rather than making your child follow what you want to do!  Now go get messy!


Greenough, W. T., Black, J. E., & Wallace, C. S. (1987). Experience and brain development. Child development, 539-559.

Whitebread, David, et al. “Play, Cognition and Self-Regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play?.” Educational and Child Psychology 26.2 (2009): 40.

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