Cooking is a great thing to do in therapy for many reasons. It’s a hands-on, multi-sensory experience that most children really enjoy. Making food is part of any child’s everyday routine, it’s engaging, and you get to eat the fruits of your labor! What’s not to like? If you’re stuck in a therapy rut, or just looking for something new to do, why not move your lesson into the kitchen (or bring the kitchen into your therapy room) and cook up some great speech, language, and listening fun?
Because we focus on making parents their children’s first and best language teachers, cooking and Auditory Verbal Therapy are a natural fit! Instead of the activity being therapist-directed (I, the AVT, bring all the materials to the table and have decided ahead of time what we’re going to do), the parent takes the lead (bringing in ingredients, leading all of us in making the recipe). My job as the therapist is squeeze goals out of the activity, and to be the bug in the paren’t ear, giving small suggestions about how they can tweak their language or presentation to help their child accomplish those objectives. Doing these kinds of everyday activities in therapy promotes generalization, because it’s easy for families to see how they can use some of these same skills and techniques to target goals all week long while they’re cooking at home. Additionally, cooking is a wonderful way to learn about each family’s cultures and traditions, making your therapy more family-centered and inclusive. When you cook a family’s favorite dish in therapy, the parents get to be the experts, sharing traditional recipes and ethnic cuisine.
Another wonderful benefit of cooking activities is that they take a long time, have multiple steps, and require waiting. What do all of those things lead to? Growth of executive function skills. Executive function is our brain’s ability to order and prioritize thoughts — it’s the “boss of the brain” and an area where children with hearing loss are at particular risk. By gathering ingredients, working through a recipe, following directions, and waiting for the finished product, we provide both a model of EF and a chance for the child to build his own skills in this area… all while he just thinks he’s having fun!
How do you structure cooking activities in therapy? I prefer to first introduce what we are making. Just like with crafts, young children need to see the finished product first (it’s hard to envision that flour, sugar, eggs, etc. will make a cake if you don’t know what a cake is first!). I like to either have some of the food already made on hand or to at least show a picture of what we’re going to make today. Then, we talk about the recipe and its vocabulary. Many children know “cookie,” but do they know the names of all of the things that go into making that cookie happen? What about all of the great verbs (mix, dice, blend, etc.) and partitives (measurement words like a bag of sugar or a teaspoon of vanilla or a dash of salt) that we find in cooking and rarely see elsewhere? Then, it’s time to get cooking! Within the cooking activity itself, you can work on just about any goal (see more examples below). If the project is something that isn’t ready to eat right away (for example, something that needs to chill, cook, or bake), then there’s time to do another activity while we wait. Sometimes, I’ll do something related (for example, read a book about food or cooking). Other times, the activity will be something completely different. It depends on the child’s needs and how much time we have. Once the food is ready, the learning doesn’t stop! Sharing food is a great time to work on pragmatics (social language) and conversational skills. Don’t forget to take pictures to make a great experience book!
I’m a big proponent of the idea that you can work on just about ANY goal with ANY activity for children at ANY age or stage if you think hard enough. From the littlest listeners to big kids with big goals, cooking in therapy is for everyone! For a very young child, we might work on basic function words, like: more, pour, mix/stir, go/stop, my turn, eat, hot, etc. Slightly older children can work on a variety of two-word combinations with cooking: action + object (pour flour), agent + action (Daddy stir), entity + location (water [in the] bowl). You can work on a range of full sentence structures, too, like subject + verb + object + prepositional phrase (SVOPP, or person + action + thing + where, for example: Mama put the sprinkles on the cookie). Even older children at more advanced language levels can get a lot out of cooking. As I mentioned above, following a recipe provides exposure to lots of great, unusual vocabulary that won’t be encountered every day. You can talk about textures, scents, and how the ingredients interact, similarities and differences between this food and other foods, make predictions for how things will turn out, and more. For older children, why not let them take the lead in the activity and have the child explain the steps to everyone else in the room? If the child has articulation goals, load up the recipe with whichever speech sound you’re targeting (for example, to work on s-blends, you could take about stirring, snacking, spoons, slicing, scooping, and so on). You can also target auditory goals: listening to, and following, instructions of various lengths and complexity (anything from “we need eggs” t0 “mix three cups of water and a teaspoon of salt with two cups of flour in the large blue bowl”). Whatever your child needs to work on, you can target it in cooking with just a little bit of thought and preparation.