The old scold, “don’t play with your food!” isn’t very useful advice for toddlers. When Baby has mashed potatoes in their ears, is sitting in a puddle of soup pooling in their highchair, or when there’s ground turkey being flung on the floor, sure, you may hesitate to see the silver lining in such a mess, but there are a number of benefits to toddlers playing with their food, so hold that washcloth!
It opens up a world of learning right there in Baby‘s high chair
Babies – and grownups for that matter – learn by doing, which is called experiential learning. As Baby plays, they will learn to smash, pour, and mix; poke, mash, and organize; roll, stir, and drop. As they do all of this smashing and mashing, some of this “learning by doing” will also help them learn about different foods, shapes, even cause and effect as they answers important questions like, “What happens if I squish this strawberry under my cup?” Really, that mess equals major learning!
It stimulates the senses
Babies and toddlers are tactile learners, meaning they learn by touch, so they’ll want to touch a lot to learn a lot. As Baby plays with and touches their food, they will learn to squish those peas between their fingers, feel how the crunch of an apple is different than the squish of a blueberry in their mouth, and understand that pasta is warm while ice cream is cold. And, of course, as they play with their food – and (hopefully!) eats some of it too – they will get to explore varied colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It’s a sensory smorgasbord!
It could help your little one not be a picky eater
Getting to do all this exploration helps little ones become more familiar with different kinds of foods. This, in turn, can help them become more adventurous eaters. Some studies have shown that children who play with their food are less likely to be picky and less hesitant to try new foods and flavors. They are also more likely to eat a varied diet.
Children who are allowed to play with fruits and vegetables are also – surprise! – much more likely to eat them. If Baby wants to stack those apple slices on top of their sippy cup, let them! They may just be that much more likely to put them into their mouth, too.
It could have language and cognitive benefits
Research links toddlers playing with their food to increased word-learning. A higher vocabulary is also often connected with better executive function – which are the mental processes that help a person focus their attention, remember instructions, and juggle tasks – something that Baby will definitely need to be able to do as they get older.
Letting your little one enjoy getting messy in certain situations – like while sitting in their high chair, for example – also helps with general thinking and motor skills. Stirring mashed strawberries in yogurt, for example, will help Baby learn how just how the color pink gets made, and how to stir better too!
It will help build self-control
Remember that detail about improved executive function? This actually means that better table manners are on the way, because improved executive function helps with self-regulation.
Now that Baby is getting bigger, if the mealtime mess moves from their direct eating space and veers into food fight territory, it’s okay to introduce some gentle instruction in basic table manners, like, “Hey, so when you fling a full bowl of tomato soup against the wall, you might not immediately get another full bowl of tomato soup.”
If you start to teach your little one that, “Yes, you can smash your peas on their highchair tray, but, no, you can’t throw them against the wall,” they will eventually learn as much, because they is getting big enough to get familiar with what it means for you to set boundaries – just don’t expect Baby to follow these instructions right away, since learning these things takes time. Toddlers are still learning the basics of self-control and table manners, after all. (And some of us never learn the more advanced lessons, like just what that extra fork is for.)
And if you notice a pattern, like a lot of the mess happening at the end of a meal when Baby seems to have already eaten their fill – like, say, they are throwing their remaining carrots on the floor when they have already eaten plenty – it can be helpful to respond to these cues and end the meal before the mess gets too out of hand. One of the keys to teaching good manners is to keep bad manners from becoming a habit, after all. You might ask Baby to please tell you when they‘s finished eating so you can clear their remaining food away, without the carrot confetti.
It will help toddlers learn how to feed themselves
Remember that first item on the list – experiential learning? All of this “learning by doing” has a big payoff. With improved motor skills, cognitive skills, and self-control, Baby will be better and better able to feed themself! It might be messy in the meantime, but there is an end in sight. Baby will have good table manners in no time – and might even eventually learn what that extra fork is for, even if you haven’t.
It always helps to keep things positive
Why might you want to keep calm while things are getting messy? If you react negatively to Baby playing with their food, they might start to have negative associations with food. If, on the other hand, you let Baby play with their food in a positive and supportive environment, then they'll form more positive associations – after all, mealtime means they get to eat yummy food while they play, explores, and learns! What could be better than that?
If you’re able to look at Baby’s pea-covered face (and their yogurt-smeared hair, and that tomato sauce-speckled floor) as less of a mess that needs to be immediately cleaned and more as some amazing learning taking place, you may be that much more able to actually enjoy watching Baby play, so save that washcloth until the end of the meal, and try to breath easy knowing just how much good they is getting out of playing time during meal time. Let Baby eat cake! And let them smash their face into that cake while they&;s at it!
- Helen Coulthard, Dipti Thakker. “Enjoyment of Tactile Play Is Associated with Lower Food Neophobia in Preschool Children.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 115(7): 1134-1140. July 2015. Retrieved August 8 2017. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267215002221.
- Lynn K. Perry, Larissa K. Samuelson, Johanna B. Burdinie. “Highchair philosophers: the impact of seating context-dependent exploration on children’s naming biases.” Developmental Science. 17(5): 757-765. September 2014. Retrieved August 8 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040339/.
- “Executive function & self-regulation.” Center on the Developing Child. The President and Fellows of Harvard University. Retrieved August 8 2017. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/.