Learning from the Muffin Man: Baking with Children

Sugar cookies flooded with icing, sanded with sugar and topped with coloured jimmies and silver dragées. Gingerbread houses with heart-shaped candy cane windows, green gumdrop hedges, jellybean pebbled paths and roofs covered in a blanket of snowy shredded coconut. Chocolate truffles rolled in cocoa, crushed peppermints, confectioner’s sugar…Christmas is just around the corner and that means baking season has begun, at least in our family.

My children love to bake with me. Perhaps it is the thrill of those secret taste-testings while my back is turned, or maybe it is the anticipation of licking the beaters at the end. “You do realize that you are letting our children eat raw egg, don’t you?” asks my husband. I shrug. Surprisingly, I am able to let it slide. I embrace the excuse to decorate, create and of course, get messy. Top it all off with some teachable moments and it is the perfect recipe for spending some quality time with my children while keeping them engaged, especially over the holidays.

The Five Senses of Baking
My two-year-old has just discovered the joy of baking, in part because she is finally at the age where she has gained the motor control to be engaged in a more active way. Over the past year, she has patiently sat strapped into her high chair watching her siblings help out. But now it is her turn. She goes to the cupboard and puts on her little apron. She drags the stepping stool over and asserts her place. She knows where the big silver bowls are and where I keep the hand mixer and happily fetches them for me. For my baby, helping us bake and putting into practice everything that she has watched is a big step in independence. But it also capitalizes on the stage of development in which she finds herself. Educational psychology informs us that toddlers are in what is called the sensory-motor stage of development which means that they learn best when their senses are engaged in the learning—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Of all the activities that toddlers love, play dough, sand and water play seem to top the list because they are so wonderfully tactile and meet important sensory motor needs. So with “cookie dough”—how it is made and how it is used—you have the best of all worlds in the eyes of a toddler. Children can manipulate it the same way they would play dough, roll it, flatten it, shape it, decorate it once baked. It is great practice for those large and fine motor skills, plus it is a material that smells good and best of all, tastes good.

Stretching the Cookie Dough
The lessons through baking persist well beyond the toddler years. What we know about most children (and Big “Adult Kids” too!) is that learning is best achieved through experiences that are active, hands-on and practical.

For my preschoolers, what we have done to extend the learning beyond the sensory experience, is to use alphabet-shaped cookie cutters as a means of helping them learn their letters. It is a more meaningful experience than cue cards could ever be because it is relevant, memorable and delicious, too.

This holds true for even my older children. My seven-year-old needs a bit more processing time when it comes to math, it doesn’t come very intuitively to her. Teaching her the math of baking, for example, measuring or knowing the difference between ½ teaspoon and a 1/4 teaspoon, has proven valuable to other applications like telling time, understanding ratios and undertaking simple additions and subtractions. As she becomes more creative and experimental with her baking, I am able to slip in the scientific method. What will happen if you use baking soda instead of baking powder? The lessons are unlimited. You are never too young or too old for baking.

Here are some tips for making baking with your children more enjoyable:

• Find easy recipes that will hold their attention and provide quick rewards. Rice Krispie squares are a great example of a quick and easy treat for beginners.

• Have all your ingredients out and organized beforehand so that you are not scrambling back and forth while worrying about spills, messes and/or licky fingers while your back is turned.

• Let your children really help and not just watch. It may mean a cup of flour that is not exactly level or a few egg shells in your batter. Let your children hang onto the hand mixer by themselves with one hand and teach them to hold tight to the bowl with the other. Use this as an opportunity to teach them about safety around the kitchen.

• Have patience and tolerance for mess and mistakes, they are inevitable and part of the fun. But also take advantage of the opportunity to show your children that they have to clean up after themselves. Give them a cloth and have them wipe the table or take dishes to the sink.

Different Cookie Cutters

Experiment with recipes. We will mix up a batch of “Chai Surprise Cookies”, using the usual ingredients for a chocolate chip cookie, then we might add a ½ tsp of both anise and vanilla extract, 1 tsp of cinnamon, 1 tsp of nutmeg, two tablespoons of cocoa powder and a handful of chocolate chips. This is a recipe created by my 7-year-old daughter. Of all of her whims, inventing cookie recipes seems to engage her the most. “I don’t want to follow recipes or measure. I just want to mix…whatever,” she says. We’ve taste tested a number of creations and we all try to be gracious, but many samples have unfortunately survived but a single bite. Too much baking soda, too much salt, too much mystery ingredient? But I’ve humoured my daughter because I acknowledge that her way of learning is creative and experimental.

And then there is my son who will place M&M buttons on gingerbread men with painstaking perfection, and pat down the graham cracker base for a cheesecake till there are no bumps. These two examples speak volumes about my children’s personalities. Through baking, I, too, have learned much more than just how to make a chocolate ganache cake or a grasshopper pie. At the risk of pigeonholing and labeling my children, I have discovered that my son has a tendency towards being a detail-oriented perfectionist, while my daughter is a big picture visionary. They are definitely not cut from the same cookie cutter. It’s been a huge lesson for me as a parent to come to appreciate their differences as well as learn how to better support their individual strengths and help them to overcome their challenges. And all this through baking together.

Home is Where the Hearth Is
I was introduced to baking by my mother who excels at cakes and desserts. While I spent a lot of time watching and did not participate to the same extent that my children do, it is still a ritual that I fondly remember from growing up. My mother worked out of the home so perhaps it was an opportunity to spend some time with her and symbolic of a type of nourishment that I needed, that all children need, that goes beyond simply indulging in baked goods, the need for belonging and attachment.

Now as a mother, I have noticed that whenever any of my children are feeling a bit insecure or the need to belong and feel more connected, they will ask if they can bake something with me. This is especially true of my eldest daughter who is introverted, doesn’t show her feelings easily, and as a result, gets lost amongst my other children’s very outward displays for affection. Baking with my children at least once a week has helped me to ensure that we are making important connections. It provides a platform for learning, and interaction that builds belonging and attachment. It has conversation without nagging. It has face-face time. It has eye contact. These moments can seem rare in our busy, distracted, plugged-in, tuned-out world.

My children take turns making special dessert for Saturday night dinner. We have fun going through my cookbooks to select a dessert of their choice and then shop for the ingredients together on a special grocery shopping date. Sometimes we find ourselves muddling through recipes that are outside of our comfort level. But almost always, we discover that safe comfort zone that allows us to talk freely. In the end, we bask in our family’s praise and we feel built up with a sense of accomplishment—for pulling ourselves out of our heads, polishing up our math skills, mastering new techniques and above all just spending time with each other. Baking in our home is a cherished experience, and it makes me realize that “Home is where the hearth is.”

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” at Green 107.9 FM or online at web link. She is also a trained Virtues Project Facilitator.