An ethnographic study examining food and drink practices in four early childhood settings

Albon, Deborah (2010) An ethnographic study examining food and drink practices in four early childhood settings. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This thesis asserts the importance of pleasure and playfulness in relation to 'food events' (Douglas and Nicod, 1974) in early childhood settings and posits that at the current time in the English context, the socia-cultural significance of food and eating is an often silent perspective in relation to food policy and practices, which increasingly elevate its nutritional importance alone. Adopting a social constructionist approach, this study draws on ethnographic data from four early childhood settings, including participant observations of practitioners and children engaged in the habitual activities of their settings over time (children aged six months - four years) as well as semi-structured interviews with 28 practitioners. The key themes of this study are as follows: Food events are occasions when children's bodies are especially subject to civilizing processes in terms of space; time; focusing on the task not the child; 'body rules'; and future-centredness. I develop the idea that practitioners' bodies are also 'disciplined', not least in the notion that they should act as role models of 'healthy' eating and be the physical embodiment of 'health' for young children. Food events in early childhood practice are increasingly constructed as a 'risky' business, with children as a group constructed as 'dangerous' as well as 'in danger'. Moreover, some working class families' food practices are similarly constructed. I contend that an over-concern with risk avoidance may be antithetical to other long-held ideas about early childhood practice, notably the importance of playfulness and spontaneity. In discussing the importance of playfulness in relation to food events, I develop a representation that conceptualizes food events in early childhood practice in terms of real/pretend and serious/playful in order to position practices relating to food events in terms of their 'fit' into the general activity of the early childhood settings. Throughout the study I draw upon the perspectives of practitioners and young children and emphasise that both groups engage in the joint construction of 'rules' relating to food events as well as practices that subvert the civilizing and risk-avoidance practices of the settings and the policies that inform them. I conclude by suggesting that the implications of this study go beyond a consideration of food events. I argue that early childhood practice is increasingly centred on a project of taming children's futures at the expense of their immediate and embodied experiences; something that highlighting food events brings into sharp focus. I assert that pleasure and playfulness are important for children and adults alike and need to be valued in early childhood practice.

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