Mix It Well: Cooking as a Means for Integrated Development in the West PM Classroom
By Todd Erickson, Head Teacher
The irresistible refrain bounced off the walls of West Room. Borrowed from the classic children’s song Three Little Fishies, the melody served as an anchor for the eight children who gathered around the table to measure, pour and stir that day’s cooking project.
Cooking has long been a tradition in the Bing Nursery School classrooms, and understandably so. Like so many Bing activities, cooking with children touches development along an array of domains: social-emotional, cognitive, physical and language. Just as important, however, is the developmentally appropriate, process-focused, hands-on nature of cooking. Adding those vital ingredients to the recipe moves cooking’s appeal from the teacher-inspired pedagogical to the child-centered practical.
During the autumn quarter, cooking became a passion in West PM. The teachers noticed that children were using basic, open-ended materials like sand and water to cook in the outdoor environment. Here was a late September recipe, as crafted by Benjamin, Natalie and Corinne:
- Dead grass
- 1 rock
- Big leaves
- Wood chips (a lot)
- No pine needles
Pretend cooking strengthens social connections and builds problem-solving, planning and turn-taking skills.
West PM’s outdoor playhouses were becoming restaurants, bakeries, creameries and chocolate factories. It made sense to bring that interest inside, to the art table, with a cooking experience. The children are often our best teachers and are always our most reliable curriculum guides. They regularly lead us to new, expanded and often integrated learning!
The children began in mid-October by making pumpkin bread. Over the course of the quarter, the young cooks also made pretzels, ginger bread, challah, crackers, pineapple bread and banana bread. As we moved into the winter quarter, cooking remained a favorite activity. Pizza-making in mid-March was greeted by a full table and enthusiastic participation.
There were endless developmental benefits available for children when they sat down at the cooking table. Many of the benefits described below were also expertly captured by West PM teachers Jenna Rist and Liz Prives when they teamed last fall with Center PM teacher Sheilan Kazzaz for a Bing coffee talk for parents titled “Cooking with Young Children.”*/
Children are interested in social connection, and the cooking table provided an intensely social and emotional experience. In addition to the obvious communal efforts and common goals, children readily bonded with each other through conversation, laughter and singing during the cooking process. As children waited for their turns and followed directions, they were honing the self-regulation and turn-taking skills needed for life in West PM and beyond. Cooking also helped the children view parent volunteers as competent and compassionate allies and also provided parents a unique lens into the daily life of the classroom. As children enjoyed the immensely satisfying experience of seeing their collective efforts produce tangible and edible results, their feelings of efficacy and competence rose right along with their baked goods.
In addition to social-emotional growth, cooking also offered developmentally appropriate cognitive challenges. As the children kept track of the amounts and numbers of scoops, employed measuring cups and even weighed ingredients, they were enjoying hands-on experiences with number sense, measurement and fractions. Creating, discussing and following specific cooking steps challenged the children’s executive function (mental organization and production) and also supported their burgeoning logical thinking. As children compared and contrasted various ingredients and cooking stages, they strengthened their ability to activate their base knowledge and connect new information to that knowledge. The often surprising, bumpy and always process-oriented work allowed children (and adults!) to practice operating from a growth mindset. Even science played a part in West PM cooking, as children noticed and reflected on the physical reactions and changes through the cooking and baking processes.
The children’s opportunities for both fine and gross motor physical development were integrated seamlessly into the cooking experience. As children carefully measured, poured, sprinkled, sliced and scraped ingredients, their fine motor skills were called into play. Conversely, as they stirred, kneaded, pounded, spread and grated ingredients and mixtures, children honed their gross motor skills. Balance and spatial awareness were also tested as children helped to carry the readied creations to the kitchen.
Lastly, language development was also encouraged during afternoons around the cooking table. As children listened to and considered the various oral instructions and suggestions, they were building their receptive language skills (comprehension). When the children shared their guesses and observations, they were practicing their expressive language skills (production). As an organic outgrowth of the cooking process, the West PM children built their vocabulary as they encountered names of ingredients, cooking tools and techniques, as well as descriptive words to relate sensorial information and “math talk” to describe and compare amounts. Some children were so inspired by their experiences at the cooking table that they, in turn, created their own recipes and recorded them using illustrations or inventive spelling or by using the classroom recipes as models from which to copy.
Cooking also helped to inform our West PM story time picture book selection. During the autumn quarter, we read several books about food or cooking, including Bread, Bread, Bread (written by Ann Morris, photographs by Ken Heyman), Bear Says Thanks (written by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman), The Turnip (adapted and illustrated by Pierr Morgan) and Eight Animals Bake a Cake (written by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Leo Chapman). We also enjoyed songs like Chop, Chop, Chippety Chop and The Baker Shop.
As the academic year came to a close, it was clear to West PM teachers that the array of cooking-related activities spurred development and inspired cross-disciplinary exploration. For the children who became both real and imagined cooks, the joyful, curious and playful process was its own final product.