Should Daddy Bake with the Boys?

askateacherA relative of mine recently posted the following question on his facebook wall:

Yes or no: Daddy should bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch with his boys, even though he has never done it before?

I wrote him a few of the reasons that, in my opinion, he absolutely should go for it—but on reflection, I realized that I had an awful lot to say about such a simple question. I thought perhaps I’d answer at greater length on the blog.

First off, as I tell all the teachers I train, there’s very little you can do with young children that’s more beneficial than cooking projects. If you were to spend an entire day at preschool doing cooking projects, or an entire week, or month, or school year, I’d call it time well spent. Why? Because cooking encompasses absolutely everything you want young children to learn.

Let’s start with the content areas (also known as the “academic areas”).

Math? Obviously: lots of numbers and quantities and measuring; you naturally pick up ideas like “two quarter cups make a half cup” and “let’s double this recipe to make enough for everyone.” Math is a cinch when it becomes relevant to your real life, and nothing’s more relevant than tasty snacks.

Science is equally obvious. For young children, science is all about ideas of how things change—what happens when you mix these together? What happens when we put it in the oven? What happens if we accidentally put in twice as much baking powder? It’s all science.

Social studies is easy with cooking too. I know you’re probably thinking about introducing children to foods of different cultures, which, yes, that’s an awesome thing to do. But (as I’ve been telling my Curriculum students this week), young children are very concrete in their thinking. For them, social studies about people on the other side of the world doesn’t make a huge amount of sense—they need social studies about people they know in real life! “My family makes waffles every Saturday. Here’s how we make waffles.” That’s social studies a three-year-old can understand.

And literacy. Okay, you probably don’t want your ENTIRE literacy curriculum to be about cooking, but it’s not hard to make the connections. Following (and creating) recipes, reading cook books, writing down everyone’s thoughts on each thing you cook, cooking foods that are mentioned in the stories you read… It’s not hard to find ways to teach reading and writing that are connected to cooking.

But it’s not just the academics—it’s child development as a whole that benefits from cooking.

Physical development? Cooking is all about fine-motor control; and if you’re working with bread dough or mixing in big pots and bowls, it’s about gross-motor control too. It also offers a huge range of sensory experiences—taste, smell, touch, sight—that are a big contributor to physical development.

Cognitive development? There’s so much. Problem solving, understanding cause and effect, making a plan and following through, observing changes and patterns… All the big skills are in there.

Socio-emotional development? Cooking supports patience and requires attention. It gets you to work collaboratively with other people to accomplish joint goals, and to modulate your behavior in response to those around you. You share food with other people, which is one of the best ways to build relationships. It’s huge.

Add to this the fact that almost everyone enjoys eating, and almost all children enjoy cooking, and you’ve got what we in the business call intrinsic motivation. In other words, children participate in cooking projects simply because it’s fun. And intrinsically motivated activities are a gold mine for learning. If you want children to learn math by doing arithmetic worksheets, you’ve got to talk them into doing the worksheets. But if you set them loose on a cooking project, they’ll learn math whether you want them to or not, because there’s intrinsic motivation to getting it right.

Again, there’s not much you can do with kids that’s more educational and beneficial than cooking with them.

So, okay, cooking with kids is great. But this particular father gets even more bang for his buck when he makes cookies for the first time with his kids. He asks if he should take on this project, “even though he has never done it before?” He fears his inexperience will make the project go wrong, and that will be bad. But just the opposite is true.

You can teach a child something you already know, sure. We do that all the time. But what’s truly magical is when you and the child learn something new together. You’re on a journey of discovery, helping each other along the way, commiserating in failure and celebrating together in victory. When the adult doesn’t know how something is going to turn out, the child becomes so much more interested and motivated. The adult has an opportunity to genuinely use the child’s input, and the child has a chance to make real-life decisions and see if they work. “Neither one of us knows which is the teaspoon and which is the tablespoon. How will we choose? What will happen if we’re wrong? We’ll find out together!” That is learning that will stick, let me tell you.

And what if the project goes wrong? You use the wrong measuring spoon, and the cookies come out way too salty. (Tragedy!) In that case the child gets the tremendous benefit of seeing how the adults in his life deal with surprise and failure and disappointment—something they’re very much trying to figure out for themselves. Do you curse and sulk? Do you hide the cookies and go buy a milkshake? Or do you say, “Oh, man, I’m so disappointed! I was really looking forward to eating those cookies. What a drag! Let’s take a break, and then try it again. I bet we get it right next time.” That’s a model every child can use.

On top of that, the child gets to see that the adults he cares about value trying new things, taking risks, having little adventures, learning new things. When a caregiver shows with his actions that those things are important, they’ll become part of child’s approach to the world. I don’t know about you, but those are the qualities I sure want in a child.

So there you go. Take a risk on a new cooking project with a child. It’s all up-side.

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Later facebook photos showed beautiful cookies. Good job, dad.

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This post dedicated to Lisa Hanauer, a former co-teacher and mentor who cooks with children more than any other teacher I know, and turns three-year-olds into generous, thoughtful, adventurous eaters.

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Do you ever cook with young children? Share stories, tips, and tricks in the comments! (Button at the top of the post.)

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One thought on “Should Daddy Bake with the Boys?

  1. katepickle March 9, 2013 at 11:34 pm Reply

    Loved every word of this!
    I was never a big fan of cooking. I cooked because it ticked a box my preschool classroom, and I didn’t enjoy it at home, then I had kids of my own. I am not sure if it was becoming a mum or my particular kids but in the last 9 years my kids have shown me the joy of cooking, and especially cooking with them… and now I regret not embracing it more when I was a teacher.

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