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Life Skills through Cooking

The author was the Residential Head for the TAISI GenWise Summer School 2019, where students from around the country participated in a 3-week program - including from TISB, Dhirubhai Ambani Intl School, Indus International, KC High, Neev Academy, Greenwood High, etc. This blog piece summarises the author's reflections on how valuable a cooking experience could be on children in this age group...

Excited to don the chef's hat! TAISI GenWise Summer Program Participants...

I have been working with young school students for a decade now, including working with them in residential camps. I really enjoy working with them and it is rewarding to see the changes in them in a couple of weeks, as they adapt to an unfamiliar environment and go through carefully crafted activities. I was therefore excited to have a second opportunity this summer to work with a group of young children at the TAISI GenWise Summer School in June-July 2019 (having managed the earlier camp in Apr-May 2019). I am also a passionate cook and wanted to explore how kids would respond to cooking activities. I felt they would enjoy it and also learn valuable life skills in the process that would be useful far beyond cooking.

I felt that if we can teach kids how to cook, grill, chop, make a sauce or knock up a simple soup we can set them up for life- to be independent in the kitchen and eat healthy. Cooking is an important life skill which gives one an appreciation for real food, requires reading and following instructions carefully, applying math (ratios and proportions), gives a creative outlet, helps build relationships, gives an opportunity to serve others and when everything works out well, relief to all the tired moms who spend hours in the kitchen 😊

Cooking was therefore chosen as an important activity among other activities in our ‘Life Skills Week’. After the ‘academic enrichment’ sessions that end at 4 PM, the residential team works with children on recreational and fun activities, as well as activities related to socio-emotional learning and life skills, on a daily basis. We also spend more time with children on such activities over the weekends, when they do not have the academic enrichment activities.

The cooking activity was conducted in 2 parts- in the first part, the aim was to familiarize students with some basic skills, and in the second part we planned a ‘Cook Off’, and they were given a couple of days to prepare for this and the freedom to be creative in their preparations. Doing this in two parts was necessary as most of our students had never entered a kitchen earlier to cook.

The First part of this activity was planned on a Thursday and we handed over some recipes to the students. The students formed two groups which continued to work together till the end of the cook-off (the second part of the activity on the following Saturday). In the first part, we decided to make whole-wheat pizzas without yeast and pizza sauce for the main course, and cupcakes for dessert. Students familiarized themselves with basic skills like peeling tomatoes, chopping garlic, kneading the dough, sieving the flour before baking the cakes for the flour to raise etc. Through these activities, students learned how to use the tools in the kitchen and figured out the difference between a tablespoon, and a teaspoon, whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour, and so on. We also made them observe the preparation of the frosting and got them to write the recipe accurately. It was a great reward for the students when the pizzas and cupcakes turned out amazing! They also really enjoyed decorating their own cupcakes and were sweet enough to share these with the school staff too.

The second part of this activity was planned on the following Saturday, which gave the teams some time to plan and prepare for the main cook off. Our idea was to get the students involved at the planning and shopping stage and allow them to make some choices. The teams were told that they would be judged on team synergy, accuracy of the recipe, presentation, and cleanliness of their work station.

Students wrote down the recipes of their main dish and dessert and submitted these. Our residential counsellors then set up an in-house shop and teams had to plan, bargain and buy the ingredients from them! Students made their purchases using virtual money which they earned through various activities over the week! Every team had 5 mins to ‘buy, bargain and survive’. This was a high energy activity and teams went all out to survive.

Students had observed their team-mates’ strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen during Part 1 of the activity, and it was good to see them using that knowledge to divide their roles and positively reinforce each other while working on this cook-off. Both the teams put in their 100 percent and successfully completed all their dishes as planned.

Team 1 worked really hard to make a burrito bowl with cooked rice and beans and garlic sour cream as their main dish. along with Panna Cota for dessert.

The winners - Team 2, managed to impress the judges with Open Tacos made from scratch with sautéed rice, beans and homemade salsa with sour cream as their main dish. They made Nutella peanut butter cups for dessert. The chefs were impressed with the passion and dedication of both teams.

It was deeply satisfying to hear the feedback from children about this experience.

“ I am really grateful to my mom today cause it’s not easy working in the kitchen, it’s hot, its noisy and probably thankless too if people don’t appreciate what you make for them. I have been a bit critical towards her cooking skills, And now I am just going to be thankful because she takes the pains to make something I like.” - Advit Ranawade, DAIS, Mumbai

“Of course it is an art. But with this activity we got to know each other more than we used to. We found out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We learned to leverage on our strengths as individuals in a team, specially on the second day, and were more organised. For example, one of our team members just hated handling raw onions and tomatoes, but didn’t mind working the water. So he ended up cleaning, while others cut the vegetables.”- Nentara Agarwal, DAIS, Mumbai

Cooking offers much as an authentic minds-on and hands-on learning activity (and need we say tongues-on and stomach-full!). Apart from starting to master hands-on skills that were modelled in Part 1, the activities also required integration of cognitive, physical and socio-emotional processes. We observed students getting more positive, confident and growing in self-esteem while working with a team on a focused goal, under pressure. We could see the effects of this socialization, spilling over into other activities (non-cooking) as well. Having now ‘tasted’ some success (pun-intended!), we are now exploring other ways of using cooking as a learning activity.

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