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  • Lauren Saunders

"Worth the mess" why we should let children be independent at meal times.

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

“The educators (including parents) behave as do good gardeners and cultivators towards their plants” Dr. Maria Montessori, The Formation of Man.

Meal time is a part of every child’s daily routine and too often meal times are completely adult led from start to finish. But would you believe that a toddler is totally capable of being involved and helping with every aspect of this whole routine. From preparing the food, to laying the table, to dishing up their own meal to washing up their own plate, a toddler can and will want to do it all. It is important to transform a lunchtime routine into a daily ritual, a time of calm, socialising and a moment to enjoy refuelling their bodies alongside their families or peers. The Montessori way acknowledges that toddlers and young children in particular love to contribute and be part of the family, their learning and development can be greatly benefitted from doing so.

Have you ever noticed how young children often show more interest in ‘adult’ or ‘real’ items as opposed to their own toys or belongings? Children, from a young age are naturally interested in observing the things that adults do and they will often attempt to mirror what they have observed. This natural interest and desire to be independent and to mirror ‘adult behaviours’ supports their understanding of the world. When adults show young children the trust and respect to involve them in all aspects of their lives, children develop resilience, self-confidence and of course - independence.

‘Let children be children?’

Some people may be of the opinion that all of this independence makes children grow up too soon, and that we should ‘let children be children’, however it is important to recognise how much children love it and how much they can get out of it. It is not a case of these responsibilities being ‘chores’ or jobs that they have to do, instead we like to see it as encouraging them to be involved and to play an active role in their whole day. Laying the table for their family or friends or preparing food for them, encourages them to be kind and caring to others. Using real china plates and glass jugs allows them to develop care and respect for fragile things. It gives them the responsibility and opportunity to learn how to care for themselves, for others and for their environment too.

A snack or lunch time routine at nursery, that could easily be mirrored in the child’s home, could involve the child in every step of the process. To ensure that this is able to happen the resources and equipment must be child sized, accessible and consistently stored in the same place. This will allow the children to eventually achieve mastery and to do these things completely independently.

· The children can wipe the table down with soapy water.

· The children can carefully place chairs around the table.

· The children can lay the table, with a plate, cup, cutlery and glasses.

· The children can get jugs and half fill them with water.

· The children can pour their own drinks.

· The children can serve their own food from serving bowls.

· The children can scrape their own food waste into the food recycling bin.

· The children can wash their own plate.

· The children can wipe the table down with soapy water.

· The children can stack their own chair or push it under the table.

‘Practice makes perfect’

Although this may appear like a daunting quantity of responsibilities for a toddler, you will often be surprised by the enthusiasm and ease at which they approach these tasks. Have you ever spent time with a toddler who wants to do the same, repetitive (sometimes annoying), game or behaviour over and over again? Anyone who has some experience with a toddler can appreciate the value of routine and consistency! Children thrive on doing the same routines and rituals day in and day out, it can provide them with stability and consistency, whilst the predictability helps them to know what to expect from their day. Young children respond well to repetitiveness, it allows them to achieve mastery. This means repeating a challenge, experience, or behaviour until they are able to fully achieve it independently, this comes from repeating something so consistently and regularly that it becomes fully embedded in their daily routine.

‘Stepping in as little as possible but as much as necessary’

Although sometimes it may seem that inviting your toddler to be a part of all of these routines may be making the day slower, messier and more hassle, it is important to try and change your perspective. Instead, try to acknowledge that you are creating beautiful moments and lasting memories for your children, you are giving them opportunities to learn and grow, to become responsible, caring and independent. Children aren’t going to acquire these abilities, rituals and skills overnight, its important to offer them support as and when they need it. We can demonstrate and model for them how to approach minor mishaps, such as a spill or a breakage, and allow them to also play a part in cleaning up too. Remember- mistakes are opportunities to learn.

‘Curb Obesity’

There have been recent studies, in which the results have shown that children who serve themselves from serving trays rather than being handed a plate of food, are more likely to develop the ability to read their bodies hunger signals. The study suggested that this is one of the ways in which we can curb childhood obesity. Children need to learn to read their bodies signals, and to recognise that when they feel hungry, they may serve more food, but if they do not feel hungry it is okay to serve themselves a smaller portion. This is also relevant in providing a café (or free flow) snack time, this method of snack time is frequently used in nurseries to allow the children to have their snack when they feel hungry rather than when an adult dictates that it is time to eat snack. The Montessori way encourages us to trust in our young children, and to leave them in charge, to support them to understand their feelings and the signals that their bodies are sending.

I hope that reading this may have given you a better insight as to why we do what we do here a Jabberwocky. We firmly believe that these daily routines, rituals, and opportunities are of huge benefit to our clever, curious little minds. We trust them, we respect them and we believe in their capabilities. We thoroughly enjoy watching their journey to becoming self-sufficient, independent learners with a variety of valuable experiences, life skills and habits for a healthy lifestyle.

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