18 months ago I engaged in a dialogue in an Australian group about whether or not children should stay at the lunch table when they had finished eating... there were a lot of people saying no , they should not, and also a lot saying yes, they should... I am more of a "well it depends kind of person..." this was my reply...
"it really does depend... if the child is a fast eater and the others are all terribly slow eaters maybe yes but if the child is avoiding eating to go do something else (but I know they are hungry, and it will impact them later) then no... they stay at the table (and they usually start eating) I like for the children to stay at the table and we chat... that works once they are verbal... and so that will depend on the group of children you have and not their age... I have had some very verbal 2-3 year olds... then we will chat... but if some children take a long time because they are have a second or third portion, then they can go down rather than wait for the third portion to be consumed... I have met some children that will stop eating their first portion if others leave the table and then they are hungry later... so it really depends on the group and the individual needs...
My point being that there is not black and white answer... that we need to reflect on the needs of the children we are working with... maybe it is a group where they can all go down the moment they have finished... but really I think that would be very sad... some of the best conversations I have had with young children (well all people really) have been around the table sharing a meal. Since we should not eat with our mouths full (not just manners, but the risk of choking) then it can be of benefit that children stay after they have finished for a while and talk. Here in Sweden lunch is a part of the pedagogical day... it is not a break from play and learning but a part of it... children who leave the table early are missing out on so much... but of course at times they will need to - maybe they are too tired to continue - so they need to go to rest/nap straight away, maybe they are socially overstimulated and need a break (I would have mini-tables for two when I saw this was going to happen, as I could see the overload building up)... lunch time was a time for learning... about trying new foods, experiencing new textures, about math (quantity, numbers, positioning, patterns etc) about nutrition, about language acquisition, about sharing ideas, about connecting with others and creating a safe space for all, about enabling group dynamics... we would tell stories, play rhyming games, experiment with ideas, share languages (as we did not all have the same home-language - what were things called in your home-language? Which created a sense of belonging as well as normalising things that were different... Russian, Turkish, English, Arabic and Swedish were all given equal value - and I have worked at places with many more languages than that).
This comment of mine received quite a reaction from a person who thought that keeping children at the table is only about adult control and not children's needs - this same person also said similar things to others that said positive things about staying at the table... this seemed to imply that the question was being asked... not to learn from but for everyone to agree in the same way.
I am really grateful for this experience of being able to eat with the children... I am also grateful for having the opportunity to try methods of lunching at early years settings where we did not sit with the children (no-one in the whole preschool) - I found the lunches were much noisier... and to keep it an acceptable level for children that find loud noise hard work meant there was more adult control of a policing nature rather than as a part of the group nature... Over the years I have periodically created spaces for children to sit at a table without an adult, or that one table is adult free, but I found adults sitting with the children created an atmosphere optimal for social interactions and equality amongst the children. Yes I am in total agreement that we should not be making our work based on our adult needs, and that we should be basing our decisions on the needs of the children - but I do not at all agree with the fact that working with children individually and the group are mutually exclusive ideas. Having worked philosophically with children from the age of 1 to the age of 13 (most of the time with 1-5 year olds) I have seen the benefits for the individual by forming a community of learners... by supporting he group feeling it is not just me as the adult that sees each individual child, but every individual sees each other and learns respect for their similarities and also their differences... the joy of diversity. If the children do not get time to be together in many different forms - lunch is a relaxed social form - then we risk denying the children the right to understand others, value differences and learn the fact we do not have to agree with others but we do need to treat them with respect... and that if we really listen we might learn something new, or change our minds, or help others in their learning journey. All of these ideas can be found here in various posts in my blog... about respect, democracy, participation, community, individuals and group, about it not being for the sake of adult convenience... I was accused of side-railing children's individual needs by the fact that keeping children at the table to help others. But if we want empathic children who practice their empathy - then they also need to be given the opportunities to practice it, and not just go off on their own needs... I think there are far too many adults in the world that are lacking understanding of the needs of others and focus only on their own rights... I am not at all saying we should sacrifice any of our rights, but we should not sacrifice the rights of others either in the process of my own rights. A democracy is not about doing whatever we choose.. it is about freedom to be who you are AND participation AND responsibility. In Australia there has been the big discussion about consent... and that it should be taught from the very youngest of age... and I have described in this blogpost/link (and I will be moving that over to this website during the week) - what I see as consent with preschoolers... and in the exact same way I believe that democracy (which for me includes anti-bias or as we call it in Sweden, norm-aware or norm-critical) should be a natrual daily part of our work with preschoolers... about creating community, being responsible for each other, for appreciating our similarities and differences...
