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Engaging children with food.

When I design an interpretive program for children, my goal is to engage them by providing a multisensory experience. As interpreters, we have many things in our sensory toolboxes. We often use visuals, sounds, scents, and touch, but we seldom use taste.

I have had some wonderful experiences with food in interpretive programs both as the visitor to and facilitator for many nature, science, and history-based programs. It has provided a connection to the theme of the event, added an element of fun, and provided other benefits as well.

Incorporating food in interpretation is very conducive to hands-on learning, and in itself, uses multiple senses to engage children in the learning process. It creates connections by getting them immediately involved and by evoking emotions like comfort and pleasure, which increases the odds that they will remember their experience.


Some themes lend themselves to using food quite easily, while others are more challenging. With a little research and creativity, any theme can be enhanced by including food. I hope these examples will demonstrate how food can help you create great experiences for children.

Make a Bridge

Food is an excellent tool that can be used as a bridge to illustrate difficult concepts, such as the water cycle. The process of making hot tea is a great visual to demonstrate the different phases of water. While the water is boiling and turning to steam, evaporation is taking place. Pop an ice cube into the hot tea, and condensation forms on the outside of the cup. Each child can have their own miniature water cycle working right before their eyes.

Illustrate the movement of water through soil and rock layers by building an aquifer out of chocolate chips, ice cream, and soda. Do a search for "edible aquifer" on the Web to find some great recipes.

Demonstrate soil and rock layers using multilayered cupcakes and clear straws, and children can be scientists taking "core samples."

Illustrate Science Concepts

There are many ways to connect food to your science-themed programs. Build pizza-box solar cookers and make s'mores to demonstrate renewable energy.

Taste dandelion greens or make dandelion jelly while teaching about weeds. Add honey to your bee theme or have honey sticks, honey candy, or honey-topped fruit ready to serve. The concept of nest building, or structures in general, comes alive when children build "houses" from graham crackers and frosting.


Bring History and Culture Alive

Food often represents distinctive cultures and is a wonderful tool to set the scene in a historical program. Bring the past alive at a prairie event by making hand-churned ice cream or butter.

Complement a cultural event by finding a food authentic to the people and time period you are portraying. Make popped wild rice, a unique and tasty snack, at a Native American program. Serve it plain and it's crunchy and slightly nutty like a cereal, or add butter and salt for a similar taste and texture to popcorn. The Ojibway people popped it similarly to how we pop popcorn, fried it in deer tallow, and mixed it with maple syrup as a treat.

Have Fun

Food can also be incorporated into a program for just plain fun. It engages children's minds but also fills empty tummies so that their attention is on the program instead of on their stomachs.

Dish up goldfish-shaped crackers at programs where ponds are the main focus or star-shaped cookies at an astronomy event. Celebrate birds by making chocolate bird nest treats with flavored jellybeans for the eggs.

Match foods to the seasons. Serve cider and popcorn in the fall and make ice cream out of snow in the winter. Have fresh-picked tomatoes during the summer to explore vegetables or gardening themes.

Food can be a great way to connect with children, engage their senses, and add color and dimension to your program. It can also be a great "hook" for promoting your programs, and you may find the ones incorporating food tend to draw the biggest crowds. If you haven't already, I hope you'll consider using food in one of your children's interpretive programs.

Chris Hettwer is a Certified Interpretive Guide and a program specialist with Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast. Contact her at
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Author:Hettwer, Chris
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2011
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