Kids In The Kitchen
Self-care is one of the important learning strands in Montessori education, which is why you’ll usually find a water jug that children can use to pour themselves a drink in many Montessori early childhood centres. And you’ll also find activities that are designed to help children learn and practice a range of skills that are used for dressing themselves, such as tying laces, doing up buttons and zipping zips. Naturally, you should apply the same idea – the Montessori principle of letting children do jobs for themselves if they are capable of doing so – at home. Why not apply this principle in your kitchen?
You’ve probably watched your preschool child progress in the matter of being able to feed him/herself. No longer does your child use his/her hands to shovel food into a hungry mouth, and while fingers get used from time to time (we all do this, even as adults, don’t we?), your preschooler is probably able to use a spoon and other cutlery tolerably well and is pretty adept at self-care when it comes to feeding themselves. Eventually, this self-care will progress until you have an older child who doesn’t just know how to eat properly but will also be able to prepare the food as well.
But why not start your child off with food preparation now? Nutritionists know that children are much more likely to eat food – even vegetables, which some children get picky about – if they can help prepare the food themselves. Sure, your child won’t be able to work as fast or as efficiently as you, and you will have to be prepared to spend the time showing and explaining what needs to be done to your child, in best Montessori fashion, as well as letting the child have a go. The process can be messy, but it’s worth it in the long run. Besides, your child gets a chance to put the pouring skills they’ve learned at their Montessori early childhood centre to use in a way that helps the whole family.
You may not be able to have a small table in your kitchen that the child is able to work at comfortably when preparing food, but if you can, this is great, as one Montessori principle is to give children tools that fit them. You can improvise by dragging a coffee table into the kitchen for your child to work on or you can send your home handyman to make one up. If neither of these are possible in your situation, give your child a good, stable chair that they can stand on to reach the bench or kitchen table and work comfortably.
What can your child do to help you prepare dinner? Obviously, you don’t want a four-year-old using sharp knives or operating a hot oven, as this is likely to be risky. It’s also not a good idea to allow small children to handle raw meat, as there will always be that moment when your back is turned when an unwashed finger goes into the mouth. You should also teach your child some basic hygiene rules for the kitchen: (1) wash your hands before you start handling food, (2) don’t put your fingers in your mouth, nose or ears when you’re working, (3) once a spoon’s gone into your mouth when you do the taste-testing that all good cooks do, don’t put it back into the food, and (4) don’t sneeze, cough or dribble over the food you’re preparing.
Now you’ve got some basic safety and hygiene issues sorted, what can your child do to help prepare food? You’ll have to be like a Montessori teacher and observe your child to gauge his/her ability before giving a task out, but the following are all possibilities that most three- and four-year-olds can do:
- Preparing salad. The posh way to get lettuce leaves small enough to go on the plate is to tear them by hand, so this is an easy task for small hands to do. Graters are probably best left until later, as there is a risk of skinning knuckles and getting blood everywhere, but this does depend on the style of grater used. Ordinary sliced bread can be cut into squares with a blunt kitchen knife to be made into croutons. Spring onions and herbs can be cut up with scissors – another chance to put the skill learned at the Montessori early childhood centre to good use.
- Pouring and measuring. You’ll want your child to do this under supervision and it’s probably best kept to items that you don’t mind being spilled. But if you need a cup of water added to a recipe or to a stew, then this is a task for your child. Don’t keep this just to liquids – a number of other things can be poured from a large container into a small one, such as frozen vegetables, peas, chocolate buttons (hey – don’t eat them all!), rice, sultanas and pasta (but not spaghetti – it’s too long).
- Spreading butter and margarine on sliced bread. Spreads go on more easily if the bread is frozen, especially if you prefer butter and it’s a bit hard. Children can also apply peanut butter, vegemite, jam and honey onto sandwiches – perhaps they can make their own lunchtime sandwiches! Olive oil can be applied with a brush, which is even easier to do – your child can do this when you’re making home-made pizza or bruschetta.
- Stirring. This one gets pretty messy while children learn the techniques of stirring that make sure that the mixture doesn’t creep over the top of the bowl, but the mess is a necessary part of learning. Keep stirring jobs to cake mixes and the like, as stirring porridge or scrambled eggs over a hot stove is probably a bit risky for a learner.
And don’t forget that anything that involves pushing a button can be done by small fingers, albeit under supervision. Get your preschooler to press the Start button on the microwave or to pulse the breadcrumbs in the blender while you watch –and stress that the equipment is not a toy and your child should only press the buttons when Mummy/Daddy is with them.
Have fun in the kitchen with your kids – one day, they will be able to cook the whole meal for you.