Although many children will happily eat a variety of foods in the weaning period, at around 18 months of age most children go through a stage of food neophobia (meaning fear of new foods) and food fussiness peaks. Vegetables tend to get a particularly bad press at this time. Although neophobia is a developmental stage which children eventually outgrow, eating habits are established in the early years and because of the health benefits of vegetables, it is important to support children to consume them throughout childhood.
Psychological research has helped to highlight different strategies that parents can use to help reduce fussy eating and support children to taste new foods such as vegetables. Repeated exposure to new foods (up to 10-15 times) is needed to encourage children to become familiar with new foods, to taste and eventually like them. This can be a challenge for families; repeatedly offering foods that may be rejected can be time consuming and expensive. At the same time trials to support food acceptance have shown that watching other children or adults like and enjoy new foods (modelling food intake) helps to encourage children to try novel foods, whilst rewarding children with praise or stickers for tasting new foods can also be a successful incentive which can support eventual acceptance. There is also an emerging literature which suggests that game based activities with novel foods can be effective at reducing anxiety about those foods and encouraging children to taste food that they play with.
To bring this research together, three universities developed a novel app for children that utilises these strategies and allows children to play games with vegetables in a fun and interactive way. Most families own a smartphone and many nurseries and schools now use tablets as educational devices to support numeracy and literacy. The vegetable app was built around a maths platform as this allows parents and teachers to target two areas together.
In Vegetable Maths Masters level 1, children can draw with vegetables and count with vegetables. In stage 2 they can add and subtract with vegetables and play card sorting games. In stage 3 they can play subtraction games and basic multiplication and fraction games. As children play they win stars that they use to decorate vegetable figures; these include Chloe the Carrot and Bertie the Broccoli, who can be decorated with hair, glasses, shoes and clothes. This adds a sense of reward for children and motivates continued use. The app has been developed with input from teachers, children and parents. The games are all played with real images of vegetables which they will recognise when they see them away from the game.
Vegetable Maths Masters is free to download, free from adverts and free from in app purchases. It has been developed with support from the British Psychological Society and as a collaboration between Aston, Loughborough and DeMontfort Universities. It can be downloaded via the iTunes and Android app stores.
An evaluation study, to be published soon, demonstrated that children recognise the vegetables they play with and eat more vegetables both at school and at home as a result or playing with the app.
Wolverhampton City Council is already promoting the app to all its schools.
If you would like more information about the app or are interested in using it in an educational setting please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sustain are encouraging more areas to launch Veg Cities campaigns, and get local businesses and organisations making veg pledges. Veg Cities is currently the feature campaign of Sustainable Food Cities, and is run in partnership with Peas Please.