Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's Get Cooking!

It's totally crazy to think about how quickly this summer is going.  I don't know about you, but even though we are having a lot of fun and doing lots of things with our own daughter, my husband and I are sometimes trying to figure out what to do with her.  We are getting to that point, especially these last few days, that it's so hot out that we don't even really have the motivation to go outside.  So even though there are several weeks left of summer, it is now it is time to get creative and keep us all from going to stir crazy.

One thing that brings me more joy than pretty much anything is baking.  It is something that connects me to my father and acts as my personal therapy.  As soon was Quinn was old enough, I started having her bake with me.  As a matter of fact, one of my favorite gifts for her was her first apron (thank you Carrie Cook!  Quinn still wears it when baking all these years later).  It started off simple and I would have her pour all the ingredients in for me.  As she got older and could be more involved, I'd let her do more.  The day I let her crack her own eggs was a pretty exciting day for her.  Baking with Quinn has been something that has not only been something we could do together to bond over, but has been a fun way to teach her new things.

Cooking and baking with your kids can be a wonderful activity, especially in air conditioning on these super hot days.  When parents are asking me for things to do over the summer to keep their kids up to speed with their occupational therapy goals, baking is one of the first things I suggest.  Not only is it fun, it can be tremendously therapeutic. Additionally, introducing kids to cooking/baking early on in life makes them more likely to take risks when eating and try new foods.  There are also a lot of ways to sneak in opportunities for learning when baking.  For example, if your child is working on learning their letters and numbers, they can make cookies using alphabet or number cookie cutters. If they need to work on building up strength, you can do it while stirring ingredients.

**before I begin the next half of my post, I am going to admit I am much more of a baker than a cooker.  So going forward, when I say baking, it represents both baking AND cooking***

Some of the therapeutic benefits of baking with your kids are:
Improve Upper Body and Hand Strength-baking is a great way to work on this skill in a fun and sneaky way.  Stirring the ingredients, especially as they start blending all together, can become increasingly difficult and require a lot of strength and endurance.  When baking for your family, I suggest that parents let their kids roll up their sleeves and mix with their hands instead of a spoon or a spatula....this really helps with building up the strength in those small muscles of the hands.
Improve Bilateral Coordination-baking is a great way to work on improving bilateral coordination because there are so many parts of this activity that require the use of two hands.  For example, when pouring the ingredients you need one hand to hold the measuring cup or spoon and the other pours the ingredients.  When mixing the ingredients together, it's essential that you hold the you hold the spoon or spatula with one hand and keep the bowl stable with the other one.  How about cracking an egg?  You need to hold the egg with one hand and keep the cup or bowl still with the other.
Improve Fine Motor Skills-do you have kids who need to work on improving cutting, grasping and other fine motor skills?  Baking is a great way to do that in a really fun way.  Need to work on cutting?  How about getting your kids to cut open the bag of chocolate chips?  If you have a ton of patience and time, you can use a pair of Zoo Sticks to put some of the smaller ingredients in (chocolate chips, pieces of fruit, etc.).  Even the simple task of pulling the paper off the butter is a great fine motor activity.
Improve Visual Motor/Visual Perceptual Skills-baking is a great way to work on improving visual skills.  When you are following a recipe, you have to be able to visually track between the recipe and the ingredients.  You need to be able to pour ingredients into a measuring cup or spoon and be able stop pouring them when they hit the line.
Improve Executive Functioning Skills-what I love about baking is that it is a great activity to work on improving higher level skills for older children.  Baking requires an incredible amount of focus and attention.  It requires one to be able to organize their ingredients, sequence and follow directions.  If you one doesn't (and I have lots of experience here) follow directions and focus carefully, you can end up with a mess of a project.  Baking is a great activity for older kids who need to work on improving their executive functioning skills and the best part is that much of the work can be hidden.
Improve Social Skills-baking is an incredibly social activity. Even though I am an occupational therapist and I tend to see kids on a 1:1 basis, I have also been lucky enough to spend a lot of my time working in social skills groups.  As a matter of fact, in September, I will be working with The Meeting House again as we begin our TMH Juniors group.  One of our program offerings will be a baking/cooking class once per month.  The social benefits of baking are endless and can be easily carried over at home with siblings and friends.  You can work on taking turns (pouring ingredients in), work on compromise and working as a team to complete a final project.  Once a cooking project is finished, there is a tremendous social opportunity to take advantage of.  You can set up a table or a picnic blanket and let the kids have conversations about what is happening in their lives.  If you have kids who have difficulty with conversation, you can throw a pile of conversation cards out in the middle of the table for them to reach out for when there is a lull in conversation.

