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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Room to Eat

How does it look where you eat?

If you work at a setting do you eat lunch in the classroom/department rooms or in a dining room? What are the reasons behind this decision making?

In 2014 I visited preschools in Iceland and I learned about the story behind one of the spaces for eating. The educators at Aðalþing Playschool took the time to think about lunch a great deal... especially about how to create an opportunity for democracy around the lunch situation. They opted for a dining room so that the children can continue with their play in their rooms and not have to put table top activities to the side or have to tidy up in order to eat lunch. The children can choose when they want to eat as long as it is within the lunch time frame. They designed the dining room to seat 29 children, but only 26 can eat at a time, as there should always be a choice of where to sit for every child, even the one that comes last. If the dining room is at capacity, it is just to come back a little later.

The children are also free to take their own food from the buffet, as much or as little as they need (of course they get support from teachers with encouragement to try new things, and to take the amount their body needs.) The children are also free to stay for as long as they like... this encourages the children to sit and talk at the tables, and also for those busy with other things or do not like to sit for long periods of time, as they do not need to hang around for others unless they want to... this enables spaces to be free and for others to come and eat. The children mark up whether they have eaten lots, fine, or not so much... this enables parents to know how much their children eat, as well as staff knowing who has eaten and who still needs reminding that the lunch hour is coming to an end soon.

The last child in each department takes a car with them to let the dining hall and kitchen know that no more children will be coming to eat from that department.

This also means the food (all made from scratch) does not get wasted... as the food on the buffet table gets topped up after demand... any food not brought out to the dining room can be used sustainably to make bread, soups etc etc.

They have also changed the look of the dining room, from all the tables being the same and instead of traditional preschool tables there are a variety of different tables - different heights and sizes... allowing the children to choose between sitting on the floor on cushions, sitting on child size chairs, picnic benches or bar stools. Providing the children the opportunity to choose to sit in large groups or with just one other friend, or a couple of friends.

In the dining room there are always three teachers (not the assistants... always the ones with full teacher status) as lunch is seen as a pedagogical part of the day... and phrasing things right is an essential part of the process... to encourage them to be independent, but to always be there to scaffold the process. To encourage the children to test new foods - something new and exciting is put out every day in small amounts... for those children that dare to try it... and once it catches on... like humus did, then they are able to put larger quantities out on the buffet table and the new dish in small amounts becomes something else, always something that can offer the children a culinary adventure... and making sure there are always choices of vegetables to go with the main dish every day.

To make the preschool inclusive there is no dairy, eggs or nuts in the food so that those with allergies are given the same choices as everyone else. This is something I have seen occur in other preschools too, where vegan and vegetarian food becomes the norm, allowing everyone to be able to eat the food together - it also happens to be a more sustainable approach too. I would also like to point out that the children enjoy this vegan food, and that today's vegan options have vastly improved the possibilities of young children not only thoroughly enjoying the food but also easily getting all their dietary needs to grow.

When I saw the old photograph of the dining hall at Aðalþing Playschool and compared it with the new one it is very easy to see how the new design gives the children a much greater choice - a step away from the one size fits all when the tables and chairs are so uniform.

It also got me thinking about how each table would give the children a new perspective of the room and of the others in the room... depending on whether you were sitting high or low, or in between.

I have worked in many different settings over the years, and not had the opportunity to buy in the majority of the furniture - which has meant in 95% of the places where I have worked the uniform standard table and chairs has been the only option available. Sometimes I have got around it by using a small table and chairs essentially meant for role play area, as an extra adult free table where the children could take it in turns to sit there in pairs. it was a much appreciated space where the children (aged 3-5) stepped up to the responsibility of taking care of themselves at lunch time, and enjoy the opportunity to have a moment to eat and chat together. Sometimes my colleague and I sat at the small table, so that all of the children could eat adult free for a week or two, but we found that their voices would slowly get louder and louder over the course of time which was detrimental to the well-being of several of our children who were sound sensitive, so we kept it to a week, and then returned to the children taking turns at the little table.

I have done buffet style and also food in the middle of the table to help themselves from. During the pandemic though we have served the children to reduce the risk of viruses etc being spread. I don't think one style works better than another all the time. it depends on the group, it depends on the situation, so I have personally found being flexible has been the best approach to creating democratic eating spaces that allow all children to thrive.

Above you can see several shots of the dining room in Iceland... as the room was too big for my camera to catch it all at once - you can see there are five different forms of seating - and that each table is very unique .... the bench/shelf against the wall, under the art, on the top right photo is where the buffet is served, and the children help themselves. This dining room was for the 3-5 year olds. The 1-2 year olds ate in their own departments where they felt safe, knew the space, and ate at the tables, rather than buffet style.

The inspiration for the dining room comes from a hotel in Rejkjavik (Hotel Marina) where they have an eclectic collection of seating and tables with book shelves to divide spaces... of course we just had to go and have lunch there after our visit so that we could soak up the inspiration. You can see below that there is a variety of heights and sizes and upcycling in much the same manner as the playschool dining room.

It feels appropriate to design the children's dining room based on a space that adults find attractive too - filled with interesting things to look at - and a variety of choices of how to sit - why should we design rooms for children based on the ease of cleaning up after them, or based on a one size fits all? Especially as I often find that many of these children's seats are not ergonomic for many of the children as they are unable to place their feet on the floor flatly, and therefore adding strain to their backs.

Creating spaces that allows children to feel a sense of autonomy, to have choice, to feel included and to create opportunities for multiple interactions is crucial in the Original learning Approach. The environment/third teacher is an important part of the play-ecosystem and informs the children of possibilities and limitations.

Hopefully this inspire you to take another look at where and how you eat?

What choices are the children given in your setting? And what adaptations can you create with what you already have.

For more information about the playschool in iceland you can check out their website...

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