Your child learns more than the sensory properties of food, math and creative skills that often come to mind when we think of the benefits having children prepare and be involved with food. Here are 5 other skills children learn from getting in the making and playing with food. These are executive function skills and they are important for everyday living.

Imagine this; your child’s brain is like a busy airport with planes flying in and out, people transiting, and vehicles on-the-move. Through building life skills, children learn to become efficient air traffic controllers. They can take the busy inputs from their daily life, coordinate them and effectively manage the airport that is their brain. These skills are executive function skills.

For example, a 5-12 year-old can be involved in; shopping, planning, preparing, stirring, smelling, hearing, baking, chopping, touching, measuring, pouring, kneading and more! Between the ages of 1 and 5, they can use a huge range of precursor skills to work with you before independently doing the tasks of the 5-12 year old. BUT these tangible and measurable skills that children develop by playing with food are not the only skills they master. The executive function skills they learn stay with them beyond the sink, fridge, oven and kitchen benches.

Executive functions are cognitive processes and they relate to our ability to learn about reason, problem solve, plan to get things done, be organised and learn about self-control (noting that children are DEVELOPING these skills and thus, need to have understanding from us when they are struggling with something food related and it results in a tantrum.)

Executive Functioning is the greatest indicator of your child’s success and happiness in the classroom, at home and beyond.

Dr Nicole Carvill

Here are 5 executive functions that your child develops from preparing foods (ie. playing with food):

  1. Organisation
    Reading instructions and/or following verbal instructions in the kitchen is practical experience in organisation. Kids cooking Inherently gives them exposure to a range of organisational skills. For example, preheating the oven comes before baking. Stirring comes before pouring. Chopping comes before stir-frying. And before all of that, washing hands and getting out ingredients is a must.
  2. Cognitive Flexibility
    Your child’s ability to be creative and think flexibly is another skill that we need to use in the kitchen. For example, involve your child in making the decision to swap plain flour with wholemeal flour in a
    recipe, in using limes instead of lemons or to have them make a different shape out of the bread dough than what was pictured. It is also good for them to understand the flexibility in recipes, that we can create something new with food. The ability to show cognitive flexibility in the kitchen will help your child be more confident around foods.
  3. Emotional Regulation
    When we help kids learn the tangible aspects of the foods they are working with, it removes emotional language from foods. So, while we are in the kitchen we may say that garlic has a big smell instead of something emotional like “nice” / “yucky” / “disgusting” / “pleasing”. This helps children learn fact-based responses to what their senses are telling them. For example, big vs little food smells, their sounds, wet or dry or sticky or slippery textures and food temperatures are all fact-based food properties, that being in the kitchen allows them to experience. This helps children label the facts of the situation and keep their emotions around food in-check.
  4. Self-Control
    Self-control is a skill that children work on by paying attention to tasks for longer and improving focus. Examples of kitchen tasks that are great for this are cracking eggs, peeling vegetables, measuring ingredients into a bowl or rolling mixture into similar shaped balls (think along the lines of bliss balls, meat balls or vegetable croquettes).
  5. Working Memory
    Having the ability to retain a range of information to “connect the dots” at a later point in time is working memory. This happens when you look at the picture in the recipe book or on a website, complete all the steps and then reflect on how your meal turned out. It is also a great extension activity to work on “what could we do differently next time?”. For example, trying a chicken satay stick recipe and then working out how to turn this into a beef satay stick recipe for next time.

Brain development is boosted by having kids in the kitchen. Think of the kitchen as a runway for improving your child’s “brain airport” management skills. Children that learn organisation, have flexibility in
the way they think, are able to control their emotions, exercise more self-control and improve their working memory are able to excel in a range of tasks they set their mind to.

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