In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios. - The Atlantic (see link to article below)
This is a huge part of why eating together, spending time together is important... for me it would not take much encouragement (not force) for children to stay at the table while others finished off (as long as they we not being an unreasonable length of time eating... then I would say, I see you are taking another portion, the others have already been waiting for some time to go to nap, is it OK for them to leave now - giving the children power... the one left sitting gives consent to the others to leave... not me, the adult, but the children) - anyway back o the table... once the children worked out that sitting at the table was fun there was no need to leave the table unless they were tired, needed to go to the bathroom or were socially overwhelmed etc - lunches went from just eating together to long leisurely lunches where we chatted in a relaxed way, where we were all equals, adult and children. Sometimes we sat for an hour or more - not by me forcing them... and most days I needed to remind them that we had indeed all finished and were actually now just sitting and chatting... The groups that had lunches like this were the most stable groups I worked with... the children were much more aware of the individual needs of each other - which also helps shift the power from me to the children... if the children see the individuals within the group I do not have to have the same power to ensure that each individual has space and time to shine... the children are already doing that for each other. I am, for the record, against children sitting at the table just because that is what you should do - where it is about the power struggle between child and adult, and not about the community of children and their connectedness. I think we need to question every decision we make - why we do circle time or not... why we sit at the table together, why we do/don't play war (I think it is an important part of children processing what they see on the news, in films or overhear, or have even experienced). I am not about just doing something because it has always been done, but very much about exploring why do we do this, what are the benefits, what are the risks, what are the drawbacks etc... and to weigh them and then to make the decision I see fits the group I work with... and also the teaching style/preference/strengths I have... which is very much about scaffolding the children and empowering the children. I have learned over the years that letting individuals do what they want based on their initial instincts/needs is not benefitting the children as much as being a part of the group - even on an individual basis... it is not treating the children as robots or factory line ... as I later was accused of by the same person.. it is about creating a community where all can react to all our different needs and not just the teacher (which is a bit of a dictatorship... yes one might think by letting the children do what they want is meeting their needs, but it is not giving them the chance to be empowered - they continue to be looked after by the adult, rather than their peers... which means there is less room for them to take responsibility for their peers... hence the idea you are taking away power from them). It strange but there is more individual power in a well functioning group than there is if you get to do what you want... because that means everyone gets to do what they want... and that can clash with what you want - there simply is not the space or time for EVERYONE to do what they want. also from the point of view of leaving the table when finished eating... that child will then be on their own, will miss social interactions which afford learning new things, learning new words, developing the group connectedness etc etc... they will miss out on the shared laughter, shared sustained thinking... if they eat quick and leave it might result in less opportunity to develop self-regulation, concentration etc etc... Yes they might get the satisfaction of a few minutes more play... but for me they lose more than they gain by leaving early... especially on a regular basis. it can create an otherism... or a form of exclusion (not being a part of the group) Below are some more quotes and some links that show the research of benefits of eating together... I am not just basing this on my own observations, but also on the opinions of peer reviewed research. And my comment was also slammed with a reference to sleep and nap time... which really, as wife to a sleep researcher (professor) I really have read far too much research on the benfits of sleep and nap on the social and cognitive development of children that makes it far too easy to prove that comment was none substantial as an argument for leaving the table when they want... there is a link to a post about sleep and rest included below too...
