Smiling faces around the table at I.A. 松本’s annual Thanksgiving Dinner Party
Cooking and eating together are very important processes in our Montessori classroom. There are many reasons why we feel the act of creating and sharing a meal is an essential part of learning, growing, and building our school community. More than 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori set out to instruct the whole child, a concept very unique in her day. Like Dr. Montessori, our goal is to create independent, self-sufficient individuals. Food pre-paration helps to do this, all the while incorporating aspects from every learning discipline in the Montessori environment.
Mixing a big jar of Horchata to drink with a Mexican meal
Cooking is Practical Life: The practical life area of the Montessori classroom is the first area introduced to a child who is new to the environment. Practical Life is where children have the opportunity to practice skills like tying laces, sweeping the floor, pouring a glass of water—all skills that a person needs to care for himself and his environment. Practical Life activities help children develop manual dexterity, create order by following set patterns, provide a safe space in which to make and correct errors, and build confidence that encourages exploration into other areas of learning. So, what could be more practical than preparing a meal and serving it to your friends?
By working together, the children create something that can be shared and enjoyed by all. They practice Grace and Courtesy lessons each and every time they sit down to eat: politely asking for something to be passed, thanking someone for assistance, chewing with a closed mouth, serving one another, learning to politely decline food that has been offered, etc. The basic kitchen skills such as chopping, whisking, peeling, and pouring all help children learn how to feed themselves and those around them in a safe and satisfy- ing way.
Scooping seeds out of a Halloween pumpkin before carving
Cooking is Sensorial: One of the hallmarks of Montessori learning is that it involves all of the senses, which better connects the hands and the brain to the lesson concepts. More and more studies show that students of all ages and abilities are better able to recall learned material when that learning incorporates 2 or more senses. Cooking and eating is a process that uses all five of the senses. Children can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste their work at many different intervals throughout the cooking and dining process. They are able to easily remember the names of new fruits and vegetables as they are introduced because the smell of the produce and the feel of it while preparing the food actually create additional synaptic connections in the brain or strengthen existing connections.
It’s one thing to see a picture of a food on a card. It is an entirely different thing, especially to the mind of a young child, to experience that food with all of your senses: the feel of the ball of dough rolling under your hands, the sharp smell of a spice that’s new to you, the sight of a spiky and exotic fruit, the hollow sound made by tapping on a gourd, the explosion of a mouthwatering new flavor on your tongue. All of these experiences help to form the concrete basis upon which abstract ideas can flourish within the mind.
Chatting while sipping on cups of Korean corn tea
Cooking is Language: Have you ever noticed just how much conversation happens around food? There’s a reason that people like to hang out a coffee shops, why parties often center around the foods and drinks that are served, why people tend to gather around the snack table. There’s a special connection that people tend to make over food. In the Language area of the classroom, children learn a variety of ways to communicate clearly and effectively with others. They do more than practice reading and writing, they learn new vocabulary, practice grammar structures, and learn how to speak politely and peacefully with each other.
Shared mealtimes provide the perfect opportunity for the members of the community to converse with one another, talk about things that they have learned during the morning work period, and learn from one another. It is an essential bonding time that is further strengthened by the fact that the participants are also sharing the same food that was cre-ated by their own hands. There is no competition to see who has the best lunch box offer- ings or who can trade away a hated food. Instead, there is cooperation and encouragement to try new foods because they were prepared by the hands of a friend. Children enjoy sharing memories about previous times they have experienced certain foods, or they may express excitement about plans to try other new foods. Studies also show that the positive peer pressure provided when children try new foods with their friends helps to more easily expand their nutritional horizons than when parents attempt to coerce a child to eat something at home. The communication that happens while sharing a meal creates a loving link between the nourishment of the body and the nourishment of the soul.
Measuring out flour to bake a cake
Cooking is Mathematical: There are so many practical applications for mathematical concepts in the kitchen. Whether counting out and measuring ingredients to prepare a dish or figuring out fractions for reducing or multiplying a recipe, cooking is a perfectly practical way to show children why and how we use math to our benefit. Children who cook quickly learn the importance that accurate counting, weighing, and time measure- ment play in producing a delicious cake or loaf of bread. Without these things, the final product could be inedible, under-cooked, or disastrously burnt.
Children at I.A. prepare a fish head soup for lunch.
Cooking is Science: From botany to chemistry, nutrition to biology, some of the most amazing scientific experiments can happen with food. The growth patterns and cell structure of plants are easy to study when you slice open an apple. The chemical reaction between baking soda and an acid like buttermilk is obvious when you bite into the soda bread you just baked. The anatomy and physiology of a fish is much easier to understand after you fillet it.
0ur Little Sous, getting ready to take a BIG bite out of his Mexican Burrito
Cooking is Cultural: There is no more social way to transmit the cultural and ethnic heritage of a person, country, or region than through its cuisine. The Cultural area of the Montessori classroom is a place where children can learn about different continents and their geography, different countries and their languages and dress, different peoples and their history and customs. Cooking and eating dishes from around the globe helps children to incorporate ideas that may be beyond their comprehension into a framework that they can understand and enjoy.
Creating the foods from another country opens a child’s eyes to the similarities of people all over the world as they work to sustain themselves. The topographical differences on a map make more sense after you have eaten the grain that shapes that topography. Dishes with strange or silly sounding names are much less strange or silly when you realize they are made with foods you already know and enjoy. Sharing the traditional dishes of another culture creates a connection that helps us experience what it is like to live somewhere else and explore something special without ever leaving our own home.
0ur Little Sous prepares toppings for a bowl of Korean Bibimbap
Cooking is FUN!
[Note, this article first appeared as a newsletter distributed exclusively to parents at I.A. 松本 in 2012. Below is the original closing paragraph.]
At I.A. 松本, we love to cook and we do so frequently. Our Morning Montessori class prepares a wide variety of international foods from scratch at least once or twice per week. Our After-noon Learning Lab creates special seasonal dishes or crafts with food and/or food supplies about once a month. We also host weekend events and activities designed to in- clude the whole community in our international exploration. We celebrate the rich cultural diversity of our staff and students through these meals. We learn about countries and peoples that are new to us through the intricacies of their cuisine. We invite you to share in our joy—come cook with us, and always cook with your child!