Cooking

This is one of the most popular creative activities because the end product is so attractive to children whether or not the standard reached would be acceptable to adults. The processes involved are interesting in themselves and a good deal of learning and development of skill goes on.

In the home children will watch and can gradually be allowed to take part in their mothers’ cooking activities but they will still enjoy having their own cooking session in the same way that they will use any material or activity especia’ly produced for their play. Viewed in the light of play activity rather than helping mummy the same ideas and suggestions could be followed in the home as in the nursery. Obviously there is a limit to what children at various ages and stages can do. If we grade the various recipes to take account of the skill and time needed this is sensible. In the nursery group there are even more limitations because of the larger number of children. In some nurseries there is a special cooking session when all the children take part. This approach has many drawbacks. Supervision is more difficult, no child gets all the help and conversation he needs, resources such as cooking equipment and oven space are stretched to the limit and, unless extra adults are available, the staff are stretched beyond their limit. It is significant that the nurseries who do their ‘cooking’ in this way have far fewer cooking sessions than those which use a different approach. This in its turn produces more pressure as the children are more likely to show the ‘me first’, cmy turn, my turn’ behaviour which always arises when a popular activity is done too rarely.

Where there is a separate kitchen a successful method is to allow a small group of children to cook with the help of one adult and to do this often so that each child gets his turn without having to wait too long. Other nurseries allow small groups in turn to use a special area within the nursery play room. Although only a small number of children actively participate, the pleasure and procedure rub off on the other children who may watch, help to eat whatever is made and listen to a story told as a follow-up or lead-in to the activity. As for the extra adult hands necessary, this is one of the areas in which the experienced mother-helper is worth her weight in gold.

Cooking activities can be broken down so that there is something that a child of every age can do. This may depend on the simplicity of the dish itself or on adults completing the difficult stages of a more complicated recipe. At this level of cookery the same basic procedures recur. Simple preparation of foodstuffs which are used in the form in which they are bought would be a good first stage, for example scrubbing potatoes ready for baking; buttering bread to make sandwiches from mustard and cress the children have grown themselves; buttering biscuits for cheese as an extension of some interest-table topic; or using butter that the children have made themselves by shaking small quantities of cream in a screw-top jar, adding salt when the butter and buttermilk are separated. Other activities involving the technique of mixing a powder with a liquid to give the necessary consistency provide a second stage, for instance mixing icing sugar to ice biscuits; preparing a fondant mixture; using cake mixes which only require liquid; using melted chocolate to add to cornflakes, crushed biscuits or other cereals. In fact mixing paint and play dough is exactly the same although one uses rather than eats the end result. Nevertheless mixing these non-edible materials is often a good lead-in to cooking activities. A further basic technique is adding fat to flour which could involve either rubbing in or creaming plus the need for addition of liquid. Thus there can be a progression to pastry, scones and cakes or even bread-making if time allows.

Most cooking involves a supply of heat if not an oven but even the nursery which does not have access to a kitchen, or even temporary use of a portable oven, can still manage to provide what children think of as cooking. Jellies (provided the absolute minimum of hot water is used and rigorously supervised), instant whip mixtures provided they are not left long enough for germs to multiply before eating, sandwiches, preparing and grating vegetables for soup, sweets made from fondant, and icing biscuits are just as much fun even if there is not so much to be learned from them.

Adults have to give more guidance with cooking than with other creative activities. Apart from this the presentation and follow-up has to be carefully thought out and prepared if all the children are to benefit as much as they should. A good way of introducing cooking is by telling a story the day before which in- volves a demonstration. When the children arrive next day those who are going to cook will remember some of what they saw the previous day, which is a help with supervision. The children who are not going to cook have at least learned from and enjoyed the story and when their turn comes will not have forgotten. A follow-up story while sitting round eating the gingerbread men or drinking the soup reinforces both the information and the activity.

From the practical point of view commonsense should be used in the materials and utensils provided. Equipment for washing hands comes first. The same size bowl produced for both pastry mixing and mixing icing sugar is asking for trouble. A small cup-size bowl is much better for holding a small quantity of powdered sugar and more pressure can be applied when mixing in the liquid with a spoon. Handling flour inevitably leads to it splashing up over the sides of the bowl unless this is reasonably large. If a large jug of water is provided for mixing pastry it is difficult to control the amount of liquid added. Separate small jugs for each child, holding a suitable amount or even too little water is better. One can have a good conversation concerning the concept of’a little more’, ‘too dry’, ‘not wet enough’. Any discussion about ‘too much’, ‘too wet’, ‘spoiled’ is likely to be conducted in wails rather than a spirit of inquiry.

Some nurseries ask mothers to bring in the necessary ingredients which they always do willingly. This however means that the weighing and measuring has been done at home – possibly when the child was not there to watch or better still do it for himself. If the expense can be met from nursery funds in the same way as the cost of paint and paper this is much more satisfactory. Measuring two ounces of flour from a three-pound bag is a good experience. Dividing a block of margarine into equal pieces which look quite different in quantity from the same weight of sugar is all part of the value of this activity.