Play and exploration are essential to a child’s development. Children use play to learn about their environment and the different sensory experiences that make up that environment. Just as playtime is important throughout the day for children, it also is important during mealtime.
Eating is one of the most sensory intense activities a person can do. As a developing child, playing and exploring with food is the best way to become familiar and comfortable with it. According to Kay Toomey, PhD and the creator of the Sequential Oral Sensory Approach to Feeding, there are several steps children need to take before they are comfortable eating foods.
They need to have the ability to tolerate the food in their space and begin interacting with it before moving sequentially up to smelling, tasting and eating. Eating requires more than putting food in one’s mouth, chewing and swallowing. One must have the sensory organization to tolerate the smell, look, texture and taste in and around oneself on top of the oral motor skills to chew and eat.
First Eating, Then Manners
What is the best way for a child to move through these steps and learn about food? By playing! As a child picks up, throws, smashes, licks and spits out food, they are learning about that food and what skills are required to eat it.
Don’t worry about getting messy. Toomey states, “Eating comes first, then comes manners.” By allowing children to play and learn, they gain the skills necessary to eat through a positive experience. Feeling comfortable with the food on their hands and face is essential to feeling comfortable with how it will feel in their mouth. You wouldn’t jump into a pool without testing the temperature of the water first, would you?
If you force children to jump in before they’re ready, negative connotations can develop. It may be with that particular food or eating in general, which could delay their feeding development. Most of us enjoy eating because it is a sensory fulfilling experience. As children learn about their own sensory systems, they will progress towards positive food experiences in the future.