There are a lot of fun and simple baking and cooking activities that you can do with your children...some that don't even require oven or heat!  Just keep in mind, when cooking with children, you will need patience and extra time.  Kids will ask a lot of questions, make a mess and may even lose their attention part way through your activity.  One thing to do in order to prevent that from happening is set up all the materials before you call your kids in....have your ingredients out, eggs cracked and in a cup, measuring spoons and cups ready, etc..  As children have more success with a cooking activity, you can start to add on responsibilities such as having them take out the ingredients.
Here are a few ideas for you to try with your kids, either at home or at work. I've tried them all and they have been a huge hit!

Zipsicle-I saw these when in Bed, Bath and Beyond a few weeks ago and had to try them.  Who doesn't love a refreshing ice-pop?  How about making your own with your kids?  These little pouches are perfectly designed for making your ice pops.  If you go here, you will find a bunch of tasty and easy recipes you can follow to make your very own ice pops.  The best part, is that you can avoid artificial flavors and colors, which so many of the kids I work with are unable to eat, and add lots of fruits and other healthy ingredients.  
Zoku-this is another fun way to make your own ice pops at home.  I wrote out the Zoku ice pop maker about two years (check out that post here) and since then, they have expanded their line.  They still have their original pop maker, but now have smaller ones that don't take up as much room in your freezer.  They also have molds that are in the shape of fish, people and rockets, which might make your little ones more willing to try a new flavor. You can follow one of their recipes or make something of your own.  
Rainbow Fruit Kabobs-another activity that doesn't require the use of an oven or heat.  I love the idea of fruit kabobs and have actually made these with many of my kids when I was running social skills groups.  This activity is great because it can encourage your child to try new fruits.  It works on building fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and bilateral coordination skills.  For younger children who are just beginning to learn their colors, it's a fun way to reinforce it for them.  It's also nice to work on improving organizational and sequencing skills for older children who are struggling with both of these things.  Lastly, this is a simple enough of an activity that you can do it in small groups and encourage conversation, cooperation and team work.
Alphabet Cookies-I have always found that if you hide the work in learning, kids are more likely to hold onto the information.  I have always had a set of alphabet cookie cutters in my office to use with playdough and the kids really love it.  At home, you can take those same cookie cutters and make cookies instead.  If you are motivated, you can make your dough from scratch but if you want to
make it simple and fast, buy the rolls of sugar or chocolate chip dough at the store....the end product is the same.  There are so many opportunities to talk about the letters during this activity...you can have them look through the pile to find a certain letter and talk about words that start with certain letters.  Once they are all baked (and cooled), you can have children put them in order.  And if you want to make it really fun and therapeutic, you can decorate the cookies after using icing, sprinkles and other fun decorations.

These are just a few ideas to get you started but really, you can make any recipe a good recipe for kids.  I know that my daughter just loves being part of the process.  It can be as simple as pouring the cheese, butter and milk into the macaroni when making mac and cheese or as complicated as shredding cheese with a grater (kid friendly of course) for meals.  In addition to all of the skills that can be worked on while baking or cooking, it's a great source of pride for a child to be able to tell people that they helped make whatever they are eating.

Do you have a favorite recipe or cooking activity that you do with your child?  It would be fun to be able to put together a list of things that you have been successful with and share them with each other.  While I am an avid baker, I am always looking for new and tasty recipes to try with Quinn.  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all.

Stay cool and fun baking with your kids.  Who knows, if you start your kids off early in the kitchen, maybe they will be the next top chef!

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