10 Ideas for Using Pretend Food in a Learning Environment

Pretend food (or play food) can have so many uses in assisting learning through play. Here are just a few ideas to get you going.

Use within a role play area to assist with word recognition.

A simple ‘Cafe’, or garden party role play area is relatively easy to set up. It could be as simple as a few small tables and chairs along with some play crockery and food. If you’re feeling more adventurous though, you could use junk materials to create your own inspiring food-based role play area. Having a tactile, and visually inviting area can inspire children to take on various roles and act out various scenarios with each other. If a child is playing alone, they could play the part of a waiter/waitress, whilst their teddy bears take on the roles of customers. The addition of a clipboard can also add value to the activity as they take down orders. For younger children, even scribbling and mark-making can be beneficial as it builds confidence.

This activity can be entirely child-led, or as a parent, carer or teacher you could also become part of the role play. This enables you to monitor the child’s ability to collate the correct order or to remember a sequence of items. You could also add additional requests – Such as, “May I have some more milk in my tea please?”, or request a different flavour of jam in your scone. This presents them with an opportunity to test their skills without feeling the pressures which can sometimes be associated with a more academic setting.

Use dramatic play scenarios to reinforce politeness and manners (e.g. shopkeeper and customer).

An ‘Afternoon Tea’ is a really good way of modelling polite requests and responses from both the child acting as the customer or as the waiting staff. Phrases like: ‘Please may I have…’, ‘I would like…’, ‘I prefer…’,‘Would you like…?’, ‘That will be…’, and ‘Thank you’, could be demonstrated to the child / children. They would then be encouraged to try using them during the role-play activity. The ultimate aim of this would be that the child then uses these phrases within real-life situations such as ordering in a café / restaurant, or even at the dinner table at home.

Create pretend cakes as an arts and crafts activity.

Use our ‘Afternoon Tea’ craft activity as a guide to create pretend play cakes and biscuits. This activity provides opportunities for children to demonstrate their craft skills as well as following a sequence of instructions. Once you’ve made a selection of cakes and biscuits, they can be used within dramatic play games.

As a child’s confidence and ability develop, they can then go on to create their own cakes and biscuits, discussing preferences in flavours and toppings.

Acting out celebrations (great for birthdays in a classroom setting).

Making one of our pretend sponge cakes could be used as a prop whilst singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a child in a class, or even as part of a role-play pretend party. Different styles of cake could be created to become props for different celebrations, such as weddings or anniversaries.

To assist with speech and engage children in dialogue.

By placing the role play cakes as a visual aid on a table, children could be asked to discuss their favourite flavours. A group of children could be asked to find another child who likes the same flavour, or to stand near their favourite cake (if positioned on different tables).

Descriptive words that describe flavour and texture such as: ‘buttery, sweet, chocolatey, crumbly, fruity or juicy could be modelled. Some children may then be able to discuss why they enjoy their preference, using vocabulary such as ‘I like strawberry flavour because it is juicy’ or ‘I like chocolate because it is creamy’.

Children could be asked to design their favourite cake on paper, or even in 3-D. Healthy toppings or alternatives to using refined sugar could also be discussed and form part of their designs. These could then form part of a wall display where children describe the ingredients, flavours and textures (See cake design worksheet). 3-D work could be photographed or if created as a slice stuck to their sheet to create an interesting display.

To spark discussions on which foods constitute a healthy diet and to talk about issues such as portion control.

The importance of eating a well-balanced diet could also be discussed during role play, and  chocolate cake (for example) can be eaten as a treat. The consequences of eating too many sweet treats and the sizes of the slices and portions could also be discussed with the child or group of children.

To develop an understanding of simple fractions and percentages (slices of pizza / cake).

Pretend food pizza.

Whilst making the role play cakes try cutting these into different sized slices, i.e in half, into quarters, into thirds, left as a whole cake etc. If you want the cake to be divided into even smaller slices an adult could use an electric carving to carefully cut more accurate slices. Simple fractions and percentages such as: ‘a quarter is the equivalent to 25%’ or ‘a half is equivalent to 50%’ could be clearly demonstrated and could support both visual and kinaesthetic learners.

The different cake slices could be placed into a table with sheets with different fractions and percentages on, and the children could be asked to match up the correct cake slice to the number. Children could then be asked to share the cake into the requested fractions during role play i.e ‘ I would like half a chocolate cake please’ or ‘a whole strawberry cake please’ or ‘a quarter of chocolate cake, and a third of lemon cake please’.

To introduce mathematical concepts such as division, addition and percentages using discounts and pricing.

Children could also be asked to price up a whole role play cake, and to work out how much each slice would cost the customer if divided up into divisions of four, six, eight, ten etc. The use of play money, and the correct amounts of money exchanged and change given could be developed during this role play.

To create a ‘Bake Off’ style challenge.

Either with a child or with a small group of children, you could challenge them to create a batch of biscuits. You could you real edible biscuit ingredients and cook them according to a recipe, or use playdough or salt dough (See printable for both recipes and further ideas for uses) with shaped cutters, rolling pins and baking trays.

Examples of challenges could be to create six identical biscuit shapes, or four batches of six in four different shapes. The challenges could be used as evidence of understanding numbers, shapes and also a way of developing their listening and fine motor skills.

Children could work against the clock. It could even be set up as a competition either in a real kitchen or within a kitchen role play area (you could use our printable cafe cooker – in printable).

To create a real afternoon tea set up, and invite a ‘special guest’ (such as a friend or family member).

The ultimate challenge for a group of able children would be to devise their own ‘Afternoon Tea’ menu, including sandwiches, a cake or biscuits and to invite a special guest such as the school piano teacher or caretaker during lunchtime or family member at home for a special teatime treat.

The children’s menu could then be created for real following recipes in a school or home kitchen. They could be asked to set up the tableware and to present their guest with their menu. Using the role-play activity as a practice run before serving the guest will help the children to use appropriate phrases and mannerisms in this real-life situation.

Of course, a more simplified version of this activity could be to bake a cake to share with a special guest at home or at school.

I personally was involved in such an activity as a year 6 pupil at primary school, where we invited the school lollipop lady. This was a real challenge and positive experience for me and the guest and I remember it 30 years later as a real highlight of my own primary school days. 

Pretend food afternoon tea display.