Cooking is learning: STEM, Literacy, and Food

Child baking with grownup
For many, food is an important part of family life. Gathering together for meals is a way to share warmth, community, and family history. A recipe passed down through generations is a treasure. Exploring different cuisines is an opportunity to learn about other cultures. Homemade food is more nutritious than take-out or convenience foods and youth who learn to cook have healthier eating habits later in life. Beyond that, the kitchen is also an ideal place to teach kids reading, science and math.

Children under five learn about the world by using their senses. By touching, tasting, and smelling they’re being little scientists trying to figure out what the world is about. Using these senses is an integral part of the cooking process. Helping with simple tasks such as stirring, washing vegetables, and tearing lettuce helps these young learners develop their fine motor skills. Following step-by-step instructions teaches children executive functioning and gets them ready for school. 

As children get older and gain confidence, they can take over reading the recipe. There is so much that can be learned by reading a recipe. Recipes are math. Children need to understand fractions and ratios. They need to understand different units of measurement. It also supports literacy by exposing them to vocabulary that they won’t find elsewhere. How often are words like sear, tablespoon, dice, drizzle, or crimp used in daily conversation? Through trial and error children learn problem solving and that failure is just another opportunity to learn.

They say that baking is chemistry and cooking is art. The truth is that each one is both chemistry and art. Both allow for creativity once you understand the basics of a recipe. But it’s important to understand the basics for your recipe to turn out right. This is where science comes in. You probably don’t even realize how much science you use in the kitchen. Foods go through chemical and physical changes as they’re prepared and cooked. Certain elements are necessary in order for the recipe to turn out correctly. Which elements can change and which need to stay the same? Why? What adjustments, if any, do you need to make for any modifications? Why? These are scientific questions. Encourage children to ask questions. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer. You can search for the answer and learn together. You can even ask the library for help!

Looking for more ideas? Look no further than Oregon State University's Food Hero program. They have lots of learning activities for all ages!

By grounding learning in the real world, kids are more likely to understand why the skills they learn are important and are better able to retain them. They’ll also have the satisfaction of eating the results of their lesson and the pride of sharing it with others.

- Keli Y, Teen Librarian, Rockwood Library

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