One of the critical aspects of early childhood education is supporting young children’s ability to self-regulate. This aspect of development has far-reaching effects on children in terms of their ability to be independent, productive, healthy and successful learners. Learning to self-regulate behavior, impulses, physical needs and social interactions is a huge task for our very young citizens, and one that needs to be supported and nurtured. overtime by interested and invested adults. In this blog, I would like to focus on one aspect of self-regulation: while eatingand how we at Mother Duck have evolved in this space over the past 5 years.
Unfortunately, in many early childhood contexts, young children’s ability to begin to self-regulate is rendered problematic by the way these contexts control time. If we think of a typical extended daycare program, in my experience, children are often “herded in” to eat and rest at the same time – and often this task is finished and dusted by 11:30 a.m. – and repeats through the the whole centre, so that staff can start taking their assigned lunch breaks. Now I understand the pragmatics and practicalities of managing staff and their mandatory right to breaks, but I have wondered what interest we serve when we address meal times and rest times with task guidelines too regulated.
To digress for a moment, I will explain why I became so interested in this aspect of early childhood education. For several personal reasons, I had investigated the prevalence of eating disorders. To my horror, I found out that it’s quite common for 13 and 14 year old girls (mostly) to present diagnostic eating disorders in our public health care system AND it is not uncommon for very young children, at 7 and 8 years old, to be on the verge of a similar diagnosis. When we talk about eating disorders, I also want to include the onset of obesity, alongside the more commonly identified eating disorders of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This should be a shocking revelation for the early childhood community – like our team at Mother Duck.
So we started to think about how to build an association with food for young children who attend our early childhood settings. We wondered: are we giving kids a fast-food version of a dining experience (think Formica tables, less-than-friendly service, lots of plastic, dine-in-and-go attitude) or do we offer the children our favorite restaurant? experience (a table prepared for eating, moments with family and friends, real plates and cutlery, the pleasure of eating)?
We discovered that it was, unfortunately, much more the former than the latter. Meal times (including snack times) were usually hourly, dictated by adults. Children were told about morning tea time, lunch time and snack time. Some thought it was in preparation for when they are in school, but I would ask, “How can we help young children know what your body really feels when they are hungry and thirsty, and then be able to respond to that by eating and drinking appropriate amounts?” How can we develop fundamental knowledge in children about the right amount of food to eat, when to have a drink and when your energy level is low? How do you build a culture – from the earliest years – of an appropriate and healthy attitude towards food? It’s a much better “preparation” for eating and drinking at school than a strict routine.
Think of a typical lunchtime scenario in an early childhood setting. Again, if I draw from my experience as a consultant, I had observed children almost every day eating on tables which, a few minutes before, contained the drawing, the modeling clay or the puzzles. A child then had to (after a wipe) sit at the same table, a lunch box in hand, and eat their lunch as quickly as possible in preparation for rest. Or, if lunch is provided by the centre, a plate/bowl (usually plastic) is placed in front of the child where the food is placed by the accompanying adult. The adults rarely sat down and had lunch (or a snack) with the children, instead they hovered over the children with instructions on how to eat, sit, and interact – in other words, the adult imposed rules of engagement for lunchtime.
Eat with relish
At Mother Duck, we asked, “What if we rethink meal and snack options? What if we started to see children’s association with food not just as fuel for the body, but as fuel for the soul as well? And if we borrowed from our colleagues in Reggio Emilia Italy, the city recognized for its high quality contexts for early childhood, and transformed the surfaces on which children experience their meals? “
Few of our establishments had the luxury of a dedicated dining space, so we started building spaces and places where children could enjoy the experience of sharing their meals with others. You can see from the photos above that children and adults at our Mother Duck Lawnton center view mealtimes differently – day to day. Children aged 3 to 5 are now engaged in set the table (one-to-one correspondence), place flowers or found objects as centerpieces (aesthetic) and light candles (understanding the risk) for promote discussion (communication) and help each other serve their meals and pour water from teapots (empathy and kindness). Besides, small groups of children get together to share a meal (conviviality), rather than the whole group – which is a particularly attractive idea when you can have up to 60 children sharing a space!
The photo below is from the Reggio Children’s book (2008) The languages of food which explores the possibility of an “educational intervention” in young children’s relationship with food. The educators of Reggio will say that “it is no longer possible to sit at the table without paying attention to the quality of the food – the healthiness; security; origin of the products; amount of fats and sugars; variety” (p.10) and the possibility of creating a link between children and food.
At other Mother Duck facilities that do not have a prepared kitchen, children are asked to select enough food (self-regulation) of their lunch boxes according to “the feeling of hunger in their belly” and place them on a ceramic plate on the outside tables that the children have prepared. Fresh flowers or herbs are used to adorn tables and tablecloths or place mats are used “transform the surface” to eat. As you can see below at our Mother Duck Eatons Hill location, all centers now have small glasses where children can take their own glass of water at the coffee machine. At our Mother Duck Wynnum center, a fruit bowl is always available for the kids to eat with a friend – split an apple or have a whole fruit for yourself – if your belly tells you that’s what it needs!
It is quite possible that with a renewed look at the place of food in the life of an early childhood environment, we have started a professional cultural path for educators at Mother Duck… and by cultural, I mean the ability to creating rituals and traditions around food and eating. Our educators have reflected on the value they place on a sense of community, a sense of friendships, how young children can be welcomed into a dining space and, as our colleagues in Reggio Emilia suggest, be the provocateurs who “act as an antidote to the banality” of eating in school settings (Reggio Children, 2008, p. 26). Our educators seriously consider the long-term impacts on how eating and other routines are “managed in their environment and I believe we have started a revolution called “Eating with delight!”
Food for thought!