Kids playing cards at 1, 2, 3... Storie Festival by La Coccinella

La Coccinella day care centers

How I helped this team design a child-friendly food service that filled them with pride and purpose and taught them teamwork and collaboration.

Needing help with their children’s festival food experience

La Coccinella Cooperativa Sociale (La Coccinella Social Cooperative) provides well-being and childcare services in Trentino Alto Adige, a region in the north of Italy. Their services range from day care facilities, including 19 of them spread over Trentino, to after-school activities, summer camps, community welfare projects, and training for educational professionals. 

La Coccinella takes a holistic perspective on child development, extending this same standard of care to their employees. The staff enjoys spaces for growth and well-being, and the organization provides regular training and invests in research.

They also organize events for children, including 1, 2, 3 …Storie, a literature festival held annually in July in Cles. That’s when the directors of La Coccinella and the organizers of 1, 2, 3 …Storie called me. They needed guidance and support to lead the team of day care centers’ volunteers to design, execute, and coordinate the food experience at the festival.

I didn’t know yet that what seemed like a straightforward project would quickly turn into an impactful project for all the volunteers, enabling them to do their best work.

Workshop design & facilitation

Food Experience Design

Execution & oversight

Getting ‘down’ to the kids’ level

It was a sunny spring afternoon when I arrived at the largest daycare center in Cles, the largest town in Val di Non. Twenty-five chatty women from the age of 25 to 60 were already waiting for me. 

They had already laid aside the tables and chairs and were ready for my instructions, chatting loudly in groups of two or three.

Seeing the kids’ tables, I immediately remembered the words of my favorite children’s writer Roald Dahl from his booklet The Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety:

 “I am totally convinced that most grown-ups have completely forgotten what it was like to be a child between, say, the age of five and ten. They all think they can remember. Parents think they can remember and so do teachers. Some of course actually can, but very few. It is after all quite difficult to remember exactly what it felt like to be a small person when you yourself haven’t been one for thirty or forty years. That’s a long time ago.”

Our job was to create an event for “small people.” So I insisted that we must put ourselves in their shoes—or, more appropriately, their height— if we wanted to see the world like them. A few women disagreed with the arrangement. Soon, eventually, we came together and formed small groups around each table to introduce ourselves to each other.

Leveraging the women’s knowledge

As I walked around, stopping at each table to greet everyone, I learned that one representative at least had volunteered from each day care center. Besides teachers and cooks, cleaners had signed up as well. I was surprisedusually, this type of employees training doesn’t include cleaners. 

At some point, I couldn’t not listen to a debate between a couple of ladies who worked at this specific center and others who represented smaller locations. “How lucky! Here you’ve got a fully equipped, professional kitchen to cook food from scratch. We get food delivered! And it’s not even that tasty!” one woman exclaimed.

Besides the food, they compared everything from their respective buildings to the equipment and team sizes.

That’s when it dawned on me. These women were the insiders. And they were all in the same room. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from their stories and experiences and better the services of La Coccinella! That would be a win for everyone, both the organization and the staff.

With my experience as a facilitator, I could help them rethink not just the food experience design for the festival but also the food service across all the day care centers.

I returned to talk to the directors of La Coccinella about my idea. Luckily, they agreed with my approach and asked me to broaden my scope beyond just planning for the festival. So now, I’d also design and deliver a co-creative training program for the organization as well. 

Our goal was to identify what we could improve in the service and collaborate to make it better, both for the staff as the providers and the toddlers and kids as the beneficiaries.

How to redesign a child-friendly food service together

With this in mind, I designed four hands-on sessions inspired by the human-centered design principles of co-creation, empathy, and iteration. 

Since many women weren’t used to speaking up with ideas or input, I created a safe, friendly, and playful space. We performed some creative exercises together, which helped to break the ice and open up the conversation. Eventually, the room resembled more of a lively kitchen environment than a classroom.

In the classroom

In the first session, I admitted that I had listened to their discussion of the differences between centers. Then, with nothing else to hide, everyone slowly started to share their experiences, including compliments and complaints. 

That’s when we noticed evident differences. While some centers were small and located in mountain villages, others were larger and more accessible in bigger towns. Some had professional kitchens where cooks could prepare food from scratch, whereas others had food delivered. Like the one in Cles, a few centers even offered additional services such as takeaway dinner boxes.

We reviewed the current offerings during the first three sessions and identified all the interaction points and bottlenecks. We also developed personas to understand the children’s needs better based on the experiences of the teachers. Because, of course, how do you interview the toddlers and kids?

From there, we explored the eating habits, tastes, and preferences of the more than 250 small people who eat at these centers every day. 

We also considered the limitations that the cooks experienced in creating exciting menus. For example, many children have dietary restrictions. And, for the smaller daycare centers, food must be transported in from other locations or kitchens. Every challenge was an opportunity, every obstacle a eureka moment. 

In the kitchen

In the fourth session, we moved to the kitchen, where the cooks, teachers, and cleaners teamed up in groups of four people. They created colorful dishes in various textures and shapes from ingredients such as pineapple, strawberries, green grapes, and other fruits.

Such a fun activity helped them realize what creative power was in their hands. Recognizing that they could create something healthy and substantive gave their work a more profound meaning and dimension.

La Coccinella

In the atelier

Meanwhile, with another team of decorators, we created the concept of the food experience at 1, 2, 3…Storie. Once again, the kids’ tables became a natural choice as the center stage.

We planned to serve a snake-shaped buffet of sourdough stuffed paninis and fruits on an eight-meter-long kids’ table. So, for once, mum and dad didn’t need to be the intermediary!

Unlocking the realization of “Wow! I’m a creative cook for small people!”

We generated more than one hundred ideas for preparing and serving the food more creatively and consciously by joining our hearts and minds. Our goal was to make the food a better experience for the cooks who prepared it and the teachers who served it.

As a result, the team spirit lightened up. Learning about each other’s challenges in their daily jobs helped them empathize with one another. They found better ways to vocalize their needs. While they still had lively conversations, they were now communicating more compassionately.

Teaming up around something as seemingly small as food service gave them a purpose and a reason to contribute.

The training also left some positive marks on a personal level. Having worked in the same role for decades, many cooks had lost their creative energy. Or better, never thought they had any.

After the cooking session in the kitchen, some had sudden creative awakenings. A cook, Martina, even bursted into laughter and exclaimed, “I’m creative!” Who thought that preparing food for small people could be a profoundly satisfying and creative endeavor?

That year’s festival turned out to be a great success. Such a delight to see the children, families, and La Coccinella staff come together around the day’s food service and activities! 

One satisfying memory I hold to this day is of the sun-drenched merenda (afternoon snack) we served. The sun shone on a scorcher of a day, the cicadas sang, and the kids ran around the table, grinning and grabbing all the merenda they could with their chubby, small hands without their parents’ permission. At some point, I thought I saw Roald Dahl peeking out from behind a tree, grinning.

Brochure of 1,2,3...Storie
La Coccinella

I was really skeptical when you told us to sit at the kids’ tables, and it took me a while to understand why we were doing what we were doing —especially the creative exercises. But I had to change my mind. All I do is cooking food all day for what you call small people. That isn’t exciting. Thanks to this experience, I opened my eyes and realized that my job could be creative. Thank you!

MartinaOne participant, a cook

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