New Foods and New Words by Bee Wilsoncreative66
Bring a colander of differently coloured tomatoes to a class of four and five year-olds and ask them to describe what they see.
To start with, the children’s descriptions may be fairly basic and obvious. ‘The tomato is red’. ‘It is round’. But after a few minutes, the language gets more exciting, as the children start to free associate. ‘That tomato is like a planet’. ‘It is like a rugby ball’. ‘No, it is a football’. ‘No, it is a peach!’. ‘It is squishy and juicy’. ‘Sometimes the stalks look like stars’.
TastEd lessons don’t just change the way a child eats. They can also expand the vocabulary that he or she uses for talking about food. The reason I first got interested in sensory food education was as a tool for changing food preferences for the better. What I didn’t fully realise until I was actually in the classroom doing it was that talking about food and the senses is an amazingly powerful way to widen a child’s language. For children who do not feel confident in their own literacy, this expansion of vocabulary through food is especially valuable. They are so caught up in the moment of handling the food that they do not notice that they are being asked to do a literacy exercise, and so the production of new words and phrases seems to happen in a very natural, effortless way.
One of the key elements of the Sapere method is building up ‘word banks’ for the different senses. With the youngest children, the teacher writes down these words as people say them. But older children can start to build up their own ‘word banks’ in their TastEd notebooks. I have been stunned by the richness of some of these responses. One child described the sound of apple in the mouth as being like ‘crunchy, juicy footsteps’. Another wrote down that the texture of a blueberry was ‘squelchy, delicate’. Teachers at Washingborough Academy report that TastEd can be a very effective way to teach poetry writing, because food somehow provokes children to think in metaphor.
Food is a universal part of life, yet most of us, whatever our age, tend to have a fairly limited set of words at our disposal for describing what we eat. We say that something is ‘delicious’ or ‘disgusting’ but we often lack the tools to say why we are responding to different foods in these different ways. What is different about Sapere (and TastEd Lessons) is that children are allowed to explore a whole world ‘beyond delicious and disgusting’ as it says in the Swedish handbook. We tell students that it is fine not to like something but they need to try to explain why. ‘I don’t like the mushroom because it is slimy,’ for example, or ‘The tomato is too juicy’. Once the children give words to their likes and dislikes, they may start to recognise patterns. The person who loves ‘crunchy’ carrots may also enjoy the crunch in a stick of celery.
It’s only been through doing TastEd that I’ve started to see and understand how closely eating and language are related. New words and new tastes can grow together. Food provokes visceral reactions – both positive and negative – and just by tapping into their own sensory experiences, the children become capable of a new confidence and articulacy which is wonderful to see and to hear.