Toddler-Led Baking

Wednesday November 18, 2015

Yesterday, Bean was in the final stretch of recovering from her recent leg ailment. It’s nearly impossible to keep a toddler from running, jumping, climbing, and scrambling, but I was doing my best to keep her resting.

She was having none of that. With a fierce case of cabin fever, after having been kept on the sofa for 4 days, she was ready to DO SOMETHING MOMMY WHAT WE DO TODAY MOMMY.

We’re going to bake, I guess.



Baking is an awesome combination of cooking, playing with clay, math, fine motor practice, and art. It also absorbs her like nothing else. And, an absorbed toddler is a happy parent.

The problem, as always, is learning how to get out of their way. Making sugar cookies is ideal; there aren’t many ways you can go wrong. Even if you’re 2.




Here are the things you must accept when baking with children:


1)You will likely mis-measure something, purely out of distraction. You’re in the middle of the fourth (or was it sixth?) cup of flour when your toddler decides to dump the utensil jar. Good luck remembering how many more cups you needed. Your new mantra is: It’s the process, not the end result.

2) Your kitchen will be an obliterated mess of flour, sugar, and dough.

3) Your toddler, and yourself, will also be a mess of flour, sugar, and dough.

4) Your toddler will eat everything she can get her hands on, including raw cookie dough pumpkins.


I get the most out of the experience when I hand over most of the reigns. I know. This is where the mess-acceptance comes in. Find your inner zen.

Bean dumped the sugar and used her spoon to mix it with the fake-butter. She dumped the vanilla. She dumped the flour. I showed her how to mix the dough with her hands and let her get elbow deep into it. Her little body hummed with enthusiasm and concentration.




When it was time to roll out the dough, I floured the table and she immediately started drawing circles and curly Q’s and wavy lines in it. (Just like Montessori sand tray work!) This is what’s awesome about kids — step out of their way, and they’ll find new ways to learn.

She rolled the dough out, like the many balls of playdough before it. I stepped back and let her experiment (and fail) trying to cut an apple out of a 2-inch pile of dough. She looked over at what I was doing, and she realized that she needed to roll it flatter. (And press down harder — the photo where she’s putting all her might into cutting out a turkey KILLS ME. Look at that little toddler focus and determination.)




I also stepped back and let her pick out which cookie cutters to use, and let her play around with where to place it on the rolled out dough. It would have been easy to dictate this part — wanting to have a good mix of shapes or wanting to optimize how many pieces you can get out of a rolled out sheet of dough. But, it’s the process.




She picked out which cookie cutters to use, she used them wherever she wanted. After cutting out one squirrel, she decided she needed an entire squirrel family and so cut out the daddy squirrel and mommy squirrel and grandma squirrel. We see this as merely baking — a way to get some cookies, maybe to give them out to friends — but to her, this is a learning opportunity.




Once you’ve decided to step back and let the kid do it themselves, it gets easier and easier to give up control.

Once all the cookies were cut, it was time to sprinkle them with sugar crystals. She picked out what colors to do — yes to purple squirrels and apples, blue pumpkins, and orange turkeys.




I always find that once you stop trying to control toddlers, they learn to control themselves. Cookie baking is a prime activity where I can sit back and let her make all the decisions, and let her learn from experimentation and failure, without fear of anyone/anything getting hurt.

It also doesn’t hurt that afterward, Dave and I can spend the evening gorging on sugar cookies.

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