One of the most curious (and adorable) behaviors of young children is how much they love to pretend to eat food. As adults, the appeal isn’t immediately obvious — pretending to eat food, especially something particularly enticing like a dessert, can’t simulate the enjoyment of actually eating that food, so why bother? Why do toddlers love to pretend to eat ice cream?
The answer lies in how a child’s mind starts to grow and develop. Make-believe involving food is not only a normal part of child development, but can help kids learn new skills. I reached out to the child development experts who contribute to the Genius of Play and website to find out the deal is with this endless fascination toddlers have with ersatz cones.
First, it’s important to understand why children enjoy make-believe in general. “Part of toddler development includes engaging in pretend play and it’s important, because kids can learn so much about the world around them as they reenact what they see or have experienced in their everyday lives,” Keri Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist and Genius of Play ambassador, tells Romper. Studies have shown that make-believe helps develop creativity: a study by Jeffrey L. Dansky of Eastern Michigan University published in the journal Child Development found that make-believe play increased the “associative fluency” of children, that is, coming up with more ideas for uses of objects.
In fact, the act of pretending plays a critical role in developing both a toddler’s mind, and the minds of older children.
“Pretending is a natural progression in a child’s learning," Antonia Llull, a pediatric occupational therapist, tells Romper. "
"Pretend play is also termed imaginative play, make believe, and symbolic play — typically starting at 18 months of age and becomes more sophisticated as your child forms a better understanding of her/his body, how to manipulate objects, language and socialization, as well as cause/effect."
So what draws children to engage in pretend play about food, and specifically ice cream? Llull explains that it involves a complex burgeoning understanding of the world: “When children pretend to eat ice cream, they are demonstrating the concept that one thing can ‘be’ another thing or that positioning their hand like they are ‘holding’ something and moving their head and mouth/tongue toward that ‘something’ is acting like you are eating delicious ice cream.”
Imaginary ice cream eating also represents children developing a sense of their tastes and desires. Amy Eisenmann, an early education advisor tells Romper that “[Y]oung children are naturally attracted to sweet and sugary foods like ice cream — this is believed to be an innate protection against potentially poisonous foods which often taste bitter. However, and for good reason, most of the time sweet foods such as ice cream are a special treat doled out by parents or caregivers cautiously. This limitation increases toddlers’ desire for ice cream, and may be one reason why they choose to pretend to eat, make, or sell ice cream: in that instance, they can be in control and eat as much ice cream as their heart desires!”
Dr. Amanda Gummer tells Romper that the act of pretend can even help children relive those cherished ice cream moments: “By re-imagining the memory that are stimulating the pleasure centers that were initially stimulated in the brain when actually eating ice cream.” But not only is pretend ice cream "delicious," these make-believe games benefit the developing mind in a variety of ways. Professor of early childhood education Debora Wisneski explains to Romper that playing pretend with imaginary food can help with, “Language development in learning about the different types of foods available — their names, colors, sizes and shapes, self-esteem development in the ability to feed themselves and others just like their parents or others in their life, [and] cultural identity and development in learning foods that are unique to their family’s culture.”
Dr. Sandra Stone, a professor of education, tells Romper that pretend play can even help develop more complex modes of thinking such as abstract thought: “As the child develops through this type of play, the child is eventually able to ‘think’ abstractly without using the events or objects to ‘stand for’ those things." The symbols and props become less important over time.
As a parent, what can you do to help encourage your child’s healthy imaginary ice cream habit? It partially depends on the age of your child. Says Dr. Gummer, “Children under about two years will benefit most from realistic food toys, as their symbolic thinking hasn't yet developed to the point that one thing can represent another. Older children can turn anything into a pretend play prop, so are likely to enjoy creative materials — such as play dough, or paper and crayons — that can become any food they can imagine.”
Of course, a well-stocked dress-up trunk doesn't hurt. As early education advisor Amy Eisenmann explains to Romper, “Dress-up clothes like an apron or chef’s hat help children to fully take on the role of another character. To incorporate elements of literacy and numeracy, try adding some cookbooks, menus, and pads of paper with pencils for taking orders and calculating the totals.”
However you choose to help foster your little ones' love of make-believe, rest assured that imaginary ice cream is one healthy and guilt-free treat.