Engagement at mealtimes between staff and children

How does social engagement with children at mealtimes create a loving nurturing environment

Project author:

Project summary:

A study to observe how allowing children and staff to be involved with the setup of mealtimes benefits and impacts their social interactions with each other.

Breakfast foods laid out on a tablecloth

Introduction

During the last few months, the nursery has made small changes to mealtimes, this project looks at why we wanted to change to make mealtimes a positive, understanding, and engaging experience. How all staff and children are involved in mealtimes from setting up to serving, eating, conversations and clearing up to make mealtimes a valuable and social part of our daily routine.

Context

As a new manager taking over the setting with 3–5-year-old children in the midst of a global pandemic there were many challenges. We observed that due to Covid 19 our mealtimes had become very routine like with staff organising and serving all meals. Through staff discussions at meetings, we felt staff and children were missing out on the social skills and interactions that happen with each other at mealtimes both at nursery and home.

“I feel we rush the children while eating and don’t engage with them, just so we can get it over with and tidy up” – Staff Comment

Using Froebel’s Principles, realising the ambition, and setting the table as well as The Care inspectorate bite sized videos, we had already started to think about how we could change. We thought about different ways of setting up the room and giving the children the freedom to become aware of their own learning by organising, serving, eating, and clearing away meals to provide rich real-life experiences for the children.

Working collaboratively with staff, children and parents was essential throughout this project. We looked at our policies and procedures and worked with the school kitchen around allergies and healthy eating procedures. We asked the children what they thought about mealtimes and how they would like them to be. We started a project book with the children that we plan to carry on and visit on a regular basis to allow the children to express their view and ideas as an ongoing project. In the book the children recorded their own ideas and thoughts, or the staff helped the younger children to scribe. We looked at pictures of tables and set ups, cafes and food dishes – the children cut out the ones they liked to stick them into their book.

Our setting is a smaller community term time nursery with 25 children and 5 staff. Mealtimes include breakfast and lunch. This project was carried out with the children and staff’s views being the heart of it to achieve a positive experience for all. Although all the children were involved in the experience, we focused on a small group of 5 and their keyworker. To gain this knowledge we carried out observations at breakfast and lunch times to see what was happening and working well or if there was anything we could change or enhance.

We asked all staff to take part in a short 5-question survey, where we asked for their views on mealtimes, the set-up, food, how they felt eating with the children and how they would like to see happen at mealtimes. All findings were shared with staff at meetings to discuss how we could move forward with improvements. We had discussions with the children and started a floor book with pictures, comments and their drawings around their ideas and thoughts.

At staff meetings we looked at Froebel’s principles and ideas to ensure we all had that shared Froebelian approach. Some staff did further training and research through the Froebel website.

Ethics

I discussed everything with the staff, then the children and the parents of the focus group. I explained everything to them. I explained to everyone that if they felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to join in, they didn’t have to. The staff were more than happy to participate, and the children loved the idea of getting to help run the project and make a floor book about the changes. I explained to the parents that photographic material would benefit my project and informed them of the forms to sign. They accepted with pleasure and told me that if it benefits their children to go ahead. This made me feel positive about this project and I was confident as there were no ethical restrictions.

“I value the fact that I can spend time with the children eating my breakfast and enjoying conversations rather than stressing about being too busy to engage with anyone.” (Practitioner) “I love it – you get to do things by yourself, and I like to have my breakfast with the ladies “ (Erica age 4)

Findings

From the observation and survey that was carried out with the staff, we felt that mealtimes were very regimental with the tasks being very staff focused and doing. Some staff mentioned that they found this stressful as they were too busy preparing, serving, or washing up and that they didn’t feel they had time with the children. From the children’s comments some of them said that they felt like they were in a café, and no one spoke to them. They were told when to come for a snack and didn’t get to serve themselves.

We changed our breakfast to a rolling breakfast, from 9-11. The children helped to order foods that they liked on the iPad and then put it away once it was delivered. The focus group for this observation oversaw setting up the area first thing but we soon found that all children got involved with minimal staff help. At first staff got flustered around the children using tools and glass and it didn’t run as smoothly but as staff’s confidence grew so did the children’s ideas and soon the staff member was happily sitting interacting with the children.

“I like that I get to fill the glass milk bottles and cut the fruit with a real knife, I don’t need the ladies to help me – I get to help them and give the ladies their Breakfast” – Children’s Comment

All children were encouraged to wash hands before and assisted by staff if needed. We supported this by chats and watching our handy hands video.

I observed important and engaging interactions between staff and children as the staff member was sitting with the children at the table. There were lovely free flowing conversations around the food, how the table was set, colors numbers and table manners. Children’s comments and ideas were respected, and their needs were met by the staff member offering support where needed but still allowing children the freedom of learning for themselves.

I observed that the children enjoyed the independence of setting the table for each other and getting the food out and cleaning up.

“Washing in warm soapy water is the best, one child said.”

I observed children who normally shy away, coming to the table chatting and smiling and trying new foods. It was lovely to see some of the older children taking on the staff role and supporting the younger children with their drinks and serving their food. We now find that mealtimes are longer and more relaxed with everyone enjoying the experience.

We are working to ensure all staff have the same expectations at mealtimes as we are still embedding new ideas and will be supported through this.

We are excited to see this project grow, and the children have new ideas for growing our own foods and love serving the staff.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we recognize how each child responded to the experience as well as considering their opinions in the development stage. The children and staff were keen to share their thoughts, and this has helped to develop mealtimes to support the children’s views and experiences. For staff and managers, it has allowed us the chance to revisit our practice that was restricted due to covid 19 to enhance and improve our mealtimes. We have found that our mealtimes are now a valued and beneficial part of our nursery day. We are spending longer engaging with the children, slowing down and taking our time over meals. This has changed some of the staff’s mindset around this area of the curriculum to a more positive experience. Although our project is still in the early stages, we have high hopes of extending it and continuing to grow so that it becomes even more beneficial for our nursery day. Some of the children have told us that it’s their favorite part of the day as they get to sit with staff, eat the same food and ask staff questions about themselves.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Mairead Wilson
    Mairead Wilson
    08 Jun 2023 at 3:56 pm

    You and your team have completely transformed your snack and mealtimes, from a rushed must do activity to being “valued and beneficial”. The children clearly enjoy an unhurried time to prepare and enjoy their food with a relaxed and happy atmosphere. I’m glad you and your team allowed time for the new changes to embed themselves into your practice.


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  2. Kristine MacGilp
    Kristine MacGilp
    12 Jun 2023 at 8:22 pm

    Lovely to see that through doing this project you have transformed your mealtimes to create a relaxed and hurried environment for the children.


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  3. Karen Leslie
    Karen Leslie
    12 Jun 2023 at 8:36 pm

    This is a lovely project, I particularly liked how you included this children’s voice by creating the project book. I also liked how this has transformed your mealtimes and will consider this in my own practice, thank you for sharing.


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