Thursday, January 20, 2011

Learning about learning through cooking with children

I recently started a cookery blog, the reasons for which are explained on the blog itself, should you be interested. Obviously cooking is about cooking and learning is about learning. So it's easy to keep the two blogs separate. Unlike with my two Twitter accounts (one professional, one personal), I am unlikely to find myself double posting something in both places.

However, a friend of mine recently asked me to post recipes that would be possible for her to make with her children. This prompted a post on my cookery blog - the first non-recipe post - that would almost do just as well on this one. In fact, I have almost certainly mentioned some of its content here before.

The core of the matter is that, when my children were little, they used to act up in the supermarket during the weekly shop. Yup. Just like anyone else's. And I hit on this idea to keep them from getting bored. Each week, each child was given a £5 budget to buy the ingredients for a meal for the family. They then had to make this meal one evening. They were allowed to ask for as much assistance and advice as they liked, and I handled anything hot or sharp, under their direction.

When talking to parents about cooking with kids, I always remind them of two things:

  1. There will be mess. Lots of mess. Accept that and deal with it...afterwards
  2. They won't do things as quickly or as well as you could. Get over it. Don't be tempted to take over from them. They will learn far more from doing it imperfectly themselves than from watching you do it brilliantly.
And you know, this is true of just about any learning experience, regardless of the age of the learner. The first time around is almost inevitably going to be messy. If the goal of the experience is only a nicely turned out whatever-it-is, then the mentor/teacher/guide/manager/whoever is going to want desperately to step in and make it pretty, make it right.

But I'd suggest that's a short-sighted goal.

Next time, you want the learner to be able to do more on his/her own, surely? You want to be able to step gradually backwards until the point comes when you can quietly step out of the picture altogether on that particular recipe/task and know that it will be done as it should, with the added personal flair of the individual who now owns the task.

And let's notice, too, that I didn't take my kids to a different room two days before and talk them through how the dish was going to be prepared. I didn't even demonstrate it for them. We did it together. In real time. And some of the results were disastrous. But that's okay... because we all learnt as much from them as we did from the successful meals. Maybe more. Probably more.

Some of the disasters cost us money. That is inevitable. But the £5 budget wasn't for the meal. It was for engaging my kids. It was for providing them with the opportunity to achieve something. To do something that was a real contribution to the day to day business of the family. And it was cheap at the price.

The sense of accomplishment each child had as the family sat down to a meal he had prepared, was priceless. And, of course, they had to explain to Dad exactly how it had been done, because, of course, he was desperate to know. And, of course, Mom's contribution was talked down and their own was talked up. Which is as it should be.

Learning isn't something that happens in a classroom. It is something that - like life - happens while we're making other plans. All. The. Time.

But we have to prepared for the mess. We have to be prepared for imperfection the first few times.

We have to get over ourselves.

We also have to realise that it isn't enough to just speak a thing and expect it to have results. On which note, I'd like to steer you towards this post by the Goldsmiths.


V Yonkers said...

What a great idea (and post). One thing you alluded to and I would add is let kids experiment. If my kids wanted to put peanut butter on tomatoes, I'd let them try. We'd use a small experiment first (not take a whole tomato, but a small slice).

My son would say, what would happen if...? Often, it ended up in his trying it out.

Interestingly enough, my daughter absolutely HATES cooking of any kind. No matter what have done to encourage her, she'll always end up passing the task over to my son (who loves it).

The upsycho said...

@Virginia When the outcome isn't going to be life threatening either way, I like the "why don't we find out?" approach to answering questions.

I also didn't fret about peculiar combinations of clothes worn to play school. It's an area of his life that a small child can take ownership of without any untoward consequences. My younger son regularly went to nursery school in his Superman suit and bare feet.

As to your least she had the chance to try, right? And maybe she will still learn to enjoy it. My mother has only started being adventurous in the kitchen since she retired!

By the way, I have one friend who eats peanutbutter on celery sticks.

TUI Online Degrees said...

That sounds like a great and creative way to engage kids. My mom never bothered to engage or allow me to have fun while cooking anything so I'm a bit envious of kids who get to experiment. My mom was the type to tell me to sit in a corner and be quiet, always telling me what to do, never encouraging creativity or independence or even for me to speak up myself.

About the clothes; I was never allowed to pick out my clothes either. My mother dressed me in corduroy pants like a tomboy and I wasn't allowed to pretty dresses and such as a kid. I still have some bitterness towards that believe it or not!

The upsycho said...

@TUI I can tell ;o)

I have some residual resentment myself about things my Mom did and didn't do/allow when I was a child. But I have come to the realisation that, if I hang onto those too tightly, I won't be able to do better by my own kids. I have come to see that she behaved as she did as a consequence of her own background.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my children will be adamant that they will not do X or Y thing with/to their kids because I did it with/to them and they hated it.

But my children know that they are loved. This is terribly important to me. I didn't know that I was loved until I was an adult, by which time the damage was done.

Anonymous said...

Karyn, you are absolutely right. It has a lot to do with how she was raised as well and what she was accustomed. A lot of people have told me the same thing; that she did the best she could, regardless of whether she was a good mother or not she tried. I guess that's what counts.

The upsycho said...

@Anonymous I think what counts is that you play the cards you hold in your hand. Make them work for you. Of course it could have been better, but it could also have been worse. I don't know much about poker, but I do know that you can win with a really crappy hand, and lose with a great one.

At the risk of sounding self-pitying, I wasn't dealt the best of hands - I had a miserable childhood. Then I made a few bad choices of my own. So it has been a bumpy old road. And the bumps don't stop: I'm currently back in the job market and not having much success there.

But we are where we are. The old Sunday School song tells us to 'count our blessings' and Paul McKenna tells us to develop an 'attitude of gratitude'. It's a long way from denialist positive thinking (which I reject with every fibre of my being), but it's a good place to start.

Is your Mom still alive? Are you able to discuss the matter with her?

I had a long conversation with my Mom and the other members of her generation, telling them how some of the things they had said and done impacted my life. There was some anger, some tears, some apologies. Some healing. Some of the damage that was done will probably never be undone, but I don't know that anyone is ever truly whole in this lifetime. And I am very self-aware. I know which bits of me are damaged, and how they evidence themselves.