Monday, 16 April 2018

the story of a dining table

I recently read a thread about the use of tablecloths in early years settings... one educator having seen them being used on pinterest in increasing numbers and was wondering whether it was a thing... and wondering whether she was missing out on something.

I think it lead to some interesting dialogue.. as the group is  Reggio Emilia inspired group is is from this standpoint that the discussion went.
Some said they used tablecloths to hide ugly tables, others said they used them to make their setting more homely feeling... and there was a comment about the preschools in Reggio Emilia itself using tablecloths and personal napkins at the lunch table every day... in the sense of honouring the child... although the writer chose the words dignified and civilised as a way of describing the reasons...

I am all for honouring the child... but does a tablecloth really do that? And is a table without a tablecloth uncivilised?

I looked at the history of tablecloths to find out where they come from, and also the history of the napkin... and saw that they have changed over time, but on the whole that they have been connected with showing off wealth and status. (see links below)

I also looked into sustainability... which is better for the planet... and really there is not a big difference between them if the napkins are being cleaned once a week - but if you are adding on the tablecloth impact in comparison to wiping a table clean, then yes that is going to have a larger impact... both with the whole making of the cloth as well as maintaining its cleanliness. (see link below)

I also looked at it from a hygiene point of view... an within many preschools it is simply policy that paper towels are used rather than real towels or napkins. Here is Sweden we have a roll of paper at the table - as do most homes... I would also like to point out that compared to my British home where we use a roll of paper towels too - the paper is thinner, recycled and is divided into smaller pieces so that you do not have to take more than you need. My children comment every time we visit the UK on the size of the paper towels!!

I also googled fine dining around the world, and also michelin restaurants to see what images would pop up... and many of the photos were of tables without table cloths. As I was interested in the idea of us needing to put tablecloths on a table to give the children value, status or to honour them in some way... and yet these restaurants seem to honour the food and their patrons without the need of tablecloths...

As I wrote in my comment in the group... for me it is not about the fact there is a tablecloth or not, but about the quality of the food and also the quality of the interactions with the people who work there.
In the preschool it would be about the quality of the interactions with the children's peers and also the educators.

I also checked out a Swedish paper that examined meal times in the preschool setting - exploring mealtimes in families over time and in various cultures. (see link below) - it states that mealtimes have become a measuring stick of civilised behaviour. That table etuiqutte was a way of seeing how well raised people were/are - and that you came form a good family (historically).

That it is a time for talking together, sharing values... research had shown that different cultures did this differently... in some children were valued more equally in others the parents talk at the children - these family meals will influence how we eat at preschool.

That mealtimes are a part of the social interaction order... that it is a complex social situation that happens on a daily basis... who leads the conversation, who gets the biggest portion, or the most of a certain most desirable food etc... there can be a lot happening at a meal.

So mealtimes can be seen  as a social arena... what kind of arena do we want to set up? How do we want the children to interact with each other. What sort of feeling do we want to create at the table... how does the setting of the table impact that...? tablecloths, flowers, having food served, taking their own food at the table or buffet style... having teachers sitting with them or not... all are conscious decisions that we make... and I feel we should always be prepared to change them depending on the need of individuals in the group and also how the group interacts with each other... and for this to be constantly re-assessed and new ways tried.


As a child I remember how eating meals was very much part of my social training - both at school and at home... we were expected to behave in certain ways... expected to hold knife and fork in certain ways, to talk not too loudly, not with our mouths full, how to eat the food etc etc (both my sister and I made the decision to dislike peas because of the demand to eat with our forks "correctly" ie not allowed to shovel them in - it was just too much hassle to chase those peas around the plate... much easier not to like them)

I have an extremely vivid memory from my first school lunch/dinner - so I must have been 4 years old... where I spat out my dessert and got promptly told off. As a four year old I had complete trust in the adults around me that they would give me food that I liked, and if it was new food I was given a small amount to try... this was not the system of the school... a portion of mandarin oranges was put in my bowl and I trustingly put one in my mouth and it exited pronto.
I suffered a lot at school mealtimes due to not being able to eat fruit... I would eat well... all my vegetables etc, just not fruit, which I realise is part of my autism and sensory processing - I love the taste but the feeling is just all wrong. and I mean all wrong.
This has of course given me a greater sensitivity for young children as they learn to process foods - I will always encourage to try... but I will never force.

