William Smith, a neon-green knit cap planted firmly on his head, leans forward and peers into the face of little Olivia Fulham Cohen.
"You helped make this chili? Well, I don't know if I can eat it then...." he teases, pushing it away, then gobbling it down.
Olivia grins, then digs into her chili, too.
This is no ordinary meal at Christ House shelter, a temporary residence in the heart of Washington for homeless men just out of the hospital. On this day, 10 kids from the nearby Amazing Life Games preschool are here on an unusual field trip: lunch with the men and a menu of chili and corn bread the children made themselves (with a little help).
But is a visit to a homeless shelter really an appropriate activity for such young children? And what should young children be told about the homeless?
Pickett Craddock, director of Amazing Life Games, has been bringing children here for years and finds it rewarding. To prepare for this visit, she spent February talking to the kids about homes and homelessness. They built structures and read books about different types of homes. They talked about why they see people sleeping in the park.
"Going to Christ House is really a rebuttal to Christmas, when the children got so much and everything was for them," says Ms. Craddock. "This was an opportunity to give to others."
Early-childhood experts say that, if handled properly, a visit to a shelter can be a useful exercise for some children.
"For children who don't see homelessness around them, there would be no context and it might be frightening," says Beatrice Price, director of the School for Early Childhood Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "But if children already see this in their environment, then it's perfectly natural to explore the subject with them."
Ms. Price adds that it might be more appropriate for older preschoolers, those over three years, nine months of age, than for littler children.
Preschoolers from stable homes would not leap to the conclusion that homelessness might happen to them, Price says. The best thing, when confronted with a question from an inquiring four-year-old, is to tell the truth in terms the child can relate to: "That man has no house and no place to cook his food or wash his clothes. At night, he can go someplace to sleep."
One concern with the visit is that it might make children more comfortable about walking up to homeless people on the street, some of whom are unstable.
Some parents, in fact, questioned the wisdom of the trip, saying homelessness is an issue that's better addressed at home. Others felt a half-hour lunch in a secure setting would not alter a child's sense of reserve toward strangers. A few parents accompanied their children to the lunch.
There were children who found aspects of the visit unsettling. After the field trip, Travis Reuther remembered a man named Luis in a wheelchair and said, "that was scary." Katie Fitzgerald, one of the younger children, chimed in: "The people were scary because they gave me cake, and I didn't want to have cake."
But many were quite taken by an affable man named Frank Hall. "I liked Frank, who brought me the cake and talked to me," said Fredrick Toohey.
What the children didn't know was that Mr. Hall used to have an alcohol problem and that he spent years living in homeless shelters and that his only son is in prison. To the kids, Hall was the man who wrote a poem about himself and recited it as many times as they wanted to hear it.
Mr. Smith's story of alcoholism and lost jobs was also not a topic. Nor was his plan to sleep in doorways in the tony neighborhood of Georgetown when he leaves Christ House.
As far as Olivia was concerned, Smith was a nice man who teased her. What the other children got out of the visit is hard to say. But when asked what they liked best about it, the answer was nearly unanimous: eating cake.