It’s fair to say that many educators would use the descriptor ‘busy’ to describe their days with children. With workdays full of routine care mechanics like feeding, toileting and nappy changing, educators turn to an efficient ‘task driven’ mode of care that sees success and achievement as being productive, quick and effective.
Educators recognise the deep importance and value of joy, delight and connection with children but are also aware that these can be lost in the rush of primary care moments. At The Learning Terrace Child Care Centre and Preschool in New South Wales, our educator team reflected on how this could be changed and how care moments could be turned into opportunities for connection. We started with a few key questions: What do we lose in this ‘task driven’ model? What do we sacrifice for children and ourselves in the name of maximising productivity? How might we see these moments as rich opportunities for connection and learning rather than a task to be ticked off?
We decided to focus on mealtimes. They happen multiple times a day and, for our teams, often evoked images and memories of noise, mess and power struggles. Our aim was to evolve our practice to allow mealtimes to be meaningful. So, we considered how mealtimes could go beyond just filling children’s bellies to something that is an opportunity for enriching relationships, slowing down and celebrating belonging and learning. Ritualising our mealtimes was a way to achieve this.
Author Toni Christie defines rituals as ‘a powerful way of using gestures, actions and behaviour to bring positive energy and intention to our daily rhythms’. Considering this, our next step was to articulate what ritualising mealtimes will look and feel like and think about what it will mean for us and the children at The Learning Terrace.
We thought of author Ann Pelo’s words, ‘a ritual that is alive and enlivening is deliberate, anchored by intention and desire’, and asked ourselves a few more questions:
- How do we, as educators, feel during mealtimes and how does this affect children’s experience?
- How do our mealtimes align and celebrate our centre’s values and philosophy?
- Do our mealtimes support autonomy, choice and self-help skills?
- What does a meaningful mealtime look like, sound like and smell like?
- Is it a time to nurture, nourish and connect?
- Do these times support our ‘image of the child’?
- Does it bring joy and delight to both educators and children?
We started out simple. We purchased tablecloths, serving ware and placemats. We started involving children in the setting of the table and asked them to come up with ideas on how to make the mealtime table special. It could be finding some of ‘nature’s treasures’ from the playground to display in vases or choosing a scarf, candle or ornament to display in the middle of the table. For our infants, we brought serving trays to roll our face washers onto and baskets for bibs to be displayed. Over time, the mealtime table has become a place of beauty and consideration—it’s protected and special. This is a reflection of our deep respect for children and our view that they are capable and confident members of our community.
The educators sit alongside children at the table, rather than hovering around the edges. We eat together as a community, physically and emotionally. Our focus is on being present and available for the children, slowing down and nourishing the body and spirit simultaneously. Sharing stories, connecting and supporting conversations are all roles our educators take during mealtimes. It creates an intimate, home-like setting. Children practise autonomy and self-care by serving themselves and selecting items they would like to eat/try from the carefully displayed platters and bowls. We trust that children know when they are full and support conversations around listening to the body’s cues and messages.
We support and trust children to use non-plastic dishes, tableware and utensils—sending them the message that you deserve special things, you are capable and we trust you. Do breakages happen? Yes, on occasion—but what an authentic opportunity to talk through why breakages happen and what to do when they happen and to involve children in finding and implementing solutions.
Our mealtime rituals keep evolving and are responsive to the changing needs of our community. Our toddlers create centrepieces for their mealtime tables and our preschoolers have created their own placemats and coasters. Some services have started to embed positive affirmations and songs to spark joy and delight during mealtimes. Our rituals are indeed a true reflection of the unique individuals that attend our service.
Ritualising mealtimes has helped us create a purposeful, responsive, nurturing and relationship-focused community. It has allowed our team to lean into our centre’s philosophy of ‘Respect, Connect, Create’ and see true value and delight in the smaller moments each day. We now celebrate slowing down and support our learners to ‘just be’ with us.
Rituals: Making the every extraordinary in early childhood
By Memory Lyon & Toni Christie
This beautiful treasure of a book will have your insides applauding loudly. Intended for parents, teachers, and anyone passionate about creating meaningful and mindful experiences, readers will find delight and inspiration within these colourful pages. Toni and Memory share practical ideas for turning humble routines into thoughtful and sacred rituals through stunning imagery and real life examples. Purchase on the ECA Shop here.