Last year my children and I embarked on a culinary adventure around the world, with the vastly ambitious goal to cook food from every country on the planet (that’s almost 200 countries, just incase you were wondering!)
The exercise (still far from complete!) has proved very successful in terms of capturing their imagination, and indeed opening learning across a divers range of fields.
It comes as no surprise that cooking is a wonderful educational tool in itself: It is tactile (pouring, stirring, needing), sensory (taste, smell, sight), draws heavily on numeracy skills (weighing, counting, timing), scientific reactions (dissolving, heating, cooling), and literacy (from recognising the simple word ‘cup’ when measuring, right through to being able to read recipes independently) … Plus you get the satisfaction of creating something that you can eat at the end. This is probably the benefit my own 3 and 5 year olds enjoy most!
When we embarked on our culinary adventure around the world, we didn’t buy a plane ticket – instead we looked at what was in our own cupboard. From making Vietnamese rice paper rolls in the park, to investigating the origins of the pancake. Each county we ‘visited’ on our cooking journey we added a little geography, and a lot of discussion, and play surrounding that county. As a result both of my children have an expanded world view.
Here is how we approached it:
1. Start sweet, simple and short.
Young children have a very short attention span, they want to be actively involved, and they love a sweet treat. Beginning your journey with something that meets these criteria and the enthusiastic cooking ‘travellers’ will be waiting with anticipation for their next adventure. (Shortbread from Scotland was a very popular adventure for us – a relatively easy recipe that requires much mixing and measuring, and can be cut into various shapes.)
2. Include the foods you already eat.
While is is great fun to make something new, not everything needs to be exotic. Bringing the origins of a few familiar dishes to light awakens a whole new set of questions about the world directly around them. For us this was Pancakes (our family tradition at any time of celebration). While variations of the pancake reaches far and wide, the way we know them are believed to have originated in Ancient Greece. (I have talked before about bringing concepts of ‘Big History’ into play based learning, and this was a good example of how history combined into our wider learning… and eating!)
3. Start with the countries that you know a little about and keep it casual.
Spoken stories re-enforce our learning in very powerful ways. If you can tell short personal accounts from your travels, or information you just info you happen to know, then you are planting the seeds for stories, games and more questions later on. (It’s worth noting that I have traveled very little, so I was surprised to realise I can say ‘hello’, and usually ‘eat well’ or ‘thank you’ in around 7 other languages – don’t let a perceived lack of expertise inhibit you, the amount of cultural information that you have stored inside you might just surprise you!)
4. When they ask, find it out.
We all know that the early years are a mass of questions. When they ask you something you don’t know about a country (and believe me, they will!) make a point of finding out together. By modelling that it is ok to lack knowledge (and actively including them in the act of finding answers) sets them up for a life of learning. In all honesty, my children probably won’t recall any of the specific knowledge of this project as they grow, but the social conditioning to ask and learn (and indeed the techniques for finding answers) will be hard wired into their understanding of the world and will stay with them for a lifetime. This outlook and skill set is for more beneficial than any fact or figure they could learn about any country.
5. Show them things that are too big to comprehend.
Often geography is something left for older children, but the early years benefit from this learning in a different way. By showing each country on the globe, colouring it in, and talking about the relative distance ‘from us’ (and from other places they had visited) they began to understand a sense of scale, mass and distance. Laying the foundations to build on this concept in future years.
And as always, bringing learning into other areas by dressing up, playing, and creating (‘beyond the kitchen’ as it were) re-enforced the culture of the country in a tactile way, playful way that they could begin to direct themselves.
So, a year into the project – what have we learnt?
Well, they might not be able to locate Greenland on a map, but they are certainly more aware that other cultures differ from our own, and they have a burning curiosity to learn more.
Even without touching on the more obvious science, numeracy, literacy benefits of the endeavour. This curiosity and interest in the world beyond them will position them to grown into well informed young people with a global outlook.
If you would like to enact this process with the young people around you, I highly recommend it. Start today or wait for the free yearlong program of activities.
I’m currently refining my theoretical learnings and hands on activities into a yearlong multidisciplinary approach to play based learning. This program is entirely free, designed to be easy to implement (in a class or at home) and above all, fun for its young participants. To see what we are doing please join us (here or on Facebook) for regular updates.