Yep, seriously. For many kids, food exploration begins with just learning to tolerate messy hands and faces. Many parents who bring their kids to feeding therapy have one goal in mind: Eating. In fact, as a pediatric feeding therapist, a common phrase I hear when observing families at their dinner tables is, “Quit playing with your food and just eat it!”
What parents may not understand is that the child is not avoiding food—the child is experiencing it. For the hesitant eater, this may be where a child needs to start. The palms of our hands and our fingers are rich with nerve endings, but the mouth has even more. Playing with food provides the child with information about size, texture, temperature and the changing properties of food as little hands squish and squash, pat and roll, or just pick up and let go: splat!
Here are three silly ways to play in food! Give it a try—some of it just may end up in your child’s mouth in the process. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry. Learning to be an adventurous eater takes time and the most important part of the journey is keeping it fun!
- Pudding Car Wash: For kids who can’t tolerate the feel of purees, learning to play in a consistently smooth puree, like chocolate pudding, is the preliminary step to eventually playing in more textured foods, like mashed cauliflower. The key is water. Most kids who hate to get messy enjoy water play, for obvious reasons. If they can’t tolerate water play, then that’s the place to start, and eventually they will progress to pudding. You’ll need:
- Cookie sheet
- 2 large bowls—one filled with water and soap bubbles and the other with clean water
- Small toy cars
- Chocolate pudding
- It’s simple! Dump some “mud” (chocolate pudding) on the cookie sheet and you now have a “muddy run raceway” to drive through till the cars are coated! Pushing a toy car through the mud is much easier than just playing in the mud with a bare hand. The bigger the car, the easier it is to tolerate the sensation, because less mud gets on the hesitant child’s hand. Plop the car in the “wash” (the soap bubble water) and then fish it out. Plop it in the clear water and begin again. The water adds a bit of relief for the kids who are tactilely defensive, but the fun of driving the cars through the mud provides the reinforcement for getting messy. Warning: This could go on all day—kids love it!
- Variation: Use plastic animals and wash the entire zoo!
- Ice Pop Stir Sticks: For kids who cannot tolerate icy-cold in their mouths, add cups of water to take off the chill. There is a significant difference between straight-from-the-freezer-frozen and just icy-cold. When fruity ice pops on a stick are dipped in cool water, the surface of the ice pop immediately begins to melt. Now, when your kiddo takes a lick, they’ll lick off just flavored cold water. Keep stirring and the water becomes darker and more flavorful. Add a skinny straw so kids try a taste. Coffee stirrers work well for this, because the narrow diameter of the stir stick allows just the tiniest taste to land on the tongue.
- Hand Print Animal Pictures: I always shudder when I see kids in daycare having to make “hand print” pictures if I know they have sensory challenges including tactile defensiveness. The well-meaning teacher grabs the child’s tiny hand and pushes it into a paper plate of paint before pressing it onto a piece of construction paper to make the infamous hand print, which is later transformed into an animal to be displayed in the classroom. Or, and for some this may be worse, the kids get their hand painted with a tickly paint brush. That can be very upsetting for a child who doesn’t like to get messy. Instead, try starting with the teacher’s own handprint, then encourage the child to use the tip of his index finger or the side of his little thumb to make the eye of the handprint animal. That’s the part of the hand where most kids are willing to tolerate a little mess. Think about how you pick up a slimy worm on the sidewalk…you snag it with just the tip of your index finger and the side of your thumb and then toss it quickly back into your garden. That quick release is key—kids need that too. Over time, they’ll work their way up to making an entire zoo of hand print pictures! Here’s a video that will help you create three African animals—your own handprint safari!
So, the next time you get frustrated with your child for playing in his or her food—think of the child as a little explorer discovering all the properties of food! Encourage it…. it just might lead to a closer food encounter with the mouth!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.