Should We Use Food for Play?

I love giving my kids the opportunity to explore messy and sensory play, and one resource, which is easy to get and relatively cheap to buy, is food. There are number of foods which we use on a semi-regular basis, such as oats, lentils, rice, flour, and cornflour. However, I’m aware that some people consider using food as a play resource to be wasteful, and while I’ve considered this in the past, it’s been on my mind again given the amount of media attention the climate crisis and the Zero Waste movement are currently getting. While I’m not looking to justify my choices, I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts.

A tray of crushed cereal, pompoms, pegs, scoops and tongs.
A Valentines sensory tray with crushed cereal as the base.

The benefits of sensory play

First, let me explain some of the benefits children enjoy by being given opportunities to engage in sensory play. Sensory play:

  • offers sensory input, particularly the sense of touch, smell, and hearing
  • provides opportunities for open-ended exploration
  • promotes an understanding of mathematic and scientific concepts such as gravity, cause and effect, weight, capacity 
  • develops fine motor skills
  • engages children and develops concentration skills

Is it wasteful to use food for play?

Let me start by saying that I’m not keen on waste. Before the days of recycling collections, my Dad could be found composting our food waste; making detours to the various recycling banks to ensure we recycled anything we could; saving any paper he could as scrap; and even collecting other people’s rubbish as he made his way around the village. I can’t say I fully appreciated it at the time, but looking back I realise he’s a bit of a hero, and some of that green, low-waste attitude has certainly rubbed off. 

A number of years ago, when I started to use food for play, I had to pause and have a good think about how I felt about it: should I really be using this precious resource for play? 

I spent quite a long time pondering it, as the idea of wasting food didn’t sit well with me. However, after some thought, I started to reach the conclusion that the food was not, in fact, being wasted. It may not be being eaten, but it’s not being wasted.

The benefits it offers in terms of sensory play simply meant that instead of being used to nourish their bodies, the food was being used to nourish their minds. 

Then, earlier this year, I came across a thread on a Facebook page asking for people’s opinions on this topic. I have to say, I found it really interesting and enlightening to read. As you might expect, there were a number of varied opinions, one of the most common being that this was wasteful and that food shouldn’t be used for play, particularly while so many in the world don’t have enough to eat. While I do understand this point of view, I respectfully disagree. Some people argued that since the food we didn’t use wouldn’t then go to the people who need it, we weren’t helping by not using it. However, there were some other perspectives which I hadn’t previously considered. 

A child is pouring a cornflour and water mixture from one bowl to another.
Cornflour and water tuff spot activity

One person raised the issue of having children in their care who many not get enough to eat, and in this circumstance, I can see that you may well want to steer clear of using food as a resource. However, I do think that some uncooked foods don’t necessarily seem ‘food-like’ (or may not even be recognised as food) and so may still be usable. In addition, children living in poverty may be less likely to get these kind of sensory play experiences at home and so would benefit in other ways.

Other people made the point that using food and then composting it once it’s finished with is preferable to using resources which won’t biodegrade, and is overall less wasteful. Others shared that they minimise waste by asking supermarkets for food which would otherwise be thrown away.

I found it so interesting to read all the different points of view and experiences that people expressed. Having considered them, I do maintain that the benefits of sensory play with food outweighs the issue of wastage. That being said, I think it’s worthwhile minimising waste as far as possible. For this reason, I tend not to use food which can only be used once – or at least, very infrequently. Most of the things we use get bagged up and put away ready for use another time. We’ve got some lentils in our house which have been going strong for a good three years now!

I did also like the point about using food which would otherwise be wasted, and I think it’s definitely worth signing up to any schemes your local supermarkets take part in if you’re in a school or nursery setting, or for individuals, asking friends for any discards or checking local selling sites before going out and buying new. I’ll certainly be doing this next time I’m on the lookout for something.

A tray containing some dried lentils, a miniature watering can and some cardboard plant pots.
A garden themed play tray.

What is the value of play?

As I’ve thought more about it, I’ve also considered that really it comes down to the value we see in play. Yes, food is a precious resource and one we should look after. But it’s not the only precious resource we have which we invest in play – money, for one. The UK spends over £3bn on toys each year, but do we consider that a waste? Or how about the gallons of water used in splash parks, paddling pools, and the water play trays that are practically standard in nurseries and playgroups nationwide. You can’t say that water isn’t a valuable resource, yet we willingly use it for play. Granted, they’re not straight comparisons and I’m not saying that the arguments around food waste are invalid. However, as I’ve said, I do feel the benefits are worthwhile.

Of course, food isn’t the only sensory play resource we have available to us. I thought it might be helpful to include a list of sensory play materials which you might like to use if you’re trying to avoid food. Some of them are low-waste, but not all, and it’s up to you to consider the impact of the materials that you choose.

I hope this post has been helpful in helping you consider some of the pros and cons of using food as a play resource. I’d love to know your thoughts! 

should we use food for play? title image

One Reply to “Should We Use Food for Play?”

  1. Very well thought out. I agree that using food for play is money well spent. It helps to cut back the use expensive plastic toys! and will stretch the imagination far more than some of these. As to waste: that will be minimal compared to the food that is wasted in other areas of our lives: restaurants, airlines, supermarkets and supermarket offers that encourage buying more than you need!

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