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Failing Forward in the Kitchen

The Importance of Spending Time with Your Children in the Kitchen

by Stacey Susinno, ESSK Director

I had hoped to make this enrichment segment about the outdoors but alas, March has come in like a lion. We can be parents enriching the science minds of our children and be cozy too, can’t we? To celebrate our new Cooking With Stars addition, let’s talk about the importance of spending time with your children in the kitchen.

Even before the push for STEM education in schools, one of the best ways for parents to reinforce math skills, experimentation through trial and error, data collection, observation and prediction were done in the kitchen. Many of us do it each day. In my house, our rule is to follow the recipe exactly the first time. The next time, you play with it and see how you can make it better. I’ll bet you also have little notes, cross outs and edits all over your cookbooks. This is science in its purest form. Kids love messy, love to spend time with us, and love to discover through hands-on experiments. We love to encourage their sense of wonder. Giving them a safe and fun space to fail is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children.

As a middle school teacher, I am seeing that students expect to start out as experts. This is, in my experience, creating a higher level of anxiety in kids than I have ever seen before. They are increasingly having a harder time coping with failure. Watch me give back a test and you’ll see it. “I got an 80!” says the child with a proud smile. “I got a 98” says his friend. The first child walks away despondent and hating science. The second child has the exact experience as the first on the next test.  I have seen many students actually change their lab hypothesis after data collection because it was “wrong”. I spend a lot of time in my 8th grade classes explaining that little science happens if they get it “right” every time. Many great scientific discoveries were made quite by accident, with uncertain inquiry, with many challenges and failures and still with enjoyment. Imagine if no one challenged the ancient ways of thinking because they were afraid of being wrong? It is our job as parents to instill this initiative in our children in a loving way. Allow them to mess up, take risks, fall down. Let them learn to cope with the frustration of not getting it by changing their methods and behaviors to see what gives them more success next time. Teach them to celebrate every success in all parts of their life. We do this when we revel in the enjoyment of having real experiences and learn not to identify success with a number on a test or a paycheck. In my classroom, even an F on a test is a motivator to figure out what didn’t work and  to try new methods of study for better success. If your lab data aren’t giving you the accepted results, we spend time reflecting on what may have affected the outcome and if you aren’t having fun while doing the science, you’re doing it wrong.

My college Anatomy course and trying to bake my Mother’s Easter bread both had the same motivator for me. I failed. I reflected. I figured out what I was doing wrong. I tried something new. Sometimes it worked. A lot of times it didn’t. I learned, I learned and I learned some more. The Easter bread was a lot more fun to learn than Anatomy, but I learned coping skills, and built up a habit of failing forward with both.

Food experiments can be fun and easy. The kitchen is the perfect science lab for practicing inquiry based learning at home. Failure is bound to happen because what is a recipe if not an experiment? Integrate inquiry-based science with simple concepts like states of matter. Have your child observe the ingredients of Jello separately. Are the ingredients solid, liquid, or gas?  Have your child measure the ingredients, mix and prepare. While you’re waiting have your child predict the outcome if they used different temperature of water, or less of each ingredient. When it is ready, have them explain to you what they observe and what they think made the change. One of my favorite experiments with Jello is to demonstrate weathering and surface area. Make the Jello in a large pan. When it is congealed, have your child cut it so that you have one large block of Jello and many small squares of Jello. This is fun in itself and small children enjoy using a plastic knife. If you want to add math, grab a cheap plastic ruler, and have your child cut 1 inch squares and 5 inch squares. You can practice fractions as you go. Once you have at least one large block and at least 4 small blocks. Ask your child which will dissolve quicker in a pan of hot water. Have your child make a hypothesis and explain their reasoning. Try it. For more advanced math skills have your child figure out the area of each cube. Which one has more sides exposed to the water? Does the large block or the smaller blocks dissolve quicker? Have them create a chart to record the times. Did their findings support their hypothesis? Why or why not?  Why does the hot water dissolve the Jello? Are the ingredients that come out of the final product and the dissolved product the same as the ingredients that went in? Want to ensure gelatin failure? Try including different fruits. Strawberries will work well but pineapples won’t because they contain an enzyme that breaks up the gelatin.

For more science experiments in the kitchen try: Food Science Projects, Easiest Kitchen Science Activities, and Science Experiments You Can Eat.

Of course growing food for the kitchen is a great way to practice science. Start seeds like cabbages, lettuce and broccoli inside now, to transplant in an outside garden after the last frost. I’ve always recycled old egg cartons or small plastic containers with some potting soil for seedlings in my south facing windows. My children kept seed journals and made observations about their growth over days. Have your child create an experiment in which they practice using proper experimental design. A good experiment would have constants, like having the same seed, the same amount of soil, the same watering schedule. You might change one variable, like changing the amount of sunlight to see which seeds grow better. Have them analyze the results and talk about why this knowledge is important in the real world. For more about experimental design for kids visit: Science Kids at Home and What is a Science Experiment?

For planting information visit: Vegetable Seeds You Should Plant in March and Vegetable Planting Long Island Guidelines

Cooking with your children builds skills in math and science but more importantly gives them a safe and fun place to try new things and make mistakes. Activities in the kitchen instill that failure is a necessary part of the learning process. This is a lesson well-learned early especially when connected with fond memories of familial togetherness, encouragement and a shared spirit of uncertain inquiry. You don’t want your child’s first experience with failure to be in a college Anatomy course. Trust me.

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