Cooking Lessons Teach Lessons that Go Beyond the Kitchen

January 24, 2019

At a recent cooking lesson at the Pines Bridge school, teacher Lisa Giacomini-Essell told her students they would be making s’mores and gingerbread. What she did not tell them, however, were all the ways that the simple recipes would coax them into working on larger goals.
As they started to make the gingerbread treats, Giacomini-Essell gently tossed a bag of dough to one student who squeezed it before passing it to a classmate. Students helped open packages, crack eggs, chop butter and mix dough. They helped assemble s’mores and took turns pushing microwave buttons to melt them into gooey treats. One student read instructions aloud while several other classmates followed along by looking at recipe cards showing both pictures and words.
By the end of the cooking class, Giacomini’s students had worked on individual goals ranging from motor skills to language arts to following instructions.
“Cooking just touches on so many skills,” said Giacomini-Essell, “and depending on the goals that individual students have to work on, we can hone in on different things.”
Teacher Brina Gartner, whose students are elementary school aged and nonverbal, said her weekly cooking lessons are geared to stimulating the senses and fostering involvement in activities. She takes care to cook with spices, citrus, maple syrup and other ingredients that her students can smell as food is prepared and cooked.
Because the Pines Bridge program stresses the importance of students learning functional skills, cooking activities fit with lessons geared to teaching independence. Cooking at school has helped students learn how to independently heat their lunches while following the steps of a recipe teaches them how to complete a sequence of instructions, both important life skills.
Just as important, however, are the ways that movement and communication factor into cooking activities. Giacomini-Essell said that many of the tasks students perform while cooking require two hands and give students a reason to use and strengthen their less-dominant hand. The activities requiring that “bi-lateral integration” are a way to help ensure that students do not lose any of the mobility they have.  
Gartner’s class also works on movement tasks like mixing and cracking eggs, using a handheld device that students push with assistance. She also regularly uses blenders and mixers so that students can use touch pads hooked into a special power strip to turn equipment on and off. Not only does the whirring and buzzing sounds stimulate their hearing, but students can also see cause and effect. They smile and become excited when it is their turn to help.
“It’s really all about participation,” Gartner said, “they want to feel like they are a part of the activities going on around them.”
For some students, that participation includes eating a s’more or other tasty treat at the end of a lesson with a big grin on their face. Participation takes a different form for those students with dietary restrictions. Staff find ways for them to enjoy the end result, sometimes giving them a tiny taste on their lips, which can stimulate muscles in the tongue to move. And everyone is able to bring samples home to share with their parents or siblings.