Is there more to meal times than food?
Yes there is! According to the PSC Alliance (e-newsletter, July 2012) “Whilst meal times provide a break from play, they are not a break from learning.” In their view we should be putting as much time into planning for learning at meal times as we do for other activities.
I guess the most obvious learning focus for meal times is healthy eating and nutrition, and I think we are doing pretty well here. In order to meet the requirements of the NQF, services need to have a nutrition policy in place. Even when food comes from the child’s home, we are required to ensure they are healthy and nutritious. So, I think it’s highly likely our food offerings are sound (even if some of our children are reluctant to embrace our healthy menus).
So what other learning might happen during mealtimes? The PSC Alliance suggests involving children in creating a visually appealing mealtime environment. Children could pick flowers and put them in vases to go on the tables, have input into the arrangement of tables, and also be involved in selecting mealtime music (Element 1.1.6). Children can also assist with counting out cutlery, bowls and cups, and Educators might also talk about the colours of the utensils and placemats (Element 1.1.3).
I wonder if the less obvious and potentially overlooked mealtime learning opportunities involve relationships and communication skills. With younger children this might involve arranging highchairs so that the babies are facing each other and can interact.
With older children meal times might be a time to ask open-ended questions. The answers to these questions might then be used to inform the curriculum. During these discussions we might find out about food preferences and even cultural differences involving food and the way different families approach meal times (Principle 4: Cultural Diversity). If we find out that some of our children serve their own food at home from share plates, could we introduce share plates in our service?
For all of this learning to happen, we need to take the time to stop and sit with children at mealtimes. In the fast paced early learning environment, we may feel pressure to rush mealtimes in order to get on with our planned experiences and observations. However, if we view mealtimes as being an important part of the curriculum, maybe we can give ourselves permission to stop and smell the flowers on the table… Food for thought anyway (pun intended).