I love thinking up and prepping activities. I love fleshing out the intricate details of how to target complex social-emotional concepts and spending all my free time getting things ready.
OK, so I AM kind of a dork when it comes to child development and Pinterest. But, there never seems to be enough hours in the day to prep and initiate all of my “pins”. Therefore, my favorite activities are those that can be embedded into our everyday routine and require very little extra effort.
Seeing how we eat every day, cooking together has been the best way to “work” on a variety of skills:
Self-Confidence- Each time we give kids the chance to do something for themselves, create something themselves, learn a new skill, or support them in solving their own problems they gain confidence in their own abilities! I swear, the look on LJ’s face when he sees his final product or better yet, watches someone try something he made-always stops me in my tracks. In those moments, his pride and confidence just radiates and fills the whole room. For a kid that is prone to anxiety and shyness, this is HUGE!
Impulse Control- If you have a kiddo who is prone to impulsive behaviors, cooking can be a great way to show the importance of slowing down and paying attention to details. When we first started cooking together, LJ had a really tough time slowing down. He would add an ingredient, stir it once, and want to move on. It took a lot of coaching to get him to notice what was happening. We talked about how combining ingredients can change how the mixture looks or feels. Getting him to slow down and notice what is happening in his environment is one of my main overall goals for him, cooking is just such a natural way to work on those skills!
Patience/Waiting- Speaking of impulse control, cooking is perfect for demonstrating the importance of patience and waiting. Certain recipes require more than simply dumping and mixing ingredients and most recipes require at least some wait time. Bonus, the hard work of waiting receives the natural reward of trying whatever you made. It is also so easy to include tools (such as timers or visuals) to support kid’s who struggle with waiting.
Following or Breaking rules- Is your kiddo a rule follower or a rule breaker? Either way, there is a recipe for that. You can support your rule follower’s natural inclination for order and structure with cooking activities, while at the same time providing gentle opportunities to help them gain flexibility (ex. “I know the recipe calls for raisins, but imagine what would happen if we used chocolate chips instead?!”). For your rule breaker, you can choose to throw the recipe book out the window and give them complete freedom to create their own masterpiece. Or you can use it as a tasty way to show the benefits of following the rules.
Coping with mistakes- Cooking provides ample opportunities to practice old coping skills and gain new ones! We rarely make it through a cooking project without at least one mistake happening. This used to be catastrophic for LJ and would result in utter emotional disarray. But, slowly and surely, he is gaining the tools he needs to cope with mistakes and his ability to now calmly say “Ooops. Oh well. I can clean it up.” is transferring over to other parts of his life- which is HUGE.
Communication skills- Listening to directions, asking questions, clarifying, and compromising were all crucial ingredients of our first time making pasta (which was insanely messy). When we are trying a new recipe I try to narrate my actions for LJ so he knows what is happening, I then pause and give him space (or even prompts) to ask questions about what is coming next, what his job is, or what he can do to help. There are some meals and snacks that I have him prepare completely on his own, but many of our favorite recipes require us to actively communicate with each other to prevent mistakes or injuries (like when I have him help cut produce). Not going to lie, I would venture to say about 75% of our cooking ventures include some type of communication and/or emotional breakdown. But, part of the magic happens when we work through those big feelings and make it through to the other side.
Creativity- LJ is a creative little guy! However, he has very little natural interest in art projects/materials. Sure he will cooperate with art projects, but he just isn’t passionate about art (yet *hopefully*). He is however passionate about food :) I think cooking/baking can give kids who aren’t natural artists, a creative outlet. You get all the benefits of art: messy play, textures, math, spatial concepts, color mixing, etc and you get the added social-emotional benefit of the fact that no matter how the end product looks, it still tastes good!
Cooperation and Teamwork- Before I was a parent, I was a play/ABA therapist. When I led play/social skills groups, cooking was always such a fun way to promote cooperation and teamwork. Sometimes I would give each child a specific job and sometimes I would support them as they decided how to divide up the tasks. Since cooking is an activity that has a lot of options for accessibility (ex. Appliances that can be operated with a switch, visual timers, jobs that don’t require advanced language skills or fine motor abilities, built in sensory supports, the list goes on and on) it can promote cooperation and teamwork in classrooms and families with a wide range of ages and ability levels. Cooking with LJ used to be an activity for just the two of us, but we are slowly adding Wallace to the mix and giving him small “tasks”. Not only is it a fun bonding opportunity for all of us, but I also get to watch as LJ starts to see his brother as more than just a baby. It is so sweet to see LJ look at Wallace with pride as he contributes to the process.
Sensory Integration- Cooking provides endless opportunities for sensory exploration! Many feeding specialists and OTs recommend breaking the “never play with your food rule” and allow kids the chance to fully experience the sights, smells, tastes, and feelings of all different types of food groups. When LJ and I cook together, I try to back off as much as possible and let him enjoy and notice all aspects of the ingredients we are using. Sometimes we take it a step further and talk about how certain sensations make us feel or why we like or dislike specific sensations.
Promoting healthy habits- While it isn’t super healthy to eat homemade cookies every day, creating healthy rituals like squeezing your own orange juice or growing and eating your own vegetables is a great way to start kids off on the right foot. When kids are involved in meal planning there is a greater likelihood of them trying new healthy foods. And when you do indulge in sweet treats, you can do so mindfully. Even though LJ is only 4, I see it as laying a solid foundation for him to be able to select and prepare good foods when he is older.
Gratitude: This was not a concept I originally planned on. But, as we were prepping orange juice and LJ lamented over the work and effort of it all. I agreed that it was hard work, but it was worth it (trying to steer the conversation towards the benefits of hard work). LJ took it another direction, commenting that he felt “happy that if we wanted orange juice right away, we could buy it from the store” and how “nice of the workers to have orange juice ready for us any time”. So, we started talking about the concept of gratitude. It was an incredible and unexpected conversation! It was lovely hearing him identifying the things in his life that he is grateful for.
The cherry on top: simply making memories! I definitely hope that when my kids are adults and they catch a whiff of a familiar smell it will take them back to our cluttered little kitchen and the messes we made together.
While we do not make homemade pasta every day, I do try to find a way to involve LJ in some aspect of meal prep each day. Often it is just little things, like pouring his own juice or plating his own snack-but there is magic even in those small moments.
So far, I think we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social-emotional benefits of cooking! What about you? Do you use cooking/baking activities to teach or practice other skills? I would LOVE to hear from you!