11/14/2012 04:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of Playing With Healthy Food


Even though I've been an educator for 40 years, observing my husband Bill making whimsical and healthy food with our 5 1/2-year-old granddaughter is a powerful reminder of the importance of having fun while learning. The research in neuroscience shows that one's emotional state has an impact on learning and seeing it in action makes the research come alive. We all learn better in a joyful atmosphere. It's entertaining and educational to create a fun and nutritious meal or snack with a child. It expands the child's appreciation for good healthy food while also developing essential cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills. Best of all, the emotionally satisfying activity will consolidate the learning into memory.


Learning about nutrition

In the midst of preparing some imaginary creature, you might mention that the healthy foods you are shaping are good for your body. A simple explanation of the value of the food group, such as "milk and cheese build strong bones and help us move our muscles." Or, "fruits and vegetables have lots of vitamins and minerals that help us have strong bones and blood and keep our eyes and skin healthy." Even a three-year-old can understand and appreciate the importance of eating well.


Developing cognitive skills

The concept of seeing fun images in the food develops and supports symbolic thinking. Oatmeal can be shaped to look like a bird. It is a symbolic representation of a bird and it is still oatmeal -- an early literacy skill that is absorbed in an informal way. Making images together is a perfect time to introduce new words and develop organizational skills. In future blogs, I'll share ways to help kids focus and plan. Of course, the first thing to learn is when and where it is okay to play with food. Bill started making funny foods for our granddaughter when she was about 18 months old. She understood and enjoyed the concept of a fruit becoming a person. By the age of three Daniela was telling Bill what she wanted, and then she helped make it. Her eye-hand coordination was refined and she was able to control her muscles and use a fork and spoon comfortably. Now she creates her own delicious and wacky food plates.


Daniela creates her own delicious and wacky food plate.


Daniela's Funny Food Art creation.

Cut up fruits and cheeses are good ingredients for making amusing snacks that kids will enjoy eating. Kids are more willing to try new foods if they are involved in preparing them. Young children are already establishing food preferences and it's an important time to have good healthy snacks and meals. Good eating habits don't just happen -- they are taught.

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