We've all heard it said "Don't play with your food!" Many of us have even said it to our own children. But the truth is, playing with food is actually a great opportunity for learning, as well as developing strong fine motor skills and pincer grasp.
According to a study of toddler's eating habits out of the University of Iowa, kids who throw, squish, poke, prod, or smash their food are actually learning while they play. The study suggests that messy eaters may be faster and better learners over the long run.
Published in the journal Developmental Science, the study observed how a group of 72 toddlers learned to identify nonsolid foods such as oatmeal, applesauce, and milk. The researchers found that the children who played with each substance tended to learn words associated with the items more quickly than those who didn’t. This idea is supported by a recent study which found that toddlers who play with their food are more likely to try new things and eat a more varied diet.
Researchers said that the study indicated how behavior and context are both important factors in the development of a child’s early vocabulary. They added this sort of early learning may be linked to improved cognitive development later in the child’s life.
Another fine motor skill for your toddler to master is using a spoon or fork, correctly. Show your child how you hold your eating utensils and then help them learn by placing their fingers in the right position.
By preschool or age 4, your child is probably holding and using a spoon or fork the correct way. Now, introduce some new food skills―using toothpicks for things like berries, grapes, or sliced bananas. This is a little challenging, since they will need to use both hands to get the toothpicks in―but they’ll love it! Use tweezers or tongs to pick up beans, melon balls, or peanuts. Have them use their spoon to scoop sugar, scoop sticky food that won't easily fall off, such as pudding, rice cereal, yogurt, etc. Have them use their fork to "carry" a scoop of mashed potatoes. Let them use their butter knife to slice into a cube of soft butter, scrambled eggs, jello, etc., or spread frosting on cookies, or peanut butter on a pine cone to feed the birds.
Developing Pincer Grasp
When a baby first tries to pick up food from their tray, they start by raking at the food with their fingers and possibly succeeding in getting ahold of some food in a grasp with the food positioned between the palm and the fingers. As the child develops and practices, the raking of the food moves towards the index finger, and eventually becomes a pincer grasp (after it has moved through the scissor grasp, lateral grasp, etc.).
A great way to develop the pincer grasp is by putting finger foods (cereal, raisins, cooked pasta, etc.) into a muffin tin so that fingers must be used to get the food out of the tin. Other good pincer grip activities are stringing Fruit Loops or Cheerios onto pipe cleaners as worms, stringing pasta onto a string to make pasta jewelry, sorting finger food into sorting cups, or having your child pick off cereal stuck to a surface with pudding, peanut butter, etc.
So when your child starts playing with their food, don't discourage her! You'd be missing out on some great learning opportunities, and possibly a lot of fun! Remember―it's okay to play with your food!