Fun with Food!
by Stacy M. Turke
on the On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog
When I was growing up, mom insisted that we could not play with our food. I’d bet lots of you heard that growing up, too. As a kid, I never really understood why “playing” with my food was a problem, as long as I ate it and didn’t make too much of a mess at the dinner table. I understood that Mom didn’t want us to waste food, certainly, and she wanted to be sure that we had adequate nutrition. But what was the problem if my carrot sticks first became a “paintbrush” to make designs in the ketchup that was inevitably on my plate?
And now I’m a School OT and I encourage playing with food! There are so many reasons to try using food items in non-traditional ways with kids, and all of them are fun. So this month we answer the question: Should I let my kids play with food?
The answer: Yes! Yes you should!
Working With Food For Fun
This summer, I am working in a school setting that provides Extended School Year services to students from all over our county. One group of children on the Autism Spectrum have goals that focus on visual-motor development, ranging from using both hands together to complete a task (bilateral hand skills) to writing their first names from memory. I could grab the crayons, paints, and playdoh and create a fun task that would address the kids’ goals. And that would be fine. But because I know that several of the children have significant limitations in what they will eat, I decided that this summer we would address goals through the use of food items. And so far we’ve had FUN!
It is important to point out that while we are using food as the medium, the actual “eating” of the food for this group of students is a secondary goal. In fact, we do not even mention eating with them unless they indicate in some way that they want to munch on the materials. We want to reduce anxiety around food for our students who are very limited in their food tolerances, and we stress the process rather than the product. While it’s not always possible, I try to avoid working in the same area where the kids normally eat to differentiate this from snack or mealtime. We fully allow tasting the materials; and if any of the students want to eat more than a taste, we keep handy a visual that says “First work then eat” so they know that actual snacking can happen when the work part of the task is finished.
Fun Food Projects To Try
Last week, we created Fruit Kabobs with a 4th of July slant. I found the idea on Pinterest. (How did we ever function before Pinterest?) We loaded bamboo skewers with blueberries and added a watermelon star at the top. After making these cute kabobs, we recreated them on paper. This was a really simple process for the students, all of whom could participate with minimal adult support. In advance, I prepped the watermelon by slicing it into thin slices so that each child could have their own piece. I made one sample skewer, giving my students a visual prompt they could use as their model. The kids used star-shaped cookie cutters and pressed them into the watermelon slice to make the stars. And then we put them together. Really that simple.
And what therapeutic benefits did the students receive? Well, for starters…
- Great sensory input including tactile, olfactory (smell), visual, and taste (for those who braved tasting!)
- Motor planning while completing the observed tasks
- Completing multi-step tasks from a model
- Bilateral hand practice when placing the blueberries onto the skewer
- Eye-hand coordination, not only while placing the blueberries onto the skewer, but also when we recreated them on paper
- Visual tracking and eye-gaze shift while “stringing” and referencing the model
Another task we completed this summer was Pudding Painting. As a group, we made pudding from an instant pudding mix and added blue food color to make it resemble the color someone might use to paint a water scene. We used a little more milk than the recipe called for so that the texture was closer to paint. Wow, did we have fun! While the pudding set in the refrigerator, the kids glued a pre-cut yellow circle onto the top of a piece of paper then added vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines around the “sun” to resemble sun rays. And then we “painted” the blue water on the bottom of the page using fingers or pretzels as our “paintbrushes” and a simple paper plate as their paint palette. Such a simple task, yet so many therapeutic benefits!
Adaptations For Making Messy Play Fun
Playing with food can be messy, and for many kids that is half the fun! But what can you do if your child doesn’t tolerate messy play? Well, just offer some simple tools and accommodations! For example,
- If finger-painting is the focus but your child won’t get his or her hands into the pudding, grab a painting tool. You might need to start with a long-handled paint brush so the child can see that there is almost no chance of getting his or her fingers messy. Move to a shorter handled tool once the longer one is easily tolerated. Maybe even introduce a small truck or car to make wheel marks on paper or across a cookie sheet. Or how cute would it be to make footprints with small plastic animals?!
- A specific example of an accommodation made with this summer’s group of children allowed a child to work slowly toward tolerating portions of the task. One of my students did NOT want to hold the blueberry at first, so loading them onto the skewer was frustrating for him. Instead of making this a frustrating bilateral task, we allowed him to stab the blueberry on the plate and then an adult helped him move it down the skewer. After doing a bunch that way, this little guy eventually tried to move a couple down the skewer himself using one hand to hold the stick and the other to hold the blueberry. (Hint: that made it a bilateral task!) He was still addressing so many therapeutic goals by stabbing the blueberries, and eventually was able to tolerate the whole task.
- Allow the child to wear plastic gloves if those are tolerated but messes are not.
- Keep paper towels or wipes handy, and reassure your students that washing hands is always an option.
Before you begin using foods as a medium for therapy, it is important that you know if your students have any food allergies or restrictions. Even if you believe you know for sure that a child won’t try eating whatever you are using, you must be sensitive to cultural or religious food exclusions, and certainly stay away from any food items to which your students are sensitive or allergic. If you are unsure, communicate with the families of your students before embarking on fun with food.
However you play, make sure it is a fun and no-pressure environment, and you will ALL have a good time!
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.
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