Working with young children has the capacity to teach adults many lessons. By nature, children are kind, inquisitive, present, loving, and above all, they have an inherent trust in the adults around them. Taking a moment to reflect on that trust brings forth the realization that our tasks, as early childhood educators, are nothing short of monumental.
Think about that. The children around us spend their lives imitating all that we do. They are fascinated with the “adult world” and spend their time role playing, creating scenarios in order to make sense of it all. It asks of us, the “adults” in their worlds, to be conscious of our actions, responsible, respectful, and authentic. Children learn lessons from us during every waking moment, watching carefully as we maneuver through our day-to-day activities, internalizing our gestures, actions, and habits.
With regards to nutrition, our society is caught in a downward spiral of teaching bad habits. Over $33 billion dollars are spent every year advertising different food products that are loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. Every month, 90 percent of children in the United States eat at McDonald’s. In America, the artificial flavoring industry boasts annual revenues of roughly 1.4 billion dollars. The fast-paced culture in which we have all immersed ourselves not only lends itself to contributing to these numbers, it also has a detrimental effect on the home.
Nielsen surveys have determined that on the average, parents spend 38.5 minutes per week engaging their children in meaningful conversation. Imagine the drastic increase in that number if we were to all make a commitment to sit down for a meal together each day. That number would only multiply if we were to engage children in the actual preparation of the meal.
The benefits? Immeasurable. Children would grow up understanding the importance of healthy meals. Society would reap the benefit of new generations who have gained multitudes of knowledge from working together in the kitchen. Bringing kids into the kitchen encourages creativity, boosts self confidence, teaches about other cultures, offers new ways to contribute to their “communities,” de-emphasizes screen time, provides a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, helps to develop fine motor control, increases time spent working together as a family or classroom community, builds lifelong skills…all of these fantastic things, as well as the added benefits of fostering a lifelong curiosity in trying new and healthy foods, therefore reducing the rising obesity rates.
The children in our care are trusting in all of us to make the right choices, to model healthy lifestyles, and to provide opportunities to learn how to become a responsible adult, even when we don’t think they are paying attention. It becomes our duty then, as that model, to slow down and give children proper pathways to follow.
Even the youngest children (perhaps especially the youngest children) have the capacity to be a working part of mealtime preparation. As they learn to use the large muscles in their arms and the smaller ones in their hands, two year olds can scrub fruits and vegetables, tear salad greens, snap fresh beans, pour and mix batter, scoop and mash potatoes, cut soft fruits with a dull knife, knead bread dough, wipe the tables, clear the table, and wash the dishes. The list grows bigger as the children do, and soon they can cut parsley with scissors, crack eggs, juice oranges, peel apples, collect the ingredients, and help to choose a balanced menu.
James Beard, described by Julia Child as being “the quintessential American cook,” once said that “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” These universal experiences are the mirror image of what we refer to in education as “teachable moments.” These universal experiences are precisely what the children in our care are trusting the adults to give them, each and every day.