A Teacher’s View – Sensory Food Education in the Early YearsFran
Many schools report that children coming out of lockdown have returned to school less healthy than before the pandemic. To help children to become mentally and physically healthier, it is time that food education is brought out of the shadows and placed at the centre of school policy and practice. There is no better way for schools to begin this journey than through the TastEd programme of study.
I was delighted to see that one of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations in the National Food Strategy included teaching sensory food education in the Early Years curriculum. Dimbleby’s Plan says that this teaching method ‘has been shown to increase children’s willingness to try fruits and vegetables’. This certainly chimes with my own experiences as a teacher.
I first came across sensory food education when I was working as an Early Years teacher. Bee Wilson, founder of TastEd, introduced me to a sensory food education scheme of work adapted from a Scandinavian system called SAPERE. Teachers in Finland found that through encouraging young children to explore food using their senses they generated excitement around food which led to children feeling curious about the produce. This curiosity often led to children feeling confident to try new and unfamiliar food and taste a range of new things for the first time. Such was the success of the Sapere approach in helping young children to discover a new relationship with fresh fruit and vegetables, it has now been incorporated into the Finnish national curriculum.
Together Bee and I trialled the early versions of the TastEd lessons, and it was immediately clear that this approach to food education was exciting, fun, yet simple. It has been likened to artefact led teaching, popular amongst museum educators. There are no correct answers, and through asking open questions, children are encouraged to talk about what they can see, smell, touch, hear and taste as teachers bring fresh produce into the classroom each week.
Engagement of all children is high in TastEd lessons, even for those children with a disordered relationship to food. Using fresh produce as a focus for each lesson generates high levels of curiosity and excitement amongst the children. The children learn about the produce by looking, touching, prodding, feeling, sniffing, licking and even listening to the food. It is a truly hands on approach to food education in which learning is doing.
All children, including those with additional needs or English as an additional language are immediately drawn into the discussions about the fresh fruit and vegetables which are laid out before them. Teachers find that some children naturally talk about the food using similes and metaphors, whilst others are happy to use simple vocabulary to describe their experience of the food. All senses generate rich dialogue; the lessons focused on smell seem to prompt children to talk about memories of experiences such as celebrations or festivals and family members, particularly grandparents. There have been many very special TastEd ‘moments’ when children have shared their unique memories. In the midst of a busy classroom these moments are rare and yet so important because they allow children to talk about their cultural heritage which can be affirming and help to create a rich and inclusive classroom ethos.
Central to the TastEd approach are two simple rules: no-one has to try and no-one has to like. These are reinforced at the start of each lesson, giving children agency to decide whether they ultimately taste the food at the end of each session. This is a powerful message: they are in control. However, in my experience, the curiosity and excitement that TastEd lessons generate mean that most of the class feel confident enough to try the produce. My colleagues and I have marvelled at children eating a range of fruit and vegetables, typically disliked by children, includingcelery, cauliflower, and blueberries for the first time. TastEd lessons naturally create a sense of safety and in the company of their friends and in the presence of their trusted teacher, children seem to be brave to ‘have a go’. We explain that if tasting the food feels too challenging, they can touch it, smell it, listen to it and even lick it instead. These alternatives seem to relax the children as they become confident that as teachers, we are not going to coerce them into trying something unfamiliar. In fact, the teacher’s role in a TastEd lesson is to help the children articulate their likes and dislikes, enabling them to become food literate.
The joy of teaching TastEd in an Early Years classroom is that the children have opportunities to take their learning further. Following a TastEd lesson, I would frequently find children drawing and painting the produce and sitting at the writing table and writing about the food they had explored earlier. The TastEd way of eating extends beyond the lessons themselves and at snack time and in the lunch hall, children use their senses to explore their food before eating it. Parents notice that their children have a different relationship with food and are becoming more adventurous at mealtimes.
TastEd lessons fit very comfortably into the Early Years curriculum and pedagogy. Discussions around food are an ideal way to enhance communication and language in the classroom and support early literacy lessons. They enrich children’s vocabulary and knowledge about food and children discover how the produce grows and can look at the many shapes, sizes and colours of, for example, tomatoes. There are no wrong answers and children’s contributions to the discussion are celebrated. This ethos allows children to build a positive learner identity and a sense of belonging and safety within the group. Rather than lecturing children on the benefits of healthy eating, TastEd lessons are enjoyable and fun and they generate curiosity and engagement amongst the children.
Underpinning the Early Years curriculum are three principles: the unique child, enabling environments and positive relationships. When these are all securely in place, children can learn and develop effectively. The TastEd approach to sensory food education fits beautifully within all three of these principles and is a useful addition to the teaching toolkit. However, this sensory approach to food education does not need to be limited to Early Years classrooms. Primary teachers across key stage 1 and 2 have found the simple yet effective Tasted lessons generate excitement, curiosity, and positivity across all year groups. TastEd lessons have been created to be delivered within topics including the Tudors in which Year 4 children have the opportunity to design, make and taste their own unique Tudor salad. The lessons have also been carefully designed to meet the National Curriculum design and technology objectives and they also support much of the new PSHE/RSE objectives.
Over the last two years, I have been running CPD in TastEd for teachers across the country who are committed to sensory food education. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for this approach which is so simple and yet so exciting.
Sensory food education is essential if we are going to successfully enable our youngest children to build a positive relationship with food and eating. Helping them to identify themselves as individuals who enjoy fruit and vegetables is key if they are going to grow up into healthy adults. Developing a love of the fresh produce upon which TastEd lessons focus is going to enable them to grow and thrive now and in the future. TastEd lessons enable teachers to not only provide children with a new lens for experiencing and understanding food, but they also provide teachers with a pedagogical approach that promotes high levels of wellbeing and engagement with learning across all aspects of the curriculum.
Dimbleby’s recommendation that sensory food education should be included in the Early Years curriculum is a reminder that an increasing number of professionals and politicians are concerned about the health of our children. There is no time to lose, and we owe it to the youngest members of our society to provide them with positive experiences of food which will enhance their mental and physical health now and in years to come.
Ruth Platt – Senior Lecturer Practitioner in Education at Anglia Ruskin University
If you want to find out more about TastEd you can go to: www.tasteeducation.com, from here you can access over 100 FREE Taste Education resources.