During the first five years of life, babies’ and children’s brains grow faster than at any other time in their lives, with brain size increasing to 90% of an adult’s brain by the age of five. At birth, babies are born with typically 100 billion neurons and while the number of neurons does not increase, the synapses – the network connection between neurons – continue to do so with each journey sparked by sensory input. More experiences and the pleasure gained from each experience will strengthen the network, as when the neurons fire together, they wire together, a term coined by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949.

From birth, babies need a sensory rich environment filled with various opportunities to explore through touch, sight, smell, taste, sound, balance, and movement. Not only can these experiences be enjoyable, but they help children learn about the world and lay the foundations for survival as they discover likes and dislikes and what may be safe or potentially harmful. The pleasurable thing about sensory play is that due to its open-ended nature, there is no right or wrong way to explore different materials as it is not restricted by prescription. Sensory exploration enables curiosity, feeds awe and wonder and fosters exploration, allowing children to embrace moments to be creative and delve into a magical world of make believe through imaginary play.  

Practitioners at our Stony Stratford nursery created this book themed invitation to sensory exploration, using farm animals and natural materials to provoke interest to play.

Practitioners at our Westcroft nursery followed the children’s interest in bugs to provide an invitation to play, using playdough and loose parts to create their own bugs.


Exploring the world through first hand experiences is exciting and enjoyable thus can be offered time and time again which is vital to ensure connections are strengthened and not lost during synaptic pruning of less essential pathways as they develop, and as their understanding of their world changes and becomes more complex. Neuroscientist Dr Mine Conkbayir refers to the term, “use it or lose it” (2017) in the simplest of ways to describe this process of eliminating what the brain does not feel it needs for survival thus reserving resources that are deemed to be important to navigate their way through life. 

Acorn encourages the children to be autonomous in their play and provide opportunities for children to make their own playdough as they learn through moments of trial and error.


Children at our Stanwick nursery embraced the opportunity to explore the fresh smell of cut flowers and coloured mouldable foam as they experimented with different smells to create potions and made marks.


The image below pictures representational models of the human sensory and motor cortex, depicting a visual image of each body part based on the amount of the brain that is typically dedicated to it. It is clear in this image that both the hands and mouth are crucial and prominent sensory and motor units – they are not only finely tuned to the senses and feedback but are also highly dexterous. We can assume then, that we as humans primarily require and thrive on these functions to make sense of the environment around us. It is interesting to note that the feet on the sensory model are slightly larger than on the motor model, highlighting the sensory role they play in receiving feedback of the surface beneath them.

Considering, then, the importance of exploration through children’s prominent sensory units, early years professionals need to be mindful of safe opportunities to provide such experiences. One of the safest ways to facilitate such play experiences can be through food. This doesn’t come free from risk, of course, as professionals need to be mindful of possible allergens, the risk of choking and maintaining high quality food handling standards to prevent the risk of possible illness.

Food for play has been used in early years settings for many years, as a source for safe sensory play, although I have found the types of food used over the years has changed. I remember when I used to work as an early years practitioner in one of Acorn’s baby rooms around 25 years ago and we would often provide babies with opportunities to delve feet first onto trays of baked beans, custard, and jelly. Babies and toddlers were stripped down to their nappy and encouraged to explore the cold, wet texture of food. Over the years, Acorn have slowly moved away from this type of play, reducing the amounts and varieties of food used.

However, today, the sustainability (and therefore the ethics) of using food for play requires further attentiveness. The latest government statistics reveal that 4.2 million people were living in food poverty in 2020-21. This statistic includes 9% of all children. The ever-rising costs of living is continuing to impact families to live comfortably and recent statistics from the Food Foundation show 9.7 million adults experienced food insecurity in September 2022 (Big Issue, 2023). The Big Issue recorded an increase of food prices by 16.7% in the last year resulting in more families needing to access community food banks to acquire basic foodstuffs. Food insecurity increased more in households with children, recording a rate of 25.8 % compared to those without at 17.29% (Big Issue, 2023). Also, with more and more families living with food insecurity due to the rising costs of living and busy lifestyles, more children are now at risk of developing long term health conditions including type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.


The UK produces the highest amount of food waste in Europe while over a third of all food produced globally goes to waste (Smith, 2023). This is an alerting number considering how many people live in food poverty. Food waste is also the third biggest contributor to climate change, as decomposing food waste releases methane gas into the atmosphere which is 28 to 34 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, greatly contributing to the greenhouse effect (UNECE).

With all this in mind, it is important to reflect on the purpose of food used for play, and to consider adopting sustainable practices by replacing food items with other natural sources that provide the same or very similar sensory benefits such as sand and coco fibre to explore, consider if the food could be used to provide a substantial meal, and introduce activities that enable children to explore foods in meaningful ways, like the activity shown in the images below.

The children at our Hedgerows nursery recycled vegetable heads that would have otherwise been wasted, to grow into new crops.


The children at our Sharnbrook nursery used left over vegetables to help reduce waste and make vegetable soup. They also roasted the onion outer layer to make a seasoning to put on top of the stale bread croutons.


Like many things in life, it is imperative to stay connected to the world and keep abreast of the changing economic issues and change practice and procedures as needed. Acorn aims to embed sustainable practice in all settings, supporting children and families to develop their understanding of sustainability through ECO interventions. For a while, Acorn have discouraged food for play as it is viewed as wasteful and risks confusing children at mealtimes, but still permitted some food to be played with such as dried pasta, rice, and oats. These foods were advised to be presented in a way that looked different to its natural form and advised for these to be coloured with food dye or paint. However, earlier this month Acorn made the decision to reduce this list of permittable items (removing food items such as dried pasta, rice and oats) due to the rising number of families accessing food banks, the rising living costs, and due to the negative impact food waste has on the environment. Whilst this revision of food for play has already been introduced to the nurseries, Acorn recognises this as a work in progress that will continually be monitored and evaluated, to ensure its embedment flourishes.

Acorn’s Early Years team and ECO leads have been working together to provide a list of non-food alternatives for their nurseries to use for play, ensuring children have safe, sensory rich experiences. Some of the examples include, replacing coloured rice with coloured fish gravel, coloured pasta with natural bamboo pieces and coloured porridge oats with crumbly dried coloured cornflour. These experiences can provide children with opportunities to scoop, weigh, measure and pour ‘ingredients’ to use to compliment role play or to use as loose parts recourses for open ended play. Fruits and vegetables that may have been used for printing different shapes and mark making is discouraged not only due to it being wasteful but due to its prescriptive outcomes. If practitioners seek to provide food-based experiences to mark make, they may opt to use flour mixed with natural food dye, or cooked and blended vegetable waste from the foods they prepare for the children at mealtimes.

It is important now more than ever to help encourage practitioners, children, and families to reduce food waste, as a step towards tackling climate change and giving something back to the planet. It is everybody’s responsibility to engage with notions of sustainability and try to adopt as many sustainable practises as possible, as we all have a part to play in helping to reduce waste and its impacts on our planet , whilst inspiring the future generation with what a sustainable lifestyle can look like.


Becky Watanabe