If you’ve ever been to a toddler’s “restaurant,” you may have felt a bit like Robin Williams in the movie Hook during the food fight scene. “Eat what?” he mutters as the kids around him put on a show of zealously digging into what appears to be nothing. “There’s nothing here. Gandhi ate more than this.”
Granted, kid-run diners are overpriced, have very distracted staff and the food is usually inedible. However, letting your kids serve you plastic hunks of cake is incredibly beneficial for them.
“It fulfills basic ideas about nourishment and caretaking tasks and helps kids stay in tune with the family while being independent,” explains Jessica Hendon, a licensed social worker and therapist at the Livonia branch of the Great Lakes Psychology Group.
She shares how pretend play can benefit the whole family – and how to tell if your child is trying to tell you something worrisome about their real world.
Faux kitchen lessons
Fake foods are great language teaching tools. They’re concrete objects that can be found naturally in other environments (just a bit less messy). When little ones bring you their toy foods, you can help them learn new words by describing the object. For instance, “What a big, red, shiny apple! Can you say apple?”
In addition to helping with language development, playing with pretend foods helps develop motor skills such as hand-eye coordination, holding objects and using them as tools.
Hendon says that for younger children, getting a toy shopping cart can help them learn to walk, too – and it’s a more familiar object to them than other walkers, because they see it every time mom or dad takes them grocery shopping.
Most importantly, Hendon stresses the emotional impact of this type of play. When she’s observed children in classrooms, she’s noticed that many gravitate toward the play kitchen.
“It’s a grounding thing, because there are a lot of transitions happening at school – and performing caretaking tasks helps with self-soothing by keeping a caretaker in mind while they are apart,” she says. When kids offer other kids fake foods, they also learn how to handle rejection – maybe their pal doesn’t want those wooden green beans, thanks – and about their friends’ likes and dislikes.
“Food is central to all cultures, and the purpose it serves is universal. When kids play this way, they get a general feeling of belonging,” Hendon says.
Hendon stresses that when you pretend play with your children, it should be intentional and without distraction.
Be mindful of things you do that might influence them. For example, Hendon describes a situation where a child was pretending to feed a sibling and said, “You can’t get up until you finish everything on your plate!” Who hasn’t threatened/begged/bribed their kids to finish a meal?
However, if it happens so often that your child repeats it frequently in their play, you may want to re-strategize. “When they keep replaying a game over and over, they’re trying to tell you something,” Hendon says. “They’re trying to tell a story and, if you don’t pay attention, you will miss cues.”
She also suggests looking for clues that there could be a developmental delay or food-related issue outside of the home.
“There is no age limit on pretend play, but it is all situational,” Hendon says. “A fifth grader pretend playing with a young sibling is normal, but if they are disappointed that their classroom doesn’t have fake foods, there could be concerns about their developmental age.”
She also suggests that parents “pay attention to their play when you aren’t there and talk to care providers about what may be affecting them.”
Whether they are picky eaters, having trouble socially or developmentally, or picking up on your negative mealtime habits, paying attention to how your children are playing with pretend food will make you understand their world better – and, if necessary, help them along.