Learning To Cook And
Cooking To Learn

Dr. Rebecca Palacios

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The holidays offer wonderful opportunities to create learning experiences for children that center around cooking. These experiences are especially powerful because they involve all of the senses: smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and seeing—which is one reason that memories created in the kitchen can last a lifetime! With a little thought and preparation, you can use this time to build important understandings and skills in literacy, mathematics, science, health, and even art.

Before you can start cooking, you’ll need to gather ingredients. Planning and making lists are great ways to develop mathematical, literacy, and critical thinking skills, because they show children the connections between the ideas that we have and the written words and numbers that represent those ideas. Start the list by giving your child a blank page with numbers running down the side (and lots of space between each number). Then ask your child to write the word for, or draw a picture of, each item to be collected. Don’t worry about spelling or legibility. Also, be sure to have your child write down how many of each item is needed—that way he or she will experience the use of numbers to show both sequence (numbering the list) and quantity (how much).

There are also other ways to create lists. For example, you can collect newspaper grocery ads with pictures of foods. Then help your child find and cut out the pictures of the items needed to create meals and paste them next to the numbers on the list. Cutting with scissors (safety scissors!) helps to develop eye-hand coordination and strengthen the muscles used for writing.

After you’ve shopped for the items on the list and brought them home, you’ll find that there’s still more that children can learn from them. For example, if you lay out all of the items on a counter, you can play a sorting game, such as collecting everything that’s green. For older children, collect everything that is shaped like a cylinder. Or play a guessing game that helps develop descriptive vocabulary, such as “I’m thinking of something that is long and slender and light green, with little ridges down the sides. What is it?” The labels on the cans or cartons (which reading educators call environmental print) can be turned into a book, just by slipping them into clear protective pages that are pre-punched to fit into a ringed binder. When it’s time to cook, bring out the binder, and ask your child to look at the pages and tell you about each kind of food.

All of the above are great learning experiences. But I think that probably the most fun that children can have in the kitchen is watching the way food changes when it’s cooked. The cooking process is fascinating, and young children can observe at a safe distance from hot surfaces and sharp items. For example, it is amazing to see a potato get peeled, cut, or diced, placed into water, get soft, and then mashed! And the vocabulary that you use to describe all of those steps is also amazing! Talk about the way the potato looks and feels before you cook it, with words like hard and solid. Then after it’s mashed, talk about how it’s changed, with words like mushy, squishy, soft, and not solid. Guiding your child to notice that mashed potatoes are halfway between a solid and a liquid will help him or her to better understand important science concepts about how matter is classified.

Of course, it’s hard to beat measuring ingredients as a way to build math concepts and skills. Show children your measuring spoons and cups, and explain to them why it is important to measure the ingredients that go into a recipe. Help your child pour rice into a measuring cup and add it to the rice cooker along with the measured water. Let your child measure spices in fractions (1/2, 1/4, 1/8) of teaspoons. Children may not understand exactly what the fractions mean, but they will learn through experience that, for example, one-fourth is less than one-half, and that experience becomes the foundation for understanding exactly what those symbols do mean later on. Or try an exciting science experiment for a five-year-old: Let them try cooking their own combination of ingredients and see how it comes out (in small quantities, of course).

Cooking together is also a perfect time to talk about family and community traditions, strengthening your child’s relationships with other members of your family and community, and building a foundation for future understanding of the idea of culture. This includes teaching the names of foods in your family’s heritage language, if it isn’t English.

Finally, consider making menu-planning a family activity, because it will lead naturally into a discussion of good food choices. Perhaps the best aspect of all of this learning is that it is a natural extension of a family activity that helps your child to see that reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and art—just like flour, butter and eggs—are essential ingredients to great dishes.

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