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Cooking Up A Good Time

Thanksgiving is extra- special when you make your own pumpkin pie – especially if you are a pre-school or kindergarten child and you’re making it from your Halloween jack-o-lantern, a pumpkin that grew in your school garden.

Cooking and gardening were an integral part of the curriculum when I directed the Shedd-Early Learning Center, a modified Montessori program for children 2 ½  through 5 years of age. Besides being fun and offering multiple sensory experiences, growing, preparing and cooking food involves many learning opportunities as the children measure, mix, prepare and serve various foods. After I retired, I found these activities were what I missed most about my teaching years – gardening and cooking with the children!

Montessori students are especially prepared for such activities because they have developed skills through various practical life activities, such as slicing celery, peeling and cutting carrots, beating soap suds with an egg beater and washing tables with a sponge. Ages are mixed in each class, so the younger children learn from the older ones and tasks are assigned according to the child’s level. The grand finale is sharing the results of their efforts!

After Halloween, we carefully refrigerated our jack-o-lanterns, and then roasted them in the oven in preparation for making pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. Once the pumpkin was soft and cool the children could scoop out the orange pulp with spoons and measure it for the pies. They especially enjoyed adding the spices, sniffing the pungent clove, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon and noting the differences in color. They took turns beating the eggs and adding sugar, milk and melted butter. The older ones rolled pie crust between sheets of waxed paper. Soon the school was filled with the spicy aroma of baking pies. What a feast they had at snack time!

As the year progressed, our cooking activities increased in difficulty and according to the season. Christmas found us molding gingerbread dough to fashion a gingerbread man. The math lesson involved dividing the lump of dough in half; then one piece was divided again, producing dough for two legs and two arms. Once assembled the dough was flattened to create a gingerbread man and currants were added for facial features. No two were alike! Some had arms bent as if waving or a leg bent to show running.

Because I wanted to prevent sharing germs, I made individual “cookie sheets” for each child by covering tag board with aluminum foil and writing the child’s name at the top with a marker. These were placed on a cookie sheet for their cycle in the oven. Once baked, each child got his own work. I remember trying to be “Christmassy” one time so I used red and green markers. Only once – the heat of the oven obliterated the names and I had a difficult time distributing those cookies.

The grand finale of our cooking experience occurred in the spring when the children prepared lunch for their parents. We made our own whole wheat bread and churned butter by shaking a mason jar with whipping cream. We had to start early and freeze the loaves, since we needed eight.  Our menu called for turkey salad, whole wheat bread and butter, fruit salad for dessert, and fresh lemonade. The older boys used their muscles to turn those lemon halves on old fashioned juicers. It took a lot of effort.

Because of the volume of food needed, we had assistance from parents who roasted turkey breasts for us. But the children chopped the turkey and celery and the fresh fruit for fruit salad. The youngest children washed lettuce leaves and patted them dry. We used a plastic egg-shaped container for pantyhose to measure equal portions of turkey salad. It made a beautiful mound on the lettuce.—actually looked professional! Other children buttered slices of bread and added them to the plates, before serving them to the parents. The feast was a huge success.

I hope the children – who are now at least in their thirties – and their parents remember these activities with as much nostalgia as I do. And I hope they still enjoy cooking!

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