What's cooking?

Your kids can learn a lot in the kitchen

Dr. Lydia DeFlorio is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. She says language-rich interactions are the key to learning experiences for kids, both in and out of the kitchen.

Dr. Lydia DeFlorio is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. She says language-rich interactions are the key to learning experiences for kids, both in and out of the kitchen.


Think of your child as the little scientist in the kitchen

People say children are like little sponges, learning by observing and absorbing everything that takes place around them. A lot of what they learn is, of course, from the people who raise them—and these days the internet is full of parenting blogs and websites with tips on how to teach kids pretty much everything, from showing empathy to using scissors.

Teaching kids to cook is among the popular topics on sites like these, and with a quick search you can find stories ranging from “the first five recipes you need to teach your kids” to “how to get your children to love healthy food.” But what if the thought of involving your little ones in preparing meals sounds to you like a recipe for creating your own kind of Hell’s Kitchen? You may not be ready to teach your kids how to deglaze, flambé or truss. You may not have those skills yourself. But even if learning to cook is still a life goal for you, for your children, cooking can be an opportunity to learn.

Kids who spend time in the kitchen can learn all sorts of things, from math and language skills to fine motor and social skills. And these are things you don’t need to be master chef to teach them.

Food for thought

Dr. Lydia DeFlorio is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on cognitive and emotional development in children, and she’s particularly interested in how children develop early math skills.

According to DeFlorio, hers and others’ research has revealed that kids’ math skills upon kindergarten entry are more than an indicator of how well they’ll perform in that subject throughout school.

“They are actually one of the best predictors of not only children’s math throughout school, but also a better predictor of their literacy skills, than even early literacy is,” she said.

The takeaway for parents, according to DeFlorio, is to realize that a lot of crucial early learning happens at home, before kids are even old enough to start school. But, thankfully, the skills they need to succeed are pretty basic, she said—which brings us back to the kitchen, a place DeFlorio sees as an OK starting point.

Now, if the thought of mixing math and meal making has ruined your appetite, relax. As both an academic and a mother, DeFlorio has a few simple pieces of advice to make things easy for you and worthwhile for your kids.

Questionable behavior

According to DeFlorio, an excellent way to teach young children is through asking them questions.

“Think of your child as the little scientist in the kitchen,” she said. “Not that you let them go blow things up or do whatever, but posing questions about everything, and then not giving them the answer, just kind of helping them just enough to figure out the answer.”

It’s easy to see how this method of asking questions might work for teaching early math skills. You could ask your kid to figure out how many ingredients are needed for a recipe or which one is required in the greatest amount. But that’s really only the beginning. Even something as simple as making cookies offers the opportunity for more.

“There are ways to pepper questions in that can support a whole range of school readiness,” DeFlorio said. “’How does it make you feel when you eat the cookies? Happy? Why does it make us feel like that?’ There’s an emotional piece in there, right?”

According to DeFlorio, baking cookies could even be a chance to help your child pick up literacy skills.

“Early literacy, yes, it’s about letters and whatever, and you can read recipes and whatnot. You can identify the word ’egg’ or something,” she said. “That’s the more obvious stuff, but a lot of literacy skill is kind of being able to take in information, being told a story, being given information, being able to process that, remember it, make sense of it, and use it. That’s a huge piece of literacy, so following the instructions, and understanding why we’re using the instructions, having discussions. It doesn’t just have to be crack the egg and pour it in. ’What does the egg do? Why do we put egg in the cookie batter? What’s the purpose?’”

The best part, DeFlorio said, is that you don’t have to be a mommy blogger with specific activities and learning goals in mind for your child.

“Whether I’m a mom who plans out some elaborate activity that I’m going sit down and do with my child or we’re just baking cookies because that’s what we feel like doing today—in either situation, intent doesn’t really matter as much as the language that’s being used.”

Balancing acts

DeFlorio’s other piece of advice for parents who are considering ways to use their kitchen as a classroom is also simple: Make sure you’re balancing your own sanity with your desire to provide learning experiences for your kid.

“For me, I don’t know that I would ever have either of my kids in the kitchen on a school night helping me try to prepare dinner,” she said. “We’re pressed for time already. It’s nuts. I’m much more likely to say, ’You know what? I bought the ingredients to make cookies. On Saturday, we’re going to make cookies.’”

But just because the kids aren’t actually making dinner alongside her, that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity to learn.

“They could set table,” she suggested. “There’s that one-to-one correspondence. ’How many people are eating? How many forks do we need? … Can you please go to the cabinet and get 10 napkins,’ or whatever. There are a lot of things that can happen just as part of that daily routine that still.”

It’s all pretty simple, but, DeFlorio said, in the end, it’s a situation where practice on the part of the parent makes perfect.

“I am a mom,” she said. “I know a lot about this stuff. But I am a mom, and I’m tired at the end of the day. And I have to make dinner and get homework done and baths. Everything needs to happen. Those interactions I’m having with my kids aren’t always intentional. I have enough practice that I probably do infuse a lot of that stuff during the day, but in order for it to be there, you have to practice it enough for it to become routine and just part of the way you talk to children.”