Have you heard of Temple Grandin? She is an American autistic professor and an advocate for the rights of autistic people. I attended one of her talks in Dublin a few years back. At the talk, many parents asked her how many hours of early intervention our children should be receiving. Temple delivered straight, down to earth and practical answers that I found very refreshing.
One of the things she spoke about was how to help children learn and develop in school and at home, in addition to their therapy sessions. She advised the audience to encourage children to help out, and to give them responsibilities. She felt very strongly about this particular idea.
Temple spoke at length about cooking together, which really stuck with me and I have since introduced this in my own home by cooking more with my boys. This week I’ll be talking about cooking and baking with children. I’ll share some of the ideas Temple Grandin spoke about, and some others that I have learned while observing my own kids in the kitchen.
Involving children in the kitchen can be quite messy – but I guarantee the mess will be worth it! Cooking and baking provide so many opportunities for development, below are a few examples…
The kitchen can stimulate all senses, which can be both good and bad for autistic children. Focus on the textures your child likes touching, and you can gradually introduce less preferred textures. Most ingredients used for baking can be fun to explore for children with autism: flour, sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate chips or other dry ingredients.
Sieve the flour, pour the milk, taste the chocolate, smell the vanilla, and let your child crack and play with the eggshells if they want to. Mixing ingredients together can also be interesting especially if the mixture forms a wet paste which can often be a more challenging texture for autistic kids.
At home, we enjoy making pizza dough, and I encourage my children to help me knead the dough. This wet texture can be challenging for children who have some sensory difficulties. I offer a small piece of dough to my child with autism, as he doesn’t like the feel of it, but he is ok if it’s just a small amount. I encourage him to squeeze it, poke it, and roll it with a rolling pin or with his hands.
Some children may love exploring textures, while others may hate it! Never force a child to touch or explore foods/ingredients if they really don’t want to – instead they can help pour and stir, without having to touch the food directly.
Developing language and conversation
Having fun in the kitchen will also naturally encourage interaction and communication with your child.
If your child is using a communication system such as PECS or an IPad, ensure that you have it in the kitchen with you. Make sure to prepare in advance, if you need to add any pictures or symbols for the ingredients, and any keywords you might want to work on. If your child communicates with Lámh, practice the signs you will need.
Remember to create opportunities to communicate. If your child wants to pour the milk into the mixture, just give them a little bit of milk in a jug. When the milk is all gone, ask your child “Do you want more milk”? while using signs, and encourage your child to sign back to you. Or you could offer chocolate chips in a bag for example that the child can’t open, and ask your child “Will I open the bag“? and wait for your child to sign for open back to you.
Clearly label all the items as you are using them and make sure you communicate slowly and clearly. Sometimes we use too much language, and that can be confusing for children who have a language delay. Rather than overusing chat and conversation, use clear short sentences and repeat words and new concepts several times, so they learn them. With older children, you can expand on this and create opportunities for full conversations. I encourage my older students to tell me how they would like to decorate the cupcakes, to tell me about the flavours they like and the ones they don’t, or even give me instructions on how to make the mix.
Listening and following instructions
Encouraging children to cook, provides a great opportunity to practice the skills of listening and following instructions.
I find it helpful to have visual supports to hand. I normally print pictures of all the ingredients and symbols of the instructions to follow. I use the pictures to reinforce the verbal instructions I give to them.
Practice following instructions by asking your child “pass me the sugar, or find the eggs please”. Encourage them to listen and carry out the instruction. As children develop better attention and concentration, you can challenge them a bit more by asking them to give you two items together – for example, “pass me the spoon and the bowl please”. Or you could ask them for an item that is not on the counter, for example, “get the eggs”, so the child has to retain that information in their head, walk across the kitchen, open the fridge, find the eggs, and get back to you. You are practising how to pay attention and focus.
As children learn to read, you can begin to incorporate reading to this task. Print easy recipes for children, most of them have simple clear instructions and some illustrations. Let the child read and follow the instructions as independently as possible.
Cooking also involves maths and problem solving, although most of us don’t even realise how much we rely on our mathematical skills in the kitchen! Baking a cake will require counting the eggs, weighing flour and sugar, measuring liquids, dividing the dough, and timing the oven. You can practice the whole maths curriculum while making cupcakes!
If your child is young, you might just practice counting ingredients or looking at the numbers on the weighing scales.
Challenge older children with more advanced concepts such as dividing a pizza in half or in quarters. Or even more, decide you want to make a bigger cake this time and help your child figure out how to double all the ingredients.
Fine motor skills
Working in the kitchen will also encourage children to practice hand dexterity. Baking will require opening bags, unwrapping ingredients, pouring from a jug to a bowl, stirring with a spoon, rolling with a pin, and you can also introduce cutting with a plastic knife or picking up very small ingredients such as raisins. All of these activities will help children to develop better hand and finger dexterity.
You can also incorporate bigger movements to help develop shoulder strength, which is also very important for good fine motor skills. You can practice arm and shoulder strength activities by asking your child to help you wipe the counters with a cloth, or by asking your child to carry some heavier items like bringing a flour bag from the table to the counter.
Independence is one of the most important skills that we can teach to all children, but particularly to children with special needs. The advice that I always give to special needs assistants in schools, is that their goal needs to be to “walk themselves out of the job”. That means, that you are not there to do things for the child, but you are there to teach the child how to do things for themselves.
Baking together can be an easy and fun way to introduce children to the kitchen and cooking. Make it a fun and pleasant experience for them. In time, maybe they can learn to make themselves a sandwich, pack their school lunch and to take responsibility for setting up the table and cleaning up after meals.
Your turn! Do you cook or bake with your child at home? Have you tried baking with your students in school? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!
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