As I mentioned in our Toy Fair trends blog entries, adorable food with faces is very in this year, and it’s no surprise: food is fascinating, and playing with it is fun, whether you’re exploring play food or the real thing!
It could even be said that adults who enjoy cooking are just carrying on a more grown-up version of playing with their food. Carol Deppe writes in Grist,
“I speculate that the drive to play with our food — to handle, shell, peel, pound, grind, cut, cook, and carry food — is built into our genes… Maybe when, as kids, we take a piece of Wonder bread (food already played-with by someone else) and we press and roll and play with that bread ourselves until it is a tiny marble-shaped ball, we are following our deepest and most honorable of instincts. Maybe playing with our food is what made us human.”
Food play begins very early; after all, babies explore the world by putting everything in their mouth. The cute and humorous Appeteethers from Little Toader capitalize on this impulse by mimicking the look of real food, and it’s possible that gnawing on fake broccoli might even teach your kid that real broccoli is fun to put in her mouth!
Teethers like the Munchkin Deluxe Fresh Food Feeder and the Boon Pulp let small children safely enjoy the same kind of play with real food. With either of these toys/feeders, you can put in chunks of fruits and veggies and let your child chew on it, and only pieces they can safely swallow will come through. It’s also a fun lesson in early self-feeding!
For toddlers and preschoolers who are ready for imitative role play, food play can take a wide variety of forms: they’re practicing the tasks they enjoy watching you do, while refining their motor skills, practicing vocabulary, learning shapes and colors, and so on. The traditional play kitchen provides a realistic setting for these explorations, as do small-scale play kitchens that let kids act out everyday scenarios with dolls or figures, like this Calico Critters Kitchen set.
There’s a dizzying variety of play food to round out the experience, too. Our play food assortment includes everything from wooden food they can pretend to cut to vivid play food that’s fun to sort by color to food-themed stacker toys. Pretending to cook, assemble, and serve up these treats is an essential play pattern, so make sure they have the learning tools they need! (And if you’re crafty and/or thrifty, there are plenty of ways to make your own play food, too.)
There’s fun to be had with real food at this age too: adding a FunPod or a Learning Tower to your kitchen lets your preschooler safely reach the kitchen counter, and they can even help out a little. For you, most days, putting together a healthy meal is just more work that needs to get done, but mixing, mashing, tearing, and squeezing items is just more fascinating playtime for your child (and, like all play, it teaches new skills and refines existing ones). Not ready to cook with your kids, or want to try something new? There are countless activities that involve playing with real food and not eating it: this list from Ark Therapeutic Services has some great suggestions which will be especially great for kids with sensory issues and food aversions.
Games like Frankie’s Food Truck Fiasco from Educational Insights and Dream Cakes from Ravensburger take the obvious fascinations of foods and use it to teach kids to count, take turns, identify shapes, and more. Bonus points: playing with cake is definitely better for you than eating it!
Finally, there’s personified food toys, and the most obvious example is Shopkins, which we’ve touched on here a few times before. The appeal of Shopkins is less about a desire to pretend to cook or eat anthropomorphic apples, cookies, cupcakes, or candy bars, and more about character and social play: each Shopkin has personality traits (Kooky Cookie is “well rounded” but also “a little crumbly around the edges), and part of the fun of collecting them is trading Shopkins with your friends.
Are there any other food toys we’ve missed in this roundup, or any others that you’d like to see on our shelves? Let us know!