Watching children at play can provide clues about when children can master self-feeding and begin family-style meals. By observing toddlers and preschoolers improve their large and small motor skills, caregivers can know what skills children can master or experience at mealtimes and snacks. Observing interactions between children can show their ability to socialize at meal times as well.
Between 18 months-five years of age, children master many different physical skills. Large motor movements become coordinated, making it easier for children to move about quickly and smoothly. The ability to control their bodies gives young children freedom to choose how to move as well as the speed and direction of the movement. Large motor skills also play a role in upper body movements, such as pushing and pulling.
These skills also are a factor at mealtime. Mastering large motor movements makes it possible for young children to participate in mealtime activities, including setting the table, passing plates and bowls, performing basic cooking tasks (such as tearing, mixing, spreading, etc.).
For some children, the ability to move about makes it easier for them to leave the table. Unless mealtimes are supervised, children may walk around with food in their hands and mouths, endangering themselves and others. If some children finish eating before others, you may consider allowing them to leave the table and play quietly in another supervised area of the room, but they should not eat food away from the table.
Next, check out the activities in the sandbox. Watch how the children move the sand from one toy into another, using a shovel to put the sand into a pail or pouring sand from one cup into another. Small motor skills involving the fingers, wrists, and hands facilitate these mechanics of play. Holding crayons or placing puzzle pieces together also requires small muscle control.
Now think about self-feeding skills. The same movements children use in the sandbox, or when painting, help them use spoons, forks and even knives correctly without spilling or hurting themselves. Once young children begin to master skills in the sandbox and other small motor skills, they can start to pour--although they do best when given small containers to pour from and wide containers to pour into. They also can begin to serve themselves from bowls of food. Use appropriately-sized serving utensils to make this easier.
Learning when children master these small motor skills is essential to planning family-style meals. Family meal service provides children with opportunities to determine how much and which foods to eat. Many nutritionists believe preschoolers can regulate their food intake when they are able to serve themselves. Self-regulation of food is critical to prevent overeating and inappropriate weight gain.
Although preschoolers are certainly neater than they were as early feeders, they can still be messy. And a child's fingers often are still the utensils of choice. Children need frequent and gentle reminders about using utensils.
In the play area, watch children interact with each other. In many childcare settings, the younger children tend to play independently from others even while all the children are sitting together. The older preschoolers may be so intent on what they are doing (painting, building, etc.), they do not talk with each other.
As children mature, they begin to interact with each other. They negotiate which toys each child can play with, how much time each child can spend with a toy, where to sit, who to sit next to, whether they wish to talk or be quiet, and who goes first, among other things. Many times these exchanges are peaceful, while often they are not.
Now watch these same children around the table. When the children are very hungry, they often ignore the others and focus completely on their food. As little social beings, once their hunger is satisfied, they may spend much of the mealtime talking with their friends or the staff. Mealtime can be a great social experience for adults as well as children. Be aware that not all children will crave the social time, however, and may prefer to eat quietly.
Socialization includes communicating with actions as well as with words. Passing plates and bowls, waiting for a turn, listening to others, meeting others' needs--all of these social skills are mastered at the table. Mealtimes and snack times can be ideal times for caregivers (and parents) to concentrate on improving children's socialization.
Between the ages of two-four years, children begin to increase their vocabulary, talk about their experiences, identify objects including their names and how they work, and become extremely interested in their environment. They also learn the names of their body parts and how these parts work. Children love to dress up and pretend they are someone else. When adults notice that young children are interested in these things, it is the right time to begin teaching them about food and nutrition. They can begin to learn which foods are good for their bodies and why, and begin to make healthy choices.
While young children learn the names of foods in their own environment, they also can learn about foods from other cultures. When playing pretend, children can use the foods from other cultures as part of their story. Preschoolers can use their digging skills to help plant fruits and vegetables and then, while watching the food grow and tending to the garden chores, they can learn about where foods come from, the names of the parts of a plant, and the differences between fruits and vegetables, such as color, texture, shape, size, and taste.
Watching children increase their cognitive skills allows adults to tie together play activities with learning about food and nutrition information. Connecting play to mealtimes often helps children to feel more comfortable with new foods--maybe they will even try a vegetable that they grow but would not eat before!
Mealtimes are occasions when children and staff come together and share their day and their food. By watching children at play, caregivers can observe what they can do at the table and help to make mealtime a social time and a time to improve motor skills.
Madeleine Seigman-Grant, PhD, RD
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Las Vegas, NV
Arizona Dept. of Health Services, www.hs.state.az.us/phs/ocshcn/publications/self_feeding_skills.htm
University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/nutrpeds/fug/feeding.htm
West Virginia University, www.ced.wvu.edu/Programs/child_development/feeding_and_swallowing/selffeed.htm
Food and Nutrition Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2351; 301-504-5719; www.nal.usda.gov/childcare