By CELA on 2 Nov, 2017

Ethical choices in early childhood settings

Educators face many different challenges in their daily work, just one of these is the use of various play materials in our services.

All of us want to offer children the widest possible range of experiences so we can support and foster their development. However, beyond providing that variety, there are underlying issues that need to be considered when making choices about play materials.

The choices we make must be guided by our ethics.

The ethics behind our Standards

The National Quality Standard sets out expectations for our behaviour in the areas, standards and elements.   Some of these that specifically require ethical consideration are:

  • 1.1.5 Every child is supported to participate in the program
  • 1.2.3 Critical reflection on children’s learning and development, both as individuals and in groups, is regularly used to implement the program.
  • 3.2 The environment is inclusive, promotes competence, independent exploration and learning through play.
  • 3.3: The service takes an active role in caring for its environment and contributes to a sustainable future
  • 3.3.1:  Sustainable practices are embedded in service operations.
  • 3.3.2:  Children are supported to become environmentally responsible and show respect for the environment.
  • 4.2 Educators, co-ordinators and staff members are respectful and ethical
  • 4.2.3 Interactions convey mutual respect, equity and recognition of each other’s strengths and skills.
  • 5.1.3 Each child is supported to feel secure, confident and included.
  • 5.2.3 The dignity and rights of every child are maintained at all times.
  • 6.1 Respectful supportive relationships with families are developed and maintained.

Translating these standards and elements into our daily program requires educators to commit to ongoing critical reflection about our choices.  Making our choices even more complex is that we might be meeting one requirement in a way that challenges another!

This is the essence of an ethical dilemma – a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two courses of action, either of which entails a breach of a moral principle.

Ethical dilemmas

In everyday language, an ethical dilemma can be described as making a choice between a rock and a hard place!

There is no clear and correct answer in a dilemma.   One choice is better from one point of view; another answer is better from a different point of view.

In early childhood education services, the use of food items in play is a classic example of this dilemma. We know that many people in the world do not have enough to eat. Some of those people may even be among the families who use our service.

Don’t play with your food?

How then do we justify the use of food items for play purposes only?

Spaghetti sticks spearing cereal loops, macaroni threaded on necklace cords, cut potatoes for paint stamps, carved pumpkins for Halloween!

Is it not flagrantly disrespectful to use food this way? Is our underlying message (even though it is one we do not mean to send): We have so much food we can afford to just waste it on play activities?

Many educators struggle with justifying the use of playdough, for example. It is a staple activity in almost every service and nothing replaces it effectively.

The playdough debate

So one ethical dilemma is this: do we use playdough in our service?

Some services address this issue by making playdough from ingredients that are past their use-by date.

This is one way to justify the use of food items for play.  These ingredients would be discarded if they were not used for playdough, because they are no longer suitable for eating.

That certainly addresses one part of the dilemma, but it does not address the message that using foodstuff for play may send to children and their families.  After all, playdough is dough you play with!  Families who are struggling to put food on the table may not appreciate the subtle differences in the age of the ingredients used.

Other services choose to substitute playdough with making tortillas or other flat breads, so then the children can eat them.  This addresses the issue of wasting food very effectively.  But preparing food is, once again, a different activity from playdough play.

Still other services avoid the use of foodstuffs entirely and instead they substitute clay or even mud.  Clay is wonderful!  But it is a different medium from playdough.  It does not offer the same experience, although there are some similarities.

Clearly, there is no simple straightforward alternative to playdough!

Sustainable spaghetti?

Nor is playdough the only time we use foodstuffs in early childhood settings.  Consider that old favourite – pasta threading!  In a recent FaceBook post on this topic, one educator made the following excellent point:

There is an argument that food is more sustainable, economical and environmentally friendly than many other resources and materials we use. For example, to use pasta for threading, is cheap (80c a bag?), can be cooked and fed to chickens when done. Instead, we purchase expensive beads etc from education suppliers, that are sourced from god knows where, and could potentially be made by underpaid, exploited workers. (Who knows?).

Weighing it up

Ethical considerations can seem endless, but we shouldn’t be afraid to explore them both widely and deeply.

Aspects of ethics for food play decisions include being conscious of principles such as

  • Biodegradability
  • Reducing waste
  • Recycling potential
  • Sourcing of the product including fair work labour laws

If we allow one ethical consideration to blind us to others, then we are only partially effective in meeting our NQS obligations and our professional responsibilities as educators.

These considerations are not ones to which there are single correct answers.

The ethical issues that surround our use of food items for non-eating purposes need to be resolved by each service and the educators who work there.  Critical reflection that takes into consideration all the ethical factors and finds the path that feels most right is the best way for any service to address this problem.


What about you? Do you play with your food?

A related provocation:

Meet the author

Anne Peters

Anne Peters is currently teaching Certificate III and Diploma in Early Childhood Education and Care at two country Victorian Learn Local Registered Training Organisations. Over the years she has worked in a wide range of early childhood services including long day care, sessional preschool and family day care. She has also worked in the Disability area at times, including working as an Early Intervention teacher. Anne is passionate about social justice issues and about the importance of high-quality practice in early childhood education and care services. She is planning to retire at the end of this year, after forty five years in the workforce. She is looking forward to more time with her partner, Barry, her dog Gyro and spending time gardening and quilting

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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