One of the essential parts of Montessori Education is in the area of Practical Life. Practical Life activities constitute the work the child does to take care of themselves independently. Unlike the Sensorial Area, Practical Life activities are found throughout the different aged Montessori prepared environments, meaning Elementary or Cosmic Education, the Adolescent Community also known as Erdkinder and High School. Learning how to feed yourself is a key component of taking care of yourself and so every authentic Montessori program involves food preparation and cooking. This specific post has to do with children under the age of 6. With the First Plane child, imaginative play allows a child to further connect with daily activities they see others doing all around them.Were I to write a cooking post geared towards Elementary students I would call it Cooking and Socialization and for the adolescents, I would entitle it Cooking and Cultural Identity.
With the First Plane child (aged 0-6 years) cooking is mainly about simple food preparation such as cutting a banana, peeling potatoes, stirring and mixing and flipping eggs. Because of the mysterious functioning of the Sensitive Periods much of what we think of as mundane activities may be internally driving some form of the child’s development so if a child gets really into a specific activity or task, allow them to perform it until they are satisfied. This may mean that you have more potatoes peeled than needed at the time. You can put them in a container with water in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
Modifications and Delegation
When cooking with a young child, there are some modifications and preparations that can be made to make the experience successful and not too messy. The work that child completes may not be to your standards which you can either make an exception, draw attention to it or discreetly correct it. There will also be some tasks that the young child is not yet ready to accomplish but by watching you, they are seeing what needs to happen. In some ways it is like a mini presentation. Because every child is different, it is the responsibility of the adult to decide and delegate which tasks will be done by whom. Before you begin food preparation, it is best to gather all of the ingredients and materials you will need so that everything is within you and your child’s reach.
Preparing the Meal
The other night my son and I made a meal that I wanted to share because it was easy and delicious. It is roasted sweet potatoes and baked chicken breasts. To make the baked chicken breasts and roasted sweet potatoes we gathered the peeler, a baking sheet, a spatula, olive oil and the food; 3 chicken breasts, 1 sweet potato, 2 cloves of garlic and the spices; salt, pepper, oregano, basil and rosemary. We had a fairly large sweet potato which was enough for our family of 3. The beauty of this recipe is that you can cook as much as you will all eat and if you make too much, leftovers are delicious too. Little O helped gather some of the ingredients and then brought over his stool as I collected the last few items.
We turned the oven to 415 degrees and while we waited for it to heat up, we peeled and cut the sweet potato and seasoned the chicken breasts. The first thing we did was put some oil on the baking sheet. Depending on how much control your child has, they can pour the oil and spread it on the sheet, or just spread it. To spread the oil, we used a small cloth but you can also use a paper towel. Next we moved on to the sweet potato. Peeling is something that many children over 18 months are capable of doing, at least to some extent. Remember, we should not expect adult results from children. Once the sweet potatoes were peeled, we worked on cutting them. I gave Little O a butter knife and a part of a sweet potato to cut. He worked on that while I cut the rest of the sweet potato into ¾ inch cubes. We put the sweet potato pieces onto the oiled baking sheet. If you are cooking for only a few people, one baking sheet should be sufficient to hold both the sweet potatoes and the chicken. To make the sweet potatoes a bit more savory, we peeled and cut 2 cloves of garlic. Most young children should be capable of completing both of these tasks. We mixed the garlic pieces with the sweet potato directly on the baking sheet.
The last step before putting it all in the oven was to season the chicken. Because the chicken is raw and subject to disease, I placed the chicken on the remaining half of the greased baking sheet. I then gave the spice jars to Little O, one at a time and supervised while he sprinkled each spice onto the chicken breasts. The spice jars we buy have a plastic lid with holes in it so the amount that comes out is small. If your spice jars are different, you can also pour out the amount you want to use into small bowls and have them sprinkle it on from the bowl. Once all of the spices were used, we put on our oven mitts and put the baking sheet into the oven together.
Precautions and Redirection
If during the food preparation process he was ever veering from what I wanted him to be doing, I would first give a verbal redirection such as, “we are cutting the sweet potatoes right now” or “the other side of the knife is the side we cut with.” Remember to keep your verbal redirections positive. If these verbal prompts don’t work then I ask if I can take a turn and then I model for him what I expect. I make it a point not to physically take over without asking first, that way the experience remains an empowering one for him. Of course, that doesn’t include unsafe behavior, which should be stopped immediately. When dealing with hot surfaces, I make a point to repeatedly remind that the area/item is hot. In the case of the oven, when we open up the oven, we stand back to let that first wave of heat escape before we step close.
When we had finished preparing the meal and put it in the oven, Little O was not yet finished with performing the task of cooking and so he went over to his little kitchenette. He was so interested in the activity of peeling potatoes that he collected the materials he needed, the peeler, a potato and a knife. He then proceeded to peel and cut the potato, I helped him to put these pieces into a cup with water and place it in the refrigerator for another meal. Once he tired of that, he began making sandwiches, he has a beautiful set of felt ingredients for sandwich fixings. He even served it up on a platter and brought it to his grandmother and I.
Little O extended the activity of cooking with imaginative play which allowed him to continue practicing the skills and actions necessary for cooking real food. Through imaginative play, a child can try out roles he sees others doing, so essentially they can be a chef, an interior decorator, a paleontologist, a construction worker, a race car driver, a fashion designer, a parent, the list goes on and on. Through imaginative play the young child can connect with the larger society and feel a sense of place within the world.
I have written more extensively on Imaginative Play in the Montessori Environment. To read this post, click here.