For me this is more important than a tablecloth or cloth napkins. My interaction with the child.
But I think we need to take a closer look at the local way of eating - are we going to choose how they do it in Reggio Emilia with tablecloths and cloth napkins or are we going respect how the local culture eats meals.
Like my post about the dining room in Iceland (which funnily enough I had shared earlier today on my page) - where the educators at the preschool (A∂althing ) wanted to create a dining room that empowered the children. They visited various restaurants to see how a dining experience was being created for adults and wanted to create this same respect for children. They chose a hotel dining room where the tables were different sizes and heights as well as the chairs... they also made sure there were more spaces to sit at than children... so that when the last child entered the room there was still a selection of spaces to choose from. (see links below)

We need to think about how are we creating respectful interactions at the table... how are we empowering the children - do they take their own food at a buffet, or do they pass bowls around that the table... or is there a good reason for the teachers serving the children (I have to say when we have an epidemic of worms going round, we serve the food to make sure that we minimise contamination). Questions about who and how is the table going to be set, and also of how the table is to be cleared and cleaned afterwards are all taken into consideration - how can the children be involved, do they need to be involved, what happens if they are and what happens if they are not. Also what adjustments do we need to make if we are involving the children so that they fel competent... that it is not inappropriate - like if the children are scraping their own plates is it feasible to expect 1-3 year olds to always get their food in the bucket... what kind of support do they need, or is it OK for them to make a mess... if making a mess is OK what are we saying to the children when they are older... that they do not need to get it into the bucket or...?

If we look around the world we will see that meals are consumed in many different ways in the home and in school... and most of those ways are respectful - but will not involve tablecloths and cloth napkins (I mean look at the boxes of Japanese food - the bento boxes... so many of them are absolutely beautiful - never have I seen food in the west presented like this on a daily basis, for adults or children). Some eat on the floor, some on low benches, some ate tables, but not all. Not all homes and schools will have individual plates as communal eating is their preferred choice to socialise and connect and show respect.


https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:611466/FULLTEXT01.pdf  - the Swedish paper about mealtimes in preschools.

The Tablecloth in History - about how tablecloths were a sign of status...
medieval tablecloths - another link with information  - interesting to read that the old word for tablecloth in English is bord-cloth... as bord is the Swedish word for table.

Charlemagne's Tablecloth - this is more of a post about feasting, but at the same time I found it useful from the point of view that mealtimes have such power, and are an arena to show off wealth and status... also I wanted to share this because it starts off with a tale from my hometown of York, and ends with Charlemagne who was actually educated in York too! Nice to see that the asbestos tablecloth was not true though!

Vikings and food - this text shows that rich and high status vikings had a tablecloth

what is best cloth or paper napkin - from a sustainable point of view

Napkin History... from dough, to communal cloths, to paper towels - its a long read with some interesting facts that show how trends have changed over time in our relationship with table cloths and napkins...

Paper towels - a post about how millenials are using aper towels rather than paper napkins - this is what I do at home and also at preschools I have worked out... and in just about every Swedish home I have been in. Sometimes there are paper napkins, even more rarely cloth napkins. I do have cloth napkins at home, and will bring them out - no lets be honest I have not brought them out for years and years. To be honest we usually just wash our hands after our meal... as is the case with preschoolers- we wash hands and faces.

meals around the world some images of families eating together
American family dining - this really shows that there are so many different ways to eat a meal... and all within the same nation (2 of the 36 images have tablecloths)
food traditions we can learn a lesson from - just five examples that can add value to a mealtime according to this post
A film about lunch in  japanese school... not quite the same as a table set for everyone... but at the same time still honouring the child and empowering them.

Experience food not just feeding - this is a post about  a person who visit the Atelier of Food in Reggio Emilia... an goes back to the idea that by having tablecloths is giving value to the child because the table is set as we adults would set the table for (adult) guests - my question is then.. do we want the children to feel like guests or like family... and also to point out that if you should ever have a meal at my home there will never be a tablecloth on the table... firstly I don't own one, and secondly I would rather hope that my attention to making good food, and how interesting dialogues together is enough to make you feel special and valued.
Also there is this idea that what makes having guests ver and setting the table in a special way for Christmas or, birthdays or any other occasion  is that fact that we have gone that little extra to make it special for that special occasion... if it is special everyday then how will we make it different when we want to make it special... like we don't want birthday cake everyday, or whatever you might choose that makes us feel special... would it still be special if it was a daily thing? I don't have the answer here, just asking...
A room to eat - Iceland - here is my post about the dining room in Iceland
Täppan - this is another preschool where I wrote a little about their lunch routine

Personally I have worked in different ways... from sitting with the children and not sitting with the children, from buffet style to serving the children to dishes at the table to serve and share... for large groups at a table to small tables... and there is not one way that I prefer over another... they all have value, they can be used and changed to meet the needs of the children. So it will be hard to get from a me which is the best way to eat lunch... I won't know until I have worked with the children for a while.
I can also mess about with the usual routine just to get the children questioning why do we eat the way we do... like sucking u food through a straw (which I avoid more these days, unless they are re-usable straws) - or drinking off a plate and eating from a cup... or sitting on the floor, or no chairs, or eating directly off the table... or using the chairs for a table... indoor picnics are usually rather popular also...




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