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Cooking classes offer creative way to work on social, life skills

Lowell — On Friday mornings, the special education resource room at Bushnell Elementary turns into a mini-kitchen. The room’s blue table becomes the kitchen counter, where everyone eagerly gathers. And teacher Mackenzie Reaume’s kindergarten and first-grade students get to do things like spread the peanut butter, slice the banana or push cereal pieces onto a rice cake. 

Reaume’s cooking classes offer a creative way for young students with special needs to work on their life and social skills. By following visual step-by-step directions, using basic kitchen items and trying new foods, they’re learning about things like taking turns, asking questions, having patience and solving math problems. 

“The things we do in cooking (class) really strengthens a lot of the things that we’re already working on inside a special ed classroom,”Reaume said. “I think it gives them a lot of independence tools. They don’t always realize the skills that they’re building, but it helps really well for their home life, and also for when they transition into a gen ed classroom.” 

Kindergartner Ella Porritt spreads peanut butter on a rice cake, the first step in making a moon cake

Reaume got the idea for cooking classes from a special education teacher and curriculum writer she follows online. Thanks to a grant from the Lowell Education Foundation, she was able to buy the visual recipe curriculum, as well as the ingredients for each week. The recipes and accompanying materials are specifically written and designed for children who have special needs. 

“It works perfectly with kindergartners and first-graders,” Reaume said. “The biggest things it helps with are wait time and taking turns; those are some of the most challenging skills that cooking requires us to have, and they’re challenging for kids in general, too. But we’re also working on math when we count out different ingredients, using fine motor skills to hold the spoon correctly, and we learn new words like ‘slicing’ or ‘spreading’ while we’re doing it.”

The cooking classes also give students a chance to learn about basic cooking utensils and appliances that they might see their parents use at home. They sometimes get to use a microwave, and the food chopper has been a particularly fun tool to try. 

Sometimes, the weekly recipe ties in with a monthly theme, like shamrock cookies in March or “vampire teeth” in October. Sometimes, it ties in with the class’ daily or weekly lesson, like the friendship bread mix they made during a friendship unit. 

“And sometimes it’s just a fun cheese quesadilla on a Friday, just because,” Reaume said. 

Kindergartner Xander Armstrong takes a bite of his moon cake at the end of cooking class. Note: some students are medically exempt from mask-wearing due to sensory challenges

On a recent Friday, the class made “moon cakes” to tie in to lessons they had in March about the moon and space. The project involved spreading peanut butter on a rice cake using a plastic knife, and then slicing round pieces of banana and counting out M&M’s candies to place onto the sticky surface. The result was a delicious creation that resembled the surface of the moon, with its craters and uneven surfaces. 

Reaume noted that many students with special needs can be picky eaters or have sensory challenges, with which the cooking projects can help. Even though a student might not like bananas, they could be encouraged to give it a try if it’s part of a cooking class.

“Working with food is definitely very motivating – that’s probably their favorite part, just being able to enjoy some of the different snack items,” she said. “There are definitely times when they won’t try it at all, and that can feel like a waste, but we do have to remember all of the things that they were learning and doing to make that item, even if they don’t try it. They’re still working on so many skills that are worthwhile.”

Cooking has been a part of Reaume’s curriculum for a year and a half now, and its benefits have taken hold for many of her students. She described one student who has “significant communication issues — he is often very quiet and doesn’t communicate.” Thanks to cooking, she said, she’s seen him blossom over the school year. 

“He will say, ‘It’s my turn,’ or, ‘Look, I’m spreading the peanut butter.’ He is just using so much language voluntarily, because he’s excited about what he’s working on or what he’s able to create. That’s been really fun to watch.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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