Preschool Food Experiences - Cook Up Some Discovery

20 December 2017

support preschool learning with cooking

Children learn best when they experience the world firsthand-- by touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. To make the most of any food activity, young children must be directly involved with real food and given as much responsibility as possible for food preparation. As a single mother, it was to my advantage to have a helper in the kitchen. So my daughter Claire and I started early with our food experiences. I can still see in my mind’s eye, my two-year-old Claire mashing bananas for banana bread, or “nana bread” as she called it.

That food experience was perfect for Claire at her developmental level, which is an important consideration for all of your kitchen activities. Simple tasks like mashing, mixing, measuring, and pouring are all safe and within the developmental ability of most preschoolers, aged 2 to 4 years old. It’s also important to keep safety in the forefront of all of your preschool food activities. Keep use of the stove, hot pots and pans plus all sharp kitchen tools for adult use only-- and don't forget wash hands thoroughly before and after cooking.

That said, by involving my daughter in our daily meals, our food activities helped her grow new skills in areas such as language development, small motor skills, change perception and basic science learning. Even more, food activities are very creative and accessible experiences for young children. All of their senses are used in food activities. They see the foods. They smell them, touch them, taste and hear them boiling, popping or frying. And, your child can make and share their creations, every single day!

To help your little one make the most of their discoveries during your food activities, here are seven important educational concepts and tips to support them:

  1. Describing things. Working with food in the kitchen, children experience many shapes, sizes, and colors. They see that some foods start out in one shape and change during the cooking process. For example, foods change in size when they are heated, like pasta. Some change in texture and color with mixing, like mixing flour and water together. In food-related activities, then, the child learns to name shapes, compare sizes, and identify and describe colors. So, when cooking with preschoolers, simply talking about all of these changes you see together is a great way to encourage your little one’s language development. Our Chatty-do activities provide lots more opportunities for language development activities your preschoolers too.
  2. Discovering tastes. During food activities, your child learns how heating or mixing changes the taste of things. They learn that some things, such as salt or sugar, can change the taste of foods. They discover that some things taste good when they are mixed together and that others do not. They also learn that a change in the outward appearance of some foods does not mean that they taste any different. Apple juice has the same flavor as a whole apple. The key is to talk about what they are tasting. Here again, you are encouraging language development, but also helping your child notice differences and similarities, a critical mental ability basic to future learning in reading and math. My blog, Learning Everyday Everywhere - Meal Times has more easy ideas on how to reinforce math concepts at meal times.
  3. Observing changes. In food activities, preschoolers observe that foods change from liquids to solids and from solids to liquids. They also see steam, a gas, rising from liquids that are heated. They smell odors as foods cook and combine. They see how ingredients, when mixed together, form a new substance. Seeing these changes in food activities are all basic science learnings for your preschooler. Plus, grasping the concept that things can change is an important basic mental skill for preschoolers’ development. Later on in school, your child will need to use this skill in math, when they learn that a number can be changed by adding or subtracting. It is also important in language arts when words can be changed by making them plural, adding adjectives or that verbs can be changed by adding “ed” at the end of them. Our Skilly-do Kitchen Science activity collection has many more activities perfect for encouraging basic science learnings. You can check out our Child Development Guide for more information on the importance of change perception.  And, if you're looking to understand more about on your little one's mental development, my blog, Prime Times for Brain Development is a helpful guide.
  4. Expressing themselves. Language skills develop as a result of food experiences. Hot, cold, warm, and cool are all part of the food vocabulary you can reinforce when you are preparing food together in the kitchen. Words like bitter, delicious, sour, sweet, and salty have real meaning when your little one experiences them with you in food activities. When the words relate to direct experiences, your child’s vocabulary grows. So, encourage your little one to talk about what they are seeing, tasting, feeling, smelling, and hearing. Use words like odorless, solid, freezing, boiling, smelly, liquid, when you are cooking so your preschooler has a word-rich experience. For more ideas to develop your preschooler’s language, our Social Development skill has more fun ideas.
  5. Small motor skill and hand-eye coordination practice. The measuring, pouring, and mixing of foods all require the use of your child's small muscles as well as hand-eye coordination. These skills will be very important in the future when your little one is learning to read and write. Both reading and writing require holding a book and the coordinated movement of the eyes, from left to right. Check out our Child Development Guide to understand more about this important developmental skill called left-to-right eye tracking. Our Eat It! activity collection has lot more activities that involve small motor skills and hand-eye coordination practice too.
  6. Measuring skills. By using cups and spoons that have marks showing amounts, your young one begins to soak in the concept of measurements. Talk with your child about the fact that a tablespoon is larger than a teaspoon and that a cup holds more than a tablespoon. Your child can also begin to realize that if one uses too much flour, water, or salt, recipes don’t turn out quite as well as when the correct amounts are used. Your child will begin to understand that the amount of each ingredient used makes a difference in the final product. All of these experiences are real-life opportunities to practice math concepts. My blog, Learning Anywhere, Every Day - Math Adventures has more fun, math-friendly ideas for you.
  7. Social skills. Food experiences in groups of friends or family creates a natural avenue for your child's social learning. Mixing, measuring, decorating, and eating all provide many opportunities for talking with others, exchanging ideas, sharing likes and dislikes. You will find that in preparing food, children many times will talk more freely about themselves and their lives in the homey, routine nature of this activity. One child may need an “expert” opinion on how much lemon to squeeze into a drink from another child. One child may need help holding a pan steady while pouring something into it. As children make food together, social skills develop in the natural give-and-take of group experiences. It's a simple, accessible way to learn about each other and to work together. Cooking activities also provide children a chance to share information about their family recipes and food preferences. So, learning about each other’s cultural differences occurs naturally in group cooking experiences too. My blog, Celebrate Diversity Before Kindergarten has even more ideas for encouraging and accepting diversity.

Now, go into the kitchen and cook up some discovery with your preschooler! No matter what you make, your little one will learn so much and have fun at the same time. And don't forget to let us know what amazing things you come up with together-- you can give us your feedback right here.