Ingredients for Fun

By Parul Chandra, Head Teacher

Three children role out sushi with Shinya, a Center Room father.

Three children role out sushi with Shinya, a Center Room father.

On any given day this past year, a look into Center Room would likely reveal children pretending to pour tea or bake bread. The children clearly enjoy this type of “cooking,” and it benefits them—by building social connections and developing new friendships. So, when the children returned from winter break eager to continue cooking in the classroom, the teachers encouraged their interest. We set up a table with cooking utensils, tools and recipe books from around the world, and soon noticed children cooking everywhere in the classroom and experimenting with cooking terms as they manipulated the various kitchen tools and symbolic foods such as felt for noodles, wooden cake and plastic sushi. We also asked parents to bring in a kitchen tool or a family recipe to share with the children, and invited families to cook with us in the classroom.

As we explored cooking, the children became interested in tools, recipes and other culinary materials. Some of the cooking techniques we learned were baking, steaming, sautéing, frying, blending and juicing. We prepared many recipes, such as oatmeal cookies, muffins, apple crisp, peach cobbler, pasta, tostadas, guacamole, sushi, stone soup, pizza, Greek potatoes, German noodles, French toast, waffles, orange juice and smoothies.

The children became increasingly skilled in the cooking process, using dozens of different tools. They worked with complicated appliances like electric mixers, juicers and blenders; simpler equipment like ladles, whisks and rolling pins; and special-purpose gadgets like potato mashers, egg slicers and zesters. Experiences with utensils from varied food cultures, such as chopsticks, bamboo mats and tortilla presses, exposed them to the similarities and differences in the appearance and purpose of tools from around the world.

The physical changes that took place as we added, mixed and cooked ingredients intrigued the children. They were like scientists in a chemistry laboratory, speculating, theorizing and predicting as they manipulated the materials. After observing the common elements in recipes, children began creating their own recipes as they played with the open-ended materials to represent their ideas. Sometimes the children used sand, water, clay and art materials creatively to represent foods and the cooking process.

This type of “cooking” is a form of symbolic play, which for children is one of the most important mediums for self-expression. Engaging in this kind of play promotes the development of the whole child, which includes the child’s cognitive, emotional, social and physical realms. It’s a necessary precursor to the mental processes that later enable reading, writing and mathematical thought. The experience of creating imaginary scenarios fosters oral language and the ability to talk about their play further contributes to early literacy.

To further develop our topic, we read books about cooking and related themes, sang songs about foods from different cultures and shared recipes for these new foods. Eating foods cooked by the parents and the children in the classroom at snack time was a rewarding experience for the classroom community. Discussions about the foods, their preparation, and the experiences children had with the process created a special communal feeling amongst the children. Some recipes used ingredients that children had planted in our classroom herb garden. Excited groups of children would carry out small baskets and scissors to the garden to identify and collect the herbs needed for the recipe. There was much joy and satisfaction in gathering cooking ingredients from our own environment.

As the project unfolded, teachers collected children’s drawings of different kinds of food and kitchen tools, wrote up their recipes and compiled them in a book so the children could revisit their responses to the project and gain a better understanding of their own thinking.

A few recipes shared by the children, from simple to elaborate:

ELI: “Ice cream. You put milk in it and color in it. Then put it in the freezer.”

CAITLYN: “Hamburgers. We need to cook them. Put lettuce, mustard and also mayonnaise and that is all. Then we need to eat.”

OLIVIA R.: “Oatmeal raisin cookies. Three eggs without the yellow stuff, just the white stuff. Flour. You scoop it, scoop it and scoop it. Mix it up with the mixer. You don’t need to use your hands, just the really fast mixer. That is how my mom and I do it. Bake it. Take it out of the oven, and put it on the tray and: cookies!”

Collaborating together on a project with intention, motivation and energy had profoundly beneficial effects on the children’s development. For example, the children expressed their likes and dislikes for various foods and textures and were able to appreciate differences in personal tastes. They also adjusted their theories to accommodate new experiences resulting from their involvement in the project. The many hands-on, positive cooking experiences contributed to a sense of belonging to the group and shaped the children’s identities as active learners.