Mud Pies to Apple Pies: Cooking in West AM
By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher
In the Back 40, the large outdoor space in West room, Harlan and Kristopher are bent over a pot filled with pinecones, pine needles, grass and water. Paolo is standing close by, watching his friends work. Kristopher stands at the stove with his pot on a “burner,” holding a wooden spoon in his hand and stirring the contents of the pot, looking up every once in a while to urgently ask Paolo or Harlan for another ingredient.
KRISTOPHER: “Paolo! I need some more water!”
Paolo fills a measuring cup with water from a container on the picnic table, and pours it into Kristopher’s bowl. Kristopher looks in Harlan’s bowl, and then resumes his stirring.
KRISTOPHER: “I need more salt! Paolo, get me some more salt!”
Paolo looks around, uncertain.
KRISTOPHER: “The dirt is the salt.”
PAOLO: “Oh, yeah.”
Paolo grabs a fistful of dirt and adds it to Kristopher’s pot. Harlan continues to stir his own bowl, looking up occasionally when Kristopher or Paolo says something. The teacher asks Kristopher what he is doing, and he replies that he is cooking. She asks what he is making, and he answers:
KRISTOPHER: “I’m making chicken noodle soup. The pinecones are chicken. These [pointing to the pine needles] are the noodles. We also need water, and jalapeños, and salt and pepper. We are making two kinds of soup, chicken noodle and just chicken soup. OK, it’s time to eat!” Paolo, Kristopher, and Harlan get the bowls from the play stove and set them on the table. Kristopher brings his pot of soup to the table and starts spooning the mixture into the three bowls.
These children clearly have some expertise in cooking, which grew at least in part out of the cooking project our class embarked on this year. This project formally began when teachers observed children cooking throughout the classroom environment: Making food for babies in the dramatic play area, creating deliciously messy concoctions in the sand area and hunting for natural items to add to “soup” in the Back 40. Children were clearly enthusiastic about cooking, but teachers hoped to broaden and enhance their experience by creating an environment that stimulated their interest.
We began by asking children what they knew about cooking. Almost all of their responses fell into two categories. Many children described scenarios in which they helped to prepare favorite food items. Bella makes pancakes this way: “I know how to make pancakes. First you put eggs, milk, flour, oil and butter. And then it tastes really good with sausage. You roll the sausage in a pancake and dip it in syrup and it’s yummy.” Max likes making pasta: “I love pasta. First you let the water boil, then put in the pasta, then you put it on the fire, then it’s done.” Riley prefers pizza, “I cook pizza. I put it on a plate and then I put it on the table and then I eat it.”
Simultaneously, teachers added a variety of cooking items to the environment. Aprons, potholders, rolling pins and play dough in the dramatic play area invited children to explore cooking in their play. On the discovery table at the entrance to classroom, cookbooks with photographs complemented molding sand (a sand material that sticks together when pressure is applied), small bread pans and measuring spoons. The outdoor kitchen areas included found materials such as berries and pine needles to stimulate creative recipes. We also committed to cooking on a daily basis in the art area so children would have sufficient time to hone their skills as cooks. Last, we decided to select a story each week that supported or reflected the cooking that was occurring.
The initial interest in cooking exploded. Children filled the cooking table to make favorites like corn bread and pretzels, becoming competent at measuring, kneading and mixing. Others liked to present story plays of their own versions of the books we were reading. In the sand area many invented their own recipes such as the following by Edie, Mari and Nina:
Mix sugar and salt.
Put it in a pastry pan.
Add tons and tons of snow.
Cook it all night.
Mix it and put it with sugar.
Up to this point, teachers had selected recipes based on their understanding of what children would enjoy. Now it seemed to make sense to ask children what they wanted to cook. Their ideas ranged from pasta to waffles to ice cream. Ben’s thoughts were more detailed. “I would like to barbecue, but I need my dad. He tells me the temperature, when to take it out. I help open the doors, carry all the plates and bowls. My dad does help me cook chicken.” James, perhaps assuming that we only cook “healthy” items at school, suggested: “Maybe Bing could change a little bit so we could make a cake.” Pizza was a group favorite so we decided to go next in this direction, first choosing simple toppings, then moving to more elaborate choices.
