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Educational cooking experiences at child care

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Young children’s palates are piqued as they harvest ingredients, test recipes and taste self-made meals, and along the way, mini-chefs learn key skills that will stay with them for life.

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What skills do under fives learn when cooking at child care?

Educators think carefully about ways to make cooking experiences enjoyable and educational for children, and at Guardian, they work with trained chefs and cooks to come up with intentional teaching experiences that combine cooking fun with learning outcomes.

This means that while children are being encouraged to try new foods, they’re also learning the following practical and social-emotional skills:

1. Numeracy

Raising Children explains that, ‘Numeracy is the ability to recognise and apply maths concepts in all areas of life,’ and child care cooking teaches under fives about counting ingredients, weighing and measuring, quantities and volume.

Preschoolers can lend a hand weighing flour and butter, or transferring milk from jug to container, and the experts say there are also opportunities to:

  • Compare different sized objects, e.g. small, medium and large mixing bowls
  • Group things into ‘same’ and ‘different,’ e.g. wet and dry ingredients, and
  • Use numeracy-related describing words, e.g. ‘over’, ‘under’ and ‘next to.’

Once the meal is made, children learn how to divide food into equal shares (whether that’s three apple slices each or a 12th of a cake), and count out the correct number of plates, cups and cutlery for the group.

All the while, educators can intentionally build numeracy skills by saying things like, “I’m cutting this orange in half,” “This rolling pin is heavy,” “Lunch is at 12 o’clock” or ‘This recipe says we need two cups of flour.”

2. Literacy

As well as encouraging a young child’s number sense, child care cooking experiences also support literacy.

Literacy is, ‘The foundation for reading, writing, communicating and socialising,’ and recipes can be used to promote early literacy with sounds, words and language.

In the child care kitchen, educators read out ingredient lists and methods, and Guardian explains that, ‘Cookbooks combine bright photos and clearly written lists of words, which allows children to relate the photos to the text and gain real understanding.’

Older children can step in to read out recipes, and educators may share picture books about food, cooking and gardening during storytime to grow children’s vocabulary.

Communication is key for literacy development, so educators will also explain what their cooking group is observing and doing together, and break up big words, like ‘spa-ghe-tti,’ into bite-sized syllables.

Mixed race girl cooking in kitchen

3. Fine motor skills

Cooking is a fantastic way to develop under fives’ fine motor skills, in preparation for pencil-holding at school.

Different recipes call for different movements of the finger and hand muscles, and actions like picking herbs, stirring batter, pouring milk, mashing pumpkin, tearing lettuce, whisking eggs, sprinkling cheese, squeezing lemons and rolling dough all help to build youngsters’ fine motor control, strength and coordination.

Preschoolers can also learn to cut soft foods, like strawberries, to hone their fine motor skills, develop their independence and practice spatial awareness. At centres like Guardian, preschoolers use special children’s knives to help them safely learn where their fingers are in relation to the blade.

4. Scientific concepts

Although a scientific word like ‘emulsification’ might go over young ones’ heads, the act of mixing oil- and water-based ingredients is just one way that science can be incorporated into cooking.

The bubbling mix of bicarb soda and hot water in ANZAC cookies, or the magic of a cold, wet cake mix becoming spongy and hot in the oven, shows how different elements react together.

There’s biology at play when children learn where food comes from, and what food is nutritious for the body.

And there’s also a strong sensory element to cooking experiences, as children look, listen, touch, smell and, of course, taste!

5. Collaboration

As well as teaching the above practical skills, child care cooking also allows under fives to practice a range of social and emotional skills – starting with collaboration.

Guardian explains that, ‘Children learn to work as a team when doing cooking experiences, and to share, cooperate and take turns.’

They become collaborators when they say, “You crack the eggs, and I will stir!,” and cooking encourages under fives to:

  1. Interact with others
  2. Work together
  3. Give and follow instructions
  4. Make decisions, and
  5. Problem solve.

By taking, and delegating responsibility, children develop a sense of agency and also feel the satisfaction of a successful group effort when they serve and share a scrumptious meal.

6. Inclusion and diversity

Cooking opens up a world of flavour, and it also encourages young children to prepare and enjoy food from other countries and cultures.

There might be Italian, Indian or Indigenous food on the child care menu, and this exposure to different cuisines teaches littlies to celebrate cultures other than their own, and be inclusive towards others.

There’s an opportunity for children, families, educators and in-house chefs and cooks to share recipes from their culture. Educators can tailor cooking experiences to special events, like Chinese New Year or NAIDOC Week, and they can weave in history lessons, too.

7. Creativity

Although some recipes should be followed closely for best results (hello spongecake), it’s important that cooking is fun for under fives and this means creativity is welcome in the child care kitchen.

Educators can encourage children to come up with their own fruit smoothie combos, add their choice of pizza toppings, or decorate a cupcake as they please, and mess is part of the creative cooking process!

8. Sustainability

Kitchen gardens and vegetable patches are incredibly positive additions to child care centres because they enable littlies to have a hand in growing produce to use in their cooking.

Edible crops like herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce can all be harvested ripe and cooked fresh, and Guardian says its, ‘Full ‘Playground to Plate’ experience teaches the children about the lifecycle of plants and how growing our own food is a great way to reduce our impact on the planet.’

Active composting, with worm farms and compost bins, shows under fives how to recycle organic waste and live more sustainably; and all in all, cooking experiences at child care are nourishing for youngsters’ bodies and brains.

It’s never too early to model good eating and great cooking, and there are lots of kid-friendly recipes that teach life skills in the interactive early learning environment.

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