"Children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do, as outlined in a research presentation given at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria this May. On the contrary, children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. " The Atlantic
I included this quote because many children do not get to eat meals with their families... therefore meals at preschool and daycare are even more important as social support for many children... There are though places that do not have educators sitting with the children at meal times... and I am beginning to feel stronger and stronger towards the importance of an adult sitting with the children at lunch time in the early years setting. I fully understand the intention that we take a step back to allow the children to have the space to conduct their own conversations... but maybe as educators we need to become better at not usurping that space while being with the children... and in this sense can scaffold the children's diverse needs about nutrition, social interactions etc (like the quote above mentioned) and also model how to give space to others, how to be a part of a democratic society where all are equally valued. As more and more children are not eating with their parents in the evenings and weekends, lunch together with adults in the early years and school seems to be gaining more importance.
"Though researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, several studies have found a connection between eating a meal together and our physical and mental health. The advantages seem particularly strong for kids, who benefit from seeing healthy eating habits and positive communication modelled at the dinner table "- United Way Winnipeg
"Social environment – during mealtimes:
Independence and self-help skills – encourage children’s self-help skills by encouraging them to choose the amount of food they want to eat. This will foster their self-regulation skills also. Offer facilities that will allow children to easily clean up after meals.
Interactions and relationships – use mealtimes with children as an opportunity to promote NQS QA 5 (Relationships with children). For example, 5.1.2 states that ‘every child is able to engage with educators in meaningful, open interactions that support the acquisition of skills for life and learning.’ (The Guide to the National Quality Standard, 2011)
"Bonding with babies - This is particularly important for babies and younger children where so much of the learning occurs around their daily routine, like feeding time. Babies need to feel safe and secure and connected to the person feeding them so ensure the same educator per feed for babies with minimal interruptions.
Communication - Allow time for children to communicate with each other through facial expressions, talking, watching and socialising with each other." PSC National Alliance - How to Series
Health Link BC - the benefits of eating together Brainfodder: scientifically proved reasons for eating together Altarum: the benefits of family style meals in preschool... the passing of food, the social interactions etc Healthy Families BC - eating together at school creates connectness Australian Department of Health.. mentions the social importance of mealtimes this is research about the food served in preschools/schools in Australia, UK and Sweden - it is not so much about eating together, but it does add some social context - although it describes preschools as sitting at tables of 10 - I have never in my 20 something years working in preschools in Sweden sat at a table of ten children unless it has been a special celebration meal. Most are 4-7 children with a teacher - so that the teacher can reach and support all the children without the need for standing up and disturbing the rhythm of the lunch. Better Health, Australia: eating at childcare - this one mentions the benefits of social eating... although I am not sure what they mean by eating/sitting quietly... I assume it means not moving around so much that it poses a choking risk. sleep and rest - this is a post from my blog, showing the benefits of not only naps but also rest... and that supporting children to rest and wind down is even more important in today's society that seems to fill every second with activities, to the point that many children are no longer comfortable with their own inner voice (I mean car journeys etc were once a time of day dreaming, now they are filled with screens). Some settings have mindfulness lessons, we had rest time as a kind of mindfulness... a time to slow down, to listen to your own thoughts and feel comfortable with your own thoughts. Some children needed help with this, mostly through their parents learning that it was OK for the child to say rest time is boring... boring for 30 minutes is a temporary thing and the children will soon learn that these 30 minutes can be spent making plans, dreaming, reflecting on the morning or listening to the calm music/story to just chill out... once they got over the boring threshold, they all enjoyed rest time, and afternoons were more creative...
meal times do not have to be boring sit down don't talk... we shook things up and explored why we eat the way we do, but eating in different ways humous through straws, drinking milk off a plate and a food from a cup/glass... not having chairs, on the floor, sitting on the table... as you can see in the above photos... What has been important has been creating community. That lunch was not just a routine for refueling the body, but an opportunity to connect with each other, and ensure the relationships were strong - creating a safe space for everyone to dare share their opinion and their wildest ideas... We have explored lunch where food is shared in the middle of the table, buffet style, with adults, without adults... and what I have found is that there is no ONE method that is the best, even with the same group, that it is constantly shifting as the children evolve, they gain new skills, want to test and challenge theories etc etc... So I have personally found having a lunch space that allows us to be flexible as worked the best to meet the children where they are.