Sensory Food Play for Toddlers
By Dawn Winkelmann, M.S, CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist & Feeding Specialist for ezpz
Sensory food play is important because it helps your toddler engage with their senses to help with future learning. And when sensory play is focused on food, it becomes even more stimulating because food (and mealtime) is the ultimate sensory experience!
Playing with Food: Playing with food is usually not considered a good thing by parents, but it is important for toddlers to explore and play with food. Why? It is natural for little ones to be cautious of new things, especially a new food.
- Explore: When we let kids explore and play with food, it gives them an opportunity to get to know their food and become comfortable with it (before they taste and eventually eat it).
- Stress Relief: Some toddlers are anxious about unfamiliar foods, and sensory play provides them with some much-needed relaxation when faced with the overwhelming sensory experience of a new food. Smashing, squishing, poking and rolling the food can provide stress relief as well as teach them how that food might feel in their mouth (and they just might try it!).
- Tube-Fed Toddlers: Even if your child is being tube-fed (not primarily eating by mouth), they can still discover the fun aspects of food and enjoy sensory play with their other senses. In these challenging cases, where children have difficulty with the most fundamental aspects of feeding, parents can still see feeding progress through sensory play.
Food Play Rules: Of course, there is a time and place for playing with food. It’s up to you what rules and boundaries you set for this developmental process. If you are worried about the mess, make a rule about that. If you are concerned about the expense, have limits about that too. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Mess: Help your toddler manage their mess with consistent directions and rules. For example, say, “Our sensory play stays on the mat.” Just remember, the goal is for your kids to develop positive feelings and connections with their food…so let them have a little fun (and let the Happy Mat, Mini Mat or Play Mat capture all of the mess!).
- Clean Up Tools: Have your cleanup tools on hand when gearing up for sensory food play. I have a bin with the following items: baby wipes, sponge, apron, miniature handheld broom and dustpan, paper towels, cleaning spray and a lint roller. Keeping organized when a small spill occurs is key to keeping your sanity during sensory food play.
- Expenses: Most of my sensory food play items I buy in bulk (e.g., rice, pasta, yogurt, food coloring, sprinkles, beans, cereal, applesauce, cheese, etc.), which saves money in the long run. I often shop at the dollar store for canned food items (peas, pears, fruit cups, etc.). Also, I use items I receive for free at fast food restaurants (ketchup packets, straws, ranch dressing and other dipping containers).
Sensory Food Play Skills: When a toddler is engaged in food play they are stimulating their senses for learning. Here are examples of some of the additional skills they are developing during their sensory exploration:
- Fine motor skills (pincer grasp, scooping)
- Mealtime skills (pouring, tasting)
- Gross motor skills (reaching, sitting)
- Language skills (food vocabulary, following directions)
- Play skills (solitary play, imaginary play)
- Social skills (manners, turn taking)
What are some of your favorite ways to engage your toddler in sensory play? Which food is your go-to for food play fun? Are you using our feeding product for sensory food play? Show us your pics using our hashtags #ezpzfun #myezpzmat!
Dawn Winkelmann (M.S, CCC-SLP) is ezpz’s Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist. She has 26 years of experience teaching parents and medical professionals how to start babies on solids safely and encourage toddlers to overcome picky eating. In addition, “Ms. Dawn” is the designer of our award-winning Tiny Cup & Tiny Spoon (for infants) and the Mini Cup + Straw Training System & Mini Utensils (for toddlers).