As the parent of a preschooler, you've endured steady streams of questions on topics ranging from the color of the sky to why broccoli smells bad. Although you may have previously stated that broccoli heads are actually bushes with little men hiding in them to make sure every child eats his dinner, now might be a good time to fess-up. Take the learning opportunities your little one brings to you and have fun with them, because it won't be long before he questions everything you say.
Go ahead, admit it -- you're not sure you even know the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. You're not alone, Mom. In fact, many people go through life thinking that cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are vegetables when they are actually fruits. Scientifically speaking, the fruit is the mature ovary of the plant with the important job of protecting and redistributing the seeds, while vegetables are an edible portion of a plant. Sometimes that portion is the stem (celery), the flower (broccoli), the root (carrots), the leaves (lettuce) or the tuber (potatoes). Fruits are typically sweet and vegetables are not. The most visible and basic distinction between a fruit and a vegetable are the seeds. Don't worry, Mom, in a few years your child will be able to explain it to you in more detail.
Preschoolers gain a lot by experiencing concepts in a hands-on manner. Set out a variety of fruits and vegetables for your child to touch, smell, taste and sort. Let him sort them any way he wants, perhaps by size or color. Then help him put all the fruits on one side and all the vegetables on the other. Cut the fruits open to find the seeds. Cut the veggies open to see the absence of seeds. Talk about the differences: fruits have seeds, vegetables do not; fruits grow above the ground, some vegetables grow underground; fruits are usually sweet, vegetables are not always. If you plant a garden, let your child be a part of the process from planting seeds to harvesting the vegetables. Point out the fruits or vegetables on your child's plate each day.
Craft projects help your preschooler learn concepts by making the ideas more concrete. Use real fruits and vegetables to create place mats by cutting a variety of fruits and vegetables in half. Dip them in paint and press them on sturdy paper. You can divide the paper in half and designate one side for veggies and one side for fruit, or let your preschooler create a collage. Cover the place mats with contact paper to use over and over. You can also create a fruit and veggie collage by cutting pictures from magazines or the weekly supermarket ads and gluing them on a piece of paper.
Books are an engaging way to share information with your preschooler. Before you read the book, talk about the title and look at the pictures to form background knowledge. Ask your child, "What do you think this book is about?" or "What is your favorite fruit/vegetable?" As you read each page, stop to discuss concepts, answer questions or let your child share connections he has with the information. When you're done reading, ask thought-provoking questions like, "How are an apple and a carrot the same? How are they different?" Accept all answers, Mom, even if your child is compelled to relive the story about when his little sister ate too many carrots and spit up on the floor.
Children's books about fruits and vegetables include "Eating the Alphabet" and "Growing Vegetable Soup," by Lois Ehlert, "The Carrot Seed," by Ruth Krauss and "Tops and Bottoms," by Janet Stevens.
Preschoolers love to role-play and dress up in costumes. Encourage this natural tendency by acting out activities that have something to do with food. Play restaurant, farm or grocery shopping. Get your child plastic or wooden fruits and vegetables to use during role-play time. Collect various items to use for costumes, like overalls and a straw hat for a farmer, a purse and a dress to play "Mom" going grocery shopping or an apron and a chef hat for acting out restaurant scenes. Get into character by being the cranky customer who says, "This isn't what I ordered! This is a fruit because it has seeds! I don't eat fruit; I only eat vegetables!" Kids love it when Mom brings out her inner actress, especially when you're scolding someone else for a change.
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