Growing up, the kitchen in our home always seemed to be the gathering space. Sure, we had a family room where we all sat and watched TV or played games, but most of the real action - and interaction - took place in the kitchen. If my mom was cooking, my sisters and I often ended up convening around the dining table or passing through for a quick peek. If she was baking, we were definitely vying for a spot at the counter, hoping to snag a coveted lick of the spoon or a bite of raw dough. Whenever we had guests or a party (which was fairly often, as my mom is an extrovert and natural entertainer), people always seemed to gather in or around the kitchen, gabbing away, laughing at jokes I didn’t always understand (but always pretended to), and often pitching in. While we weren’t always invited to participate in the activity, I was attracted to this place for the action, the community, and the wonder it seemed to excite in me.
One of my favourite places to be with young children is in the kitchen, particularly baking with them. Simone Davies
It’s no surprise to me that I now find myself, an adult with a family of my own and household duties to fulfill, in the kitchen much of the time. While the kitchen is often a room that represents duties and chores that can feel daunting (I’m looking at you, dirty skillet soaking in the sink), it is also the place in my home where often I feel the most engaged, productive, and creative. It feels exciting to be experimenting with a new recipe, but I can also feel comforted when simmering a familiar soup or baking a favorite treat from my childhood on a cold or difficult day. Because the kitchen is the center of so much activity in our home, I find that my daughter spends a lot of her time there, as well.
Children are naturally curious and drawn to the things their caregivers are doing, especially during the toddler years. They want to be involved. You might notice that activities we adults might view as chores - washing dishes, wiping counters and tables, sweeping and mopping floors, food preparation - seem exciting to your young children and they are eager to participate. Maria Montessori recognized this trait in toddlers, and these “practical life” activities are a major part of her educational philosophy for the young child. So many of these practical tasks naturally take place in the kitchen. Busy, messy, and stressful as it can sometimes be, children are often drawn to this place full of exciting new learning opportunities.
STEM in the Kitchen(Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)
Cooking and baking both present a world of scientific and mathematical opportunities exercises. Chances to practice simple skills like counting, as well as the more complicated ones of understanding, converting, and manipulating fractions are abundant. Even the youngest chefs will be measuring volume, mass, and weight, comparing size, and conceptualizing sequence, patterns and cause and effect. The magic of chemistry comes to life in the kitchen in a concrete and practical way. Biology and life sciences come into play when considering the source and origin of the foods we eat - from how our fruits and vegetables are grown, to how chickens produce eggs or meat is procured. Any discussion about combines, tractors, mills, cooking tools and appliances, and even heat and fire incorporate the understanding of technology and engineering in our everyday lives. Using, manipulating, and talking about the foods we eat and cook with make these things come to life and a real and tangible way for children. Research shows that learning through real-life experiences helps kids feel more engaged and retain information at higher levels.
“Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes, and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment, and creativity.” Guy Fieri, chef and restaurant owner
Language and Sensory Immersion
Beyond the skills required and acquired to simply read a recipe, a rich and unique language emerges when one is involved in the kitchen. The vocabulary and experience involves all five senses: knead the dough until smooth, sauté the garlic until fragrant, add salt and pepper to taste, bake until golden, heat until sizzling. New words become familiar, and familiar words take on new meaning. Words from foreign and ancient languages are abundant when you consider all the ingredients and techniques used in a variety of kitchen activities. You can’t escape the kitchen without being drawn in with every inch of you, and the experience becomes a part of you. Cooking is so immersive that it’s hard to deny how anyone could benefit from just spending time in the kitchen, much less engaging in the activity.
“The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge.” Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Purpose and Relationship
Regardless of whether our children know or understand all the intellect they’re building while they’re stirring pots of soup, it is likely not their main motivation for wanting to be there. Children will recognize these opportunities for interaction and connection with the adults and caregivers they look up to before noticing how much they’ve learned. Our kids may be adults by the time they understand all the life skills they’ve gained while baking bread with Grandma or how many memories they’ve made grilling burgers with Dad in the summertime. Children who are welcomed into the kitchen and invited to participate will develop a sense of place and belonging within the family structure and a feeling of purpose in helping out and taking on responsibilities or doing household chores. When kids are allowed try new recipes or experiment with flavors, they expand their creativity and develop a willingness to tackle challenges. The more of these connections we make with our children, the more confident they feel in their abilities. And when we include our children in the things we are doing, we send the message that they are important, that they are capable, and that we value their work and their input. We let them know that we want them near. And to me, these are the most valuable lessons of all.
“I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a valentine as you can give.” Julia Child, chef
My mother, now a grandmother of 11 and counting, still loves to host parties and club gatherings, entertain dinner guests, bake holiday treats for her friends, and even runs a bed and breakfast out of her home where she cooks for strangers on a weekly basis. She stays busy outside the home, but she spends as much time in the kitchen as ever. And while my mom isn’t big on messes in the kitchen, she doesn’t seem to mind having the little ones at her feet playing with the mixing bowls or helping the older grandchildren find just the right snack hidden in her cupboards. Even as an adult, I’m still making memories with my mom in the kitchen, and my daughter is, too. I always feel welcome and at home in my mother’s kitchen; and whether she comes to help prepare a holiday feast or sits on the stool and tells me about her day while I cook dinner for her dad, I sure hope my daughter always knows she has a place in mine.
I don’t know if my daughter will always love baking as much as she does now, but currently it's one of her biggest interests. While I'm admittedly not the best baker, nor is it something I love doing, I do want to encourage her interests. Some days it’s fun and easy and I ask myself why we don’t do this more often. Other days we end up with flour all over the floor or battles over how long cookies must be in the oven before they’re finished. Here at Sprout, we know cooking with kids can bring many challenges. Some of you have shared with us the obstacles keeping you from inviting your children or grandchildren into the kitchen more often, as well as what you hope your children might gain once they are able to join you - we’d like to thank you for your insight and openness. We’ll be sharing some ideas for navigating these challenges in the rest of our Kids in the Kitchen series. Stay tuned for our next two blog posts, which will highlight how to make the kitchen accessible to children and activities for fun in the kitchen.