The pros and cons of free-flow mealtimes

Project author:

Project summary:

An observation of mealtimes for children aged between 2 and 5 years old with a view to improve the experience for all our children and staff.

Children eating in class

Introduction

This project will look at our current mealtime experience and that of a free flow experience and weigh up the pros and cons of both in order to make improvements in our setting, based on researchIt will take account of the varying ages and stages of all our children and how we can make mealtimes a positive experience for them allThe project should help enrich our Froebelian approach by providing more opportunities for children to take leadership of their own learning. 

Context

The implementation of 1140 hours in our setting happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and meant that mealtimes were a structured experience where the children sat down in their ‘bubbles’ and were served their meals by the staffAs restrictions eased, we removed the ‘bubbles’ but continued having all the children sit down at the same timeEveryone would come and have lunch at 12pm, they would come and sit with their friends and it was a very sociable experience where lots of skills were being developedAs a staff team, we had discussed progressing to free flow mealtimes but there were many questions that we couldn’t answer without having experienced the change and because the current set up worked so well, it wasn’t seen as a priority to change itHowever, we were becoming ‘task focused’ and staff started to notice small changes at mealtimes, it was getting louder, some children were struggling to sit for any length of time (lunchtime usually lasted for one hour) it was messier etc. and that is when we decided that we would have to try free flow mealtimes in order to compare the two and decide which we would go with, based upon our own research. 

As a team we were having regular discussions about mealtimes and the changes that we observed.  We all knew that we had to change the provision in order to meet all the children’s needs.  As a team we looked at research that other settings had undertaken and we decided that free flow mealtimes could provide benefits to the children’s nursery experience. We were keen to include all the nursery children in the change as it was something which would potentially affect their nursery experience on a daily basis, with a small focus group of five children for the main research project.  

Staff had to take account of the food hygiene risks involved in holding hot food for longer periods of time as the children would be coming for lunch when it suited them and it was important that all the relevant guidelines were followed and temperatures etc. recorded appropriately. It was also important that all staff had time to evaluate mealtimes regularly, to ensure changes were improvements.  

“I love playing with my friends then going up to collect my own lunch.” Child Age 4

Findings

The changes were implemented and on the first day staff noticed the children were a little confused as the routine they had become so comfortable with had changed.  We spoke to the children about the changes and they were happy they could go and play until there was a space for them at the table.  

By the second and third day it was clear that most of the children were adapting to the routine, if there was something they weren’t sure about they would watch their peers for reassurance or staff were there to support when required.   

Twelve was the most children that could be seated at any one time and there were three members of staff, one to serve the food and two to support the children.  The same person served the food every day and I supported the children along with another member of staff, varying who it was to let all staff experience the new routine and then evaluate afterwards. Having this small number of people in the lunch area kept the atmosphere relaxed, calm and enjoyable for children and staff. 

We discussed the changes with the children and during the first week their feedback was mixed.  By week five almost all the children were happy with the change and a lot of the positive comments were about being able to make their own choices. 

Staff feedback was much more positive from the beginning of the implementation.  Staff that remained in the play areas while lunch was happening noted that although there was a general messiness due to the children not all stopping to tidy before they all went for lunch – as had happened previously, the setting was calmer. Staff that supported mealtimes were also very positive about the change.  The new unhurried routine flowed well and was a more positive experience for children and staff.   By changing to a more Froebelian approach, the children had choice and control of their mealtime experience and clearly enjoyed having more responsibilities.  They were choosing and ordering their own meal, collecting their own cup and cutlery, pouring their own drinks and tidying up after themselves in between courses and once they had finished.  Staff were proactive in creating a laid-back atmosphere where the children could enjoy their mealtime when they wanted, and with who they wanted.   

Conclusion

By using Froebel’s principles to guide us in this journey, we have found this to be a really positive experience for our children and all our children, regardless of age and stage, are enjoying being in this enabling environment where they can take ownership of their own daily rhythmsWe recognise that there were valuable lessons to be learned from all sitting down together to eat (and we recognise that some children may never do this) but we can still do that for special occasions and celebrations or end of term gatherings etc.  By slowing down and going with the children’s flow, we are allowing children and staff to have a much more enjoyable mealtime experienceIt also means that children’s play is not interrupted by adults at mealtime, they can simply stop when they choose to go and have lunch, knowing they can return to their activity afterwards. 

