Tricks and Treats: How Halloween Candy Can Foster Food Play!

Halloween is just around the corner and with it, the official opening to “treat season.” Where everywhere you go you will be handed a goody bag of candy, cupcakes and a variety of other treats. And, after the discreet filling of your own private “in case of emergency” stash, we often have the thought of “now what?” This especially rings true when you have a child who is learning to eat and has little interest in the feasting that takes place from Late October until December 31st. However, it’s time to shift from thinking to celebrating the opportunities your neighbors, friends and family are (literally) handing you! This is the perfect time of year to help your child learn how to be a food explorer!

There are so many ways to explore foods – to learn about them and to increase your sensory understanding of them (eventually leading to the sensory experience of eating them). And Halloween provides the perfect opportunity for some messy, candy-filled playtime! Messy play allows a child to learn through their senses about a food without the expectation that they will put it in their mouths. Messy play builds familiarity, and with familiarity comes safety.

On average, it takes typically-eating-children 10 presentations of a food on their plates before they are willing to put that food in their mouths. For a child who has had a hard time eating in the past or present, this number could be 40 times or more! So, messy food play encourages your child to explore something new, and helps him begin to understand what to expect when he is ready to place it in his mouth.

As you play, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to read your child’s body language: is he getting squirmy? avoiding looking at the food? splaying fingers? pulling away? Step back a little, move the playing outside of their eating area, interact differently, etc. You might also include a highly preferred food throughout the playtime, helping your child to regulate himself, providing the chance to go back to something familiar and safe if he wants to. Then, keep a secret stash you can meter out throughout the playtime. I’d also recommend keeping a wet washcloth on the back of their chair in you’re your child becomes distressed with messy hands. While the goal is messy play, give your child opportunity to self-regulate by letting him clean his hands if needed.

Now for the fun stuff!

Get everyone ready at the table and a few adventure foods! You could grab a variety of Halloween candy, small amounts of foods from a party (each one in a zip baggy or a portion cup with a lid is great), or any variety of foods you want to explore. Plan on having 5-7 foods available, but depending on how things are going, you may not get through all of them, which is fine.  You may also want a few ‘tools’. I love using little forks (cocktail forks are fantastic), popsicle sticks, straws, kids safe knives (plastic knives that cut food but not skin), mini cookie cutters, a plastic dinosaur or two, etc. Sprinkles and food coloring are fun too with more wet textures.

Introduce foods one by one. If it has a wrapper, let the child unwrap it. Each person gets his own piece to play with. (This way you can model, then wait to see if your child imitates.) As you model these interactions, watch your child’s reactions and see if you can push forward or should pull back a little. Narrate what you are doing/seeing/feeling. Give pauses for your child to process the information and try if he wants.

Talk about what you see (color, shape, texture). Comment on smell and feeling. Is it squishy, hard, brittle, soft? Try poking it with a fork. Cut it open and look at the inside. Use a cookie cutter to make it new shape. Make a big one and a little one? Break it in half with your hands. Squish it with a finger, thumb or full finger. Can you roll it like play doh? What happens when a dinosaur stomps it? Does it bounce if you drop it?  Can you make it into a tree for the dinosaur, or use it as a blanket for the dino? Can you make a pond for a goldfish. Can you bring it close to your face to smell it? Can you pretend it’s a silly nose? Or eyes or lips? Can you kiss it (touch it to your lips)? Can you touch it to the tip of your tongue? Make teeth marks? With foods like yogurt, pudding or purees, finger painting is where it is at! Make a canvas of the food and draw shapes while you sing songs, write names, draw. Change colors with food coloring, add sprinkles, etc.

Have fun and think of your child as a little detective. Give him the tools to investigate a new food, and to learn about the foods without the expectation of eating it. And always remember: a child’s work is play!

Language ideas:

Looks: color, size (big, little, medium, huge, baby), broken, shape (round, triangle, heart, cube)

Texture: squishy, flaky, soft, smooth, bumpy, pokey, rough, silky, slimy, wrinkly, fuzzy, prickly, fluffy, crisp, sticky, crumbly, bubbly

Actions: pop, squish, roll, smush, break, open, bounce, crunch, poke, cut, sort, smell, lick, bite

Amanda Kyle, MA, CCC-SLP