Cooking is my favorite therapy activity of all times! It benefits children of all ages with a variety of speech and language needs. I fell in love with cooking therapy when I worked in the schools. I did cooking with some groups on a weekly basis. I co-treated with occupational therapists, physical therapists, special education teachers and vision therapists. I loved how we were teaching functional life skills and everyone loved it! The motivation was embedded in the activity. I also loved how one activity could be so versatile for a variety of needs.
You might be thinking that you already cook with your child. How is that different then cooking therapy? Most of the time when families cook with their children they focus more on completing the final product vs making it an interactive / learning experience. It might take you about 10-15 minutes to assemble a brownie mix with your child. You pop it in the oven. Not much to it. When I make the same brownie mix, it might take me an hour. That’s right! It takes me an hour to make a 10-minute brownie mix! The more you talk, think, and interact the longer it takes!
When I make brownies (or whatever) it isn’t about the final outcome. It is about the process. I can adapt any cooking activity to target speech, language and communication needs. Here are a few examples of targeted goals I’ve addressed:
Concepts and Vocabulary – Think of how many opposites you can talk about such as hot/cold, fast/slow, big/little, whole/half, open/closed, full/empty, on/off, loud/quiet, etc. You can talk about colors, shapes, numbers, location concepts, size and just about anything to build vocabulary!
Sequencing – What happens first, next, last? When it is in the oven you can work on retelling the sequence!
Yes/No – Ask as many yes/no questions as you can. You can be silly! Ask, “Can I stir with my shoe? No! We need a _____!” I often ask if I can eat something when it clearly isn’t finished yet. Kids think it is funny when you pretend like you are going to eat unmixed brownies.
Math – measuring and counting always come up. Even basic addition and subtraction. “Uh oh! We only have one egg. We need two! How many more do we need?” “We have four people but one person isn’t hungry. How many plates to we need?”
Verbs – Many children need to increase receptive and expressive verbs. There are so many verbs you can express: open, mix, stir, cut, break, spill, fall, clean, get, make, bake, cook, smash, walk, run, etc.
Asking and Answering WH- Questions – There are so many opportunities to ask questions!!! Instead of just getting all of the ingredients and materials yourself ask your child what you need. Where can you find it? Who will get it? Why does an adult put things in the oven? When do we eat? Why do we wear oven mitts? You can also encourage them to ask questions. Have the child ask where things are such as eggs, scissors, etc. If they know where things are then you can hide them! If they ask for help without being specific help them expand. What do they need help with? “help me open box” “help me cut.”
Verbal Expression - I’m always labeling what I’m doing, what I see, what I feel and what I hear. You can encourage your child to imitate you or give them the opportunity to express on their own. When you set up the stage and the routine they will follow your lead!
Turn Taking and Sharing – Take turns mixing. Take turns pouring. Make sure everyone gets to do some. You can have your child pass you the spoon to stir. You can encourage them to request for “more” or say “my turn” if appropriate.
Problem Solving – This is my favorite! I love setting up situations and asking questions for the children to solve their own problems. Something spilled. “Uh oh! What do we do?” You can’t reach something. “Uh oh! What do we need?” Mom isn’t looking when you ask her a question. “Uh oh! What can you do to get her attention?” You get out a small bowl to make a big batch of cookies. “Uh oh. What’s wrong?” If the child has minimal verbal skills then it is a great opportunity to encourage the simple vocalization “uh oh”. You can verbally express your thought process to model problem solving skills.
Motor Skills – I’m not an OT but I know it is good to work with your hands! Children can work on a lot of fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination while cooking. I am ok with a little mess and spills as long as the child is learning. Encourage using two hands for a task. Holding a bowl while mixing. Have them try to do things before you do it. Also – when I was in the schools we often made brownies in a large zip lock bag! It was cleaner this way for multiple children and the children got to mix by squeezing their hands on the bag. We got the mix out by cutting a corner of the bag and squeezing it out. The children also got to experience sensory experiences such as touching hot/cold and smelling all sorts of yummy things!
I loved cooking with my mother as a child and now I enjoy sharing cooking with all of the children I work with. I love teaching families how to carry over this activity when I’m not around. Of course, sometimes you need to make a quick dinner when everyone is hungry. But other times you might have more time to expand the activity to make it more of a learning experience. When doing this with your child ask yourself if you HAVE to do it for safety purposes or if your child can do it? How much can your child do on his/her own? Can you provide less prompting? Is it ok if something spills? Before you do it, can you ask a question? What else can you say??? Wait and see what your child does on his/her own. Sometimes a little silence gives them time to talk and ask. If this all seems overwhelming, it might help to have a list of goals to work on in front of you while you are cooking. If it is still too much then pick ONE goal! If you don’t know what to work on then ask your child’s speech language pathologist. They can help guide you!
Lastly, I’m ALL about healthy foods. In my home, I eat gluten-free, mostly dairy free, and I don’t eat meat (but I eat fish). I buy organic when I can and avoid GMOs. I love thinking of a variety of healthy foods I can make with children such as smoothies, hummus, salad, mashed potatoes, coconut balls, peanut butter flax meal balls, vegan banana ice-cream, etc. Anything you like to cook, you can find a way to include your child. I mostly talk about making brownies in this blog because that is what I’ve probably made the most of during therapy. People love to bake cookies and brownies….and that is OK! It is all about learning, having fun, and doing something together!!! We all love our sweet treats sometimes! Eat what you love. Cook with the people you love. Laugh. Learn. LOVE!