Toddlers are in a sensitive period for sensory experiences. They take in so much information about their world through their senses; for example, the foundations for mathematical concepts are established through sensory exploration during this period. As part of their social development at this stage, toddlers crave purposeful activity and thrive on being participants in the life of their culture. This age also represents a window of opportunity for language development.
Cooking with toddlers incorporates nearly all of these concepts, also part of a Montessori curriculum, in one activity. Best of all, it’s fun and rewarding, especially when you get to eat what you make!
All it takes to create the experience is a little prep time, some toddler sized tools, and a child-centered approach to the process.
We begin by washing hands, an important part of self-care as well as grace and courtesy.
Next, we sit around the table so that we are all on the same level, and everyone can observe the parts of the process that most capture their interest.
We use a tray that has already been set up with the ingredients premeasured into separate containers, much like a Montessori work from the shelf that teachers prepare ahead of time before giving a lesson.
As much as possible we use clear containers and measuring cups so that the properties of each ingredient are visible. We introduce each item in a way that enriches the children’s vocabulary: the ingredient's name, where it comes from, how much we are using, whether it is wet or dry, etc.
The children are then invited into the sensory experience: smelling vanilla, touching the skin of an orange, holding the cup of flour to feel its weight.
After that it’s time to mix. Toddlers learn through movement, so each child is called to get up from their chair, walk around the table to the tray, and choose an ingredient to add to the bowl. We use a clear mixing bowl so everyone can see how the different items mix together. Taking turns in this way is a lesson in grace and courtesy, as is passing the bowl around at the end so everyone gets a chance to stir. It also provides practice in the executive function of self- control as the children wait for their turn.
Even the inevitable spills and messes are an opportunity for adults to model a calm demeanor in the face of frustrations in life that sometimes arise when we are making a creative effort. It’s all worth it when the toddlers begin to associate the sight of batter rising in the oven and the aroma filling the room with the work they have just done as a collaborative group of friends.