As part of our November Activity Calendar, and right in time for Thanksgiving, we're sharing fun ways to celebrate harvest, food, cooking and the sustenance that nature provides. Cooking is such an important part of health, happiness and our human connections. Finding ways to involve young kids in all parts of the process supports their body, mind and spirit (and makes harvest time so much fun!). Around the holidays, food also intersects with our family traditions and culture, giving kids the chance to feel a sense of belonging and strengthen their roots.
But, it can be hard to know how to let littles get their hands dirty in the kitchen in a way that is safe and actually results in food to eat. With just the right tips, it can be done.
This activity is featured in our November calendar. If you do not yet have your free copy, get it here.
Choose the right time:
Choose a time to involve kids in cooking when you are not on a tight schedule. Instead of having them help with dinner when everyone is hungry and anxiously awaiting their meal, start meal prepping well in advance—or enlist kids’ help in making a leisurely snack.
Choose the right meal:
Pick something that kids will actually eat. Start simple; five or fewer ingredients is a good guideline. Need a starting place? Try out some of our favorite kid-friendly campfire recipes that can be cooked over a fire, grill or on the kitchen stove. Or, try out our Pumpkin Seed Exploration DIY with our favorite roasted seed recipes or this simple apple cake recipe from the book Apple Cake: A Gratitude by Dawn Casey.
Offer the right tools:
Offering kids-safe and kid-sized tools can help kids feel confident as chefs—and can reduce risk (and mess). Offer mini-sized whisks and spatulas for stirring and mixing and narrow rolling pins for baking (2-inch diameter versions fit well in little hands). Kids can safely use crinkle cutters and nylon or wooden cutting knives for slicing fruits and softer veggies. Doing food prep on the kitchen table rather than the kitchen counter (or offering a stool) puts kids at the right height for cooking.
Choose the right tasks:
Think about what kids can help with independently or with minimal support. Measuring and pouring ingredients into a bowl, mixing ingredients together, brushing or “painting” oil onto bread or vegetables, removing seeds or husking corn and rinsing veggies are all great entry points for most kids.
Older kids can help with cutting—start with softer foods like mushrooms or strawberries and offer kid-safe options, such as a butter knife, crinkle cutter or a wooden or nylon knife. Doing some prep work in advance will help reduce how much time kids need to wait to get to their “part.”
Embrace mistakes and mess:
Embrace cooking “mistakes” as opportunities to help kids learn about measuring, pouring and cooking and build skills over time. If your ingredients are likely to make a big mess if spilled, consider placing a towel or drop cloth on the floor for easy clean-up. Have damp and dry kitchen towels handy for messy hands or surfaces.
Enlist kids’ help in wiping down cooking surface afterwards. Measure ingredients separately and put them in small bowls, like they do on TV cooking shows. That way if kids pour a little bit too much or crack an egg shell into the bowl, they can help adjust and learn from it (and take the worry out of potentially ruining the meal).
Taste as you go!
Offer safe ingredients for kids to taste. Talk about the textures and flavors of the ingredients. When possible, try out the ingredients in different states (raw vs. cooked veggies) and invite your child to describe the differences and tell you which version they like best.
Explore the flavor of different herbs and spices. Wonder together where the food was grown, who cared for the plants, animals and land that contributed to the meal. As you taste and talk about the ingredients, kids can take a moment to share gratitude.
Engage the senses:
Slow down to let kids to use all their senses to engage with the ingredients. Feel the softness of the herbs, smell the spices, listen to the sound of food sizzling in the pan.
Play with your food!
If kids decide they are done helping or you need to move on to grown-up cooking tasks, offer some of the ingredients and tools for kids to continue playing and experimenting with. A bowl of water, flour, rice or beans and some spoons or measuring cups will keep kids engaged in cooking play (and they’ll be practicing skills they can use in future projects).
Why is this activity great for kids?
There are loads of learning benefits to cooking with children:
Following a recipe supports receptive language skills.
Cooking reinforces important math and science concepts like measurement, volume and capacity and gives kids a chance to observe what happens when ingredients are mixed together and how they change with heat or cold.
Using tools to mix, stir, cut and pour ingredients enhances fine motor strength and control.
Working on real-world tasks boosts confidence and provides kids with life skills they will be able to build on and call on as they get older.
Taking time to smell, touch and taste ingredients activates multiple senses, helping kids to feel more alert and focused.
At holiday time, we can share family traditions and rituals with kids, which give them a strong sense of belonging—something we know leads to resilience and a strong sense of self down the road.
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Curiosity means the ability and habit to apply a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more. Curious people try new things, ask questions, search for answers, relish new information, and make connections, all while actively experiencing and making sense of the world. To us, curiosity is a child’s ticket to engaging fully in learning and, ultimately, in life.
Why does it matter?
As a parent, this skill is, perhaps, the easiest to grasp and has the clearest connection to a young children’s learning. We all want my children to wonder, explore and drive their own learning and, better yet, to experience the world fully. Most teachers would agree that the curious children so often seem more attentive, involved and naturally get the most out of time in school. Even the research suggests that being curious is a driver of higher performance throughout one's life, as much if not more than IQ or test scores.
Focus & Self Control
What is Focus and Self Control?
We think of self control as a child’s ability to focus on something in such a way that maximizes learning. In order to do that, they first need to direct their attention and focus on a single thing. They also need to discern which information around them is most important and deserving of their attention. Thirdly, they need something called “inhibition.” Think of inhibition as the ability to control impulses, block out distractions and continue attending to the same thing. Focus, discerning and inhibition all require rather fancy brain work and are thought to be part of the “executive functions” or the set of cognitive processes involving the prefrontal cortex that help us manage ourselves and the environment to achieve a goal.
Why does it matter?
Our world is full of distractions, more today than ever. Kids who are in any learning situation need the ability to control their impulses, block out noise and attend to the person, objects, events, or discussions that are central to learning. As classroom teachers, we saw that kids who did this ruled the classroom. As outdoor educators and parents, we know the same holds true outside of school.
But don’t take our word for it; the research is impressive. It turns out that these executive function skills are closely tied to success in the classroom, higher level education and life beyond school. Experts like Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia have shown that, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions—working memory and inhibition—actually predict success better than IQ tests.” Although these skills are difficult for young children and don’t crystallize until adulthood, the more kids practice them, the better at them kids become.
What are Fine Motor skills?
Fine motor skills refer to how we coordinate small muscle movements in the hands and fingers in conjunction with our eyes. Children begin with whole arm movements at birth and refine their movement, using smaller muscle groups as their bodies develop. With time and practice, children are able to enhance and strengthen the movements in their fingers, becoming able to manipulate small objects and perform a range of important life and learning tasks.
Why does it matter?
Kids need fine motor skills in order to perform every day tasks like using fork and knife, turning a door knob, cutting with scissors and catching and throwing a ball. These same skills are essential for tasks associated with higher level learning like hand writing and typing on a keyboard. If kids enter school without good fine motor skills, they can not only fall behind, but learning can become very frustrating. Moreover, they can develop lasting negative attitudes towards learning and themselves as learners.
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?