At this time, parents began to comment that their children exhibited a new interest in cooking at home. Some wanted to tell all about the recipes they cooked at school. Others wanted to help mom or dad create meals for their families. A few decided they were ready to prepare their own breakfast, without any adult help. Children’s excitement stimulated parents to get involved in the project, with several asking to share a favorite recipe with the class. Our repertoire expanded to include Chex mix, omelets, banana bread, fresh squeezed juice and apple pie. Each activity built on existing skills, scaffolding children’s learning to include a new level of expertise. The ongoing presence of parents in the classroom added a positive dimension to the classroom environment. One parent, Mary Arnone, introduced Chex mix to build on the children’s pretzel-making experience the previous week. When asked how they liked the recipe, Quinn resembled a food reviewer from a gourmet magazine: “Mmmm. It’s hot and buttery, but this part (holding a Rice Chex) I don’t like.” Max made the literal connection between the pretzels we had made and the book, Walter the Baker. Holding up a pretzel he exclaimed: “Walter!” (the name of the pretzel maker in the book).
Children became comfortable using electric appliances such as hand mixers, juicers and apple peeler/corers. In fact, they required only minimal adult supervision because the group had developed a sense of the importance of safety considerations, and reminded each other if that line was being crossed. Cooking vernacular became commonplace. “Pass me the teaspoon.” “Make sure that (flour) is level.” “I need to use the sifter.” “Can you help me with the apple corer?” Children’s comfort level with cooking, following recipes and using tools had become so high, as teachers we contemplated what avenue to explore next. The answer came from the children on the day we ran out of whipped cream for strawberry shortcake. “Let’s make it,” was their solution.
As the project continued, we made more foods we usually buy. After whipped cream, we moved to butter, then graham crackers. Many children asked: “Will we try making saltines (another common Bing snack) next?” But the end of the school year was quickly approaching and we wanted children to have an opportunity to explore their own recipes.
We jumped into the next phase by giving children a few ingredients they had used frequently, including flour, water and baking soda. At one level it seemed like we had returned to our roots. Children measured, mixed and kneaded their own sticky doughy inventions. “It’s like bread!” Ella noticed one day, so we decided to challenge children to invent their own bread recipes, adding salt, raisins, sugar or whatever ingredient they suggested. Snack time was filled with delicious smells and proud cooks who declared: “I helped make that one.”
In many ways this was our project’s culmination: Children had used their knowledge of ingredients to create their own recipes, which were not only edible, but also delicious. The following week we had a second culmination when children helped to prepare muffins for the upcoming potluck. Comments like: “We’re making these for the party” or “We know how to do this recipe” reflected children’s sense of ownership and their realization of themselves as cooks.
During the first week of June, just before the end of the school year, cooks were still hard at work in West Room. This time the chefs were using fingerpaint. With both hands Kate skillfully mixes the “chocolate,” making sweeping circles on the table as she presses with her hands. Amelie calls for more white (paint) and joins Kate in the mixing. “We’re adding the caramel now. Ooh, it’s really sticky. They’re going to love this.” Kate grins and looks at the teacher, saying: “ It’s chocolate. We’re making chocolate for everyone.” “With caramel,” adds Amelie, “but we’re not going to let them eat it!” “Where’s the sugar?” asks Kate, looking at the containers of finger paint on the counter. “It’s blue. Could we have some more blue?” Blue is added to the concoction and the cooks begin to mix again.
The children in West Room are cooks now. As teachers, we were pleased to see their competence expand and their interest grow. We built on this interest in several areas of the curriculum but the connection between home and school was the impetus for taking our investigation to a higher level. We are grateful for the support from families, which encouraged the children in West Room. This year, mud pies and apple pies; next year, our own restaurant?