Research implications

There were many implications for this project that considered the benefits and consequences of having a free flow lunch experience for the children with the outcomes of the research creating opportunities to make improvements through the changes that follow. This project is using Froebel’s principle of Freedom with Guidance to guide and support pedagogy. It is allowing the children to think freely and become autonomous in their decision about when, where and with whom they would like to choose to have lunch. Further to this the children are able to experience a slower pace to their lunch provision and having an unhurried meal provides them with the chance to talk with their peers and the adults supporting and extending this experience. As nurturing adults support and extend the mealtime provision there are opportunities for them to be responsive to the children’s needs, developing their independence skills while they make their own choices. There is a difference for the role of the adult to be less task focussed and be more involved with the children. Similarly for the adults who are still supporting the children in the playroom the emphasis becomes less on tidying up the resources for lunch but more about enabling high quality interactions with those who are still playing or returning from having had lunch. With this new approach in mind the manager had to consider how to share practice with her senior management team who challenged why the change was necessary having fought so hard in the first place to have one sitting. A clear rationale was shared with the whole team following observations, that had led to a critical analysis of the current system. This sense of commitment to better meet the needs of the children I feel has created an approach to using criticality in their everyday workplace that has implications to make further changes. Practitioners are able to lead change and support each other to think freely about ways to do this with the children very much consulted as part of the process. I believe therefore that the project has implications for observing pedagogy, looking critically at that with the freedom to think creatively about ways in which to make changes and the children’s needs at the heart of it. I also feel they have the opportunity to become a learning community to embrace change because the adults are as keen to learn from the children and they are so reflective of their practice. The relationships within this setting are strong, observations of practice are discussed as a team to have a shared understanding of the need for a change in pedagogy.

Practitioner enquiry

Practitioner research has enabled this setting to be consultative and creative about the changes they desired to make. This research has involved the whole setting and community which creates a sense of unity. I feel that this setting had an opportunity and a willingness to experiment with this change and were open to the information the experience presented them with at the end. The staff were reflective of how the project had impacted on both themselves and their own practice while being objective about the outcomes for the children. Had this not been a positive change the systems would have been altered to find the best way forward for the children. Moving forward each new cohort of children will be offered the choices and freedom with guidance to ensure that they too have an unhurried lunch experience.

Leadership learning

For me I have learned that relationships are key and key to building relationships are allowing everyone to be consulted and have a voice before leading a change. Leading by supporting the adults to become reflective of their practice is essential to further professional development. Coaching and mentoring suited my leadership style in this case as it allowed the manager to have that freedom to think about and make her own decisions for her setting based on the current practice meeting the needs of this cohort of children and the subsequent observations of it. The guidance from me essentially allowed those thoughts to become actions to make the improvements for the project to be successful.

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. Nikki Smith
    Nikki Smith
    31 May 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Your commitment to positive mealtimes shines through your project, and it’s clear there has been a positive impact for the children and staff in your setting. It is evident that mealtimes are seen as an important part of the quality learning experiences you provide the children.


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  2. Kirsty Maxwell
    Kirsty Maxwell
    02 Jun 2023 at 11:59 am

    I loved reading about this project. Your approach to making meal times an experience that not only met the needs of the children but had a wider influence on the pace of the day and staff interactions within that showed a commitment that was underpinned by Froebel’s principles.


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  3. Rhona Wilson
    Rhona Wilson
    06 Jun 2023 at 12:50 pm

    I’ve seen a lot of chat on various forums about implementing free flow mealtimes so it’s very interesting to read your project and see how it was implemented and the reactions from the childr3n and staff. It’s given me some things to think about in my own setting.


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  4. Steve Rivers
    Steve Rivers
    13 Jun 2023 at 10:22 am

    Hazel this was very interesting to read. I like how you mention that like many things, there are questions that cant be answered until the change had been experienced. Fantastic that you managed to get the whole team on board effectively. It is also interesting how it took the children a little bit of time, but not too long, to get used to the change


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  5. Heather McInnes
    Heather McInnes
    14 Jun 2023 at 2:54 pm

    It sounds like your free flow meal times have had a positive impact on the children in your setting. The children are showing good independence and leadership skills through serving their own meals. It is nice to see that your meal times are calmer and less rushed.


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