She said I should encourage Graham to play with his food. I was floored. Food isn't something we play with! Wouldn't this make it even harder for him to eat? He was already on the edge of thriving and I was anxious about the small amount of food he took in on a daily basis. However, I was also desperate so I decided to hear her out. She told me playing with food can help children learn about it and build a relationship with food. It can increase their enjoyment of eating- which is a fairly social activity in our society. When there are so many rules and expectations set around food, eating can be anxiety provoking.
When I took time to consider the expectations I set in other areas, I realized I could easily accept this new schema for eating. Play is how children learn. Tasting, touching, feeling, looking at, smelling, hearing... We use all of our senses to explore everything. So I changed my ways at home, and begun to re-evaluate the way that I set expectations at TPH.
The first thing that is important to me during a meal is safety. We sit in our chairs while we eat and we ask for bowls of food to be passed to us. This way we decrease the odd of falling out of our chair or knocking something over. Not only is this expectation born out of necessity, but it's realistic and concrete. The children can see a definite cause and effect. They also want to keep our dishes from breaking and themselves for falling so they tend to self correct these behaviors with little intervention.
A second rule for while we eat is eating what we've taken before getting more. For example, all of the kids absolutely love it when we have bananas. Many times, they'd love to eat the entire bowl themselves. Again here this rule comes from necessity. It's important in our community that everyone gets a banana. Eating what you've taken and waiting before grabbing more also helps us to have a chance to feel full and make sure we are still hungry for more. Waiting reduces food waste and leaves food for those who are hungry for more.
Knowing what the rules are during eating is only part of it, though. As teachers we aim to create a self correcting community. Our rules are here because each of the children values them as well. For example, Rio and I rarely speak up if a child takes too much food. Often another child will notice and say aloud, "You took most of the bowl of cereal. Now there's not much left for the rest of us." This is the ideal for Rio and me. We want the children to explore freely and work with one another to establish the rules and routines that work best for our community as a whole. Sometimes the children create rules around something Rio and I would never have thought to limit, but if that works for everyone it sticks around.
The other way that we "teach manners" is by modeling the behaviors we want to see ourselves. We sit at the table with the children while we eat. We try a little of each thing at the table- barring any dietary restrictions. Modeling, a reliable routine and structure to meal times, and a self correcting community all work together to help establish rules and manners around eating together. This is what part of being a community is: figuring out how to work, live, and play with one another. Eating is simply one form of that.