Snack as a Center Choice

Preschool children need time during the day for group times, free choice play activities, snacks and/or meals, rest time, and outdoor play in order to support their development and learning.  Designing a schedule to ensure enough time for all these activities can be like putting a puzzle together with too many pieces.  Not everything fits.  This is especially true for part-day programs.  In an effort to maximize the time for each scheduled routine or learning activity, teachers will sometimes offer snack as a center choice during free play.

As we transition to using the ECERS-3, here are some things to consider for those programs who decide to offer snack as a choice during self-selected free play:

  • Sometimes part day programs do not offer snack because teachers feel children eat before and after preschool. Keep in mind that all children must be offered a meal or snack every two and not more than 3 hours.  Children’s appetites and interests in foods vary.  By offering a nutritious meal or snack every 2-3 hours, it will ensure children get enough calories for the day.  A snack or meal must be observed during the 3-hour time sample.  Meals and snacks must meet CACFP requirements (Child and Adult Care Food Program) even if a center does not participate in the program.
  • The option for choosing whether to eat snack should only be offered to older preschoolers. Younger preschoolers must have a snack or a meal.
  • Offering snack at center time as an optional activity to older preschoolers does take then away from play activities. Some children will choose to play rather than eat even though their bodies may need nourishment. If snack is offered as a choice to older preschoolers, staff must encourage children to participate.  This means that children not only hear about snack, but also see what is being offered.  Children may decide they are hungry after all when they see an appetizing snack.
  • Teachers need to participate in snack even though it is offered as a choice. Even older preschoolers may need assistance with portion control, serving themselves, and clean-up procedures.   When teachers are actively involved with children during snack, they can engage children in conversations that will enhance their language development.   Providers also need to remember to clean/sanitize each place at the table between uses.
  • The ECERS-3 requires one-hour for free choice time during a three-hour time sample with only a two-minute grace period. Teachers must be cognizant of the average time all children spent eating snack and extend free play, if needed, by that amount of time to compensate for it.

New CACFP guidelines (effective 10-1-17)

Reference:  Harms, T., Clifford, R. and D. Cryer (2015).  Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (third edition).  New York: Teachers College Press.




Kris Corrigan is an Environment Rating Scale Assessor with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She has been in her current position for three years. She enjoys meeting and working with providers who are committed to providing quality environments for the children in their care. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family including her four cats.

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