The holidays bring a lot of opportunities for cooking and baking, but it doesn’t have to be exclusive to adults. Getting kids involved with age-appropriate activities teaches them valuable skills and instills them with confidence and pride when they see a complete product that they contributed to. It might slow down the process a bit, but you’ll soon have a handy kitchen helper.
It can be very valuable for younger kids to feel like a contributing member of the household. A 2014 study titled, “Children’s Initiative in Contributions to Family Work in Indigenous-Heritage and Cosmopolitan Communities in Mexico,” (https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/356763) noted the enthusiasm and voluntary engagement in household tasks exhibited in young children from an Indigenous-heritage community in Guadalajara, Mexico. The study compared this to families in the cosmopolitan community of Guadalajara who had been exposed to Westernized schooling traditions and cultural practices. Like many American kids, children in those families engaged in household chores when they were asked to, rather than taking initiative to assume those responsibilities.
The researchers noted that the key difference was whether it was common to have toddlers involved in household tasks. They concluded that many children have an intrinsic motivation to help that can be harnessed through welcoming them to participate from a young age, rather than undermining that natural motivation with telling them to go play now and then using extrinsic rewards to bribe them later. That may be a bit easier said than done as there is only so much time in a day to get chores done, but involving kids in cooking and baking can be a great way to invest in your little helper without the stress of needing to complete a chore before the day ends.
Young kids up to the age of 5 will benefit the most by simple, hands-on tasks that help them develop dexterity, engage their senses and work on oral comprehension as they are given simple instructions.
Since toddlers won’t be very reliable for accurate measurements, they can work on the strictly tactile activities, like dumping things into bowls or stirring dry or liquid ingredients and kneading or rolling dough. If they’re a bit too hard to manage as you’re trying to make a recipe, you can let them be nearby with their own bits of dough or ingredients to play with and they will probably still feel like they are helping out.
As kids get to the preschool age, they can do all this and even handle more sensitive ingredients like spices. Encourage them to smell and taste ingredients to engage their senses and broaden their knowledge and vocabulary.
At elementary school age, kids can start engaging more directly with the recipe. They can work on reading, math and thinking skills by following a recipe through, gaining new vocabulary along the way. They’ll have a better handle on measuring ingredients and other prep tasks like greasing pans, cracking eggs, sifting flour, whisking and kneading. They can start adding their own creative flourishes to the finished product by practicing plating or making fun designs with garnishes.
Once kids get into their tween years, they can be trusted with a bit more dangerous tasks like using food processors, using the oven, cooking on the stove top and handling knives. Caregivers should use their judgement on what their kids are able to handle and maintain supervision as necessary. They can also perform more intricate tasks like shaping dough, crimping piecrusts, decorating baked goods, seasoning and adjusting recipes.
A few good habits and skills to instill at any age – clean up as you go, read the recipe in its entirety before getting started and don’t forget to turn the oven off.
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