Recipes for Learning: A Baking Project

John Kilburg, Karissa Utz, and Alicia Valenzuela
Washington Elementary
Moline, IL

The Baking Project took place in Mrs. Utz’s preschool classroom at Washington Elementary in Moline, Illinois. The general education classroom consisted of twenty 3- to 5-year-old children with diverse backgrounds. The children had not previously participated in project work. The classroom operated as a Preschool for All Expansion (PFA-E) program, although children only attended from 7:55 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. each day as a result of the Moline-Coal Valley (MCV) school district’s COVID-19 response plan. Additionally, because of the hybrid model employed in the program, the majority of students attended five days a week, with some only attending two days per week to accommodate class-size limitations.

In my role as a student teacher from St. Ambrose University, I, John Kilburg, organized and facilitated the project in collaboration with the lead teacher, Mrs. Utz, and the paraprofessional, Miss Alicia. The project began in March and concluded in May 2021. While the project may have otherwise continued, multiple constraints impacted the development of the project, including my timeline for concluding student teaching.

The implementation of this project was done with significant consideration given to adaptations needed because of COVID-19. From the start, we knew that off-site investigation would not be possible, nor could guest experts be invited to the classroom. To compensate for these restrictions, we brought many baking supplies into the classroom, including an electric hand mixer and toaster oven. Also, as teachers, we sought to act as experts by sharing personal knowledge of the topic and by organizing opportunities for investigation of resources such as nonfiction texts, cookbooks, and the Internet. These adaptations, as well as repeated opportunities for hands-on experimentation, supported the quality of the children’s exploration of the topic.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project

The topic of baking began to generate interest in the classroom after one child began baking with his grandmother at home. This child reenacted the baking process in dramatic play, sparking continued related play and discussion of baking among multiple children for several days.

Especially in Phase 1, cupcakes became an increased topic of interest. One day, children began to hypothesize about how cupcakes were made. Ideas included: 

  • “First you need the batter. Stir it. Put it in the oven. Frost it. Then you eat it. That’s how you make cupcakes.”
  • “You have to have cupcake filters for putting the cupcakes in.”
  • “You have to mix it up before you eat it. It has to go in the oven too.”
  • “My mom has to do it.”
  • “First cook some eggs. Then add sugar. Add some flour. Put it in the oven for two minutes. Don’t forget to eat it!”
  • “It’s too hard. I’ll try to draw it.” (see Figure 1)

These ideas, which were generated over multiple days, were used to create a class cupcake recipe. This recipe was later used as inspiration for initiating investigation in Phase 2.

Figure 1. Brayden’s drawing of a cupcake. Dictation: “You need a wrapper on the bottom. Frosting goes on the top, and the food goes under it on the top. There’s cherries, too. Then you put it in a box.”

Before investigating baking, an initial topic web of children’s knowledge was developed (see Figure 2). We used the bakery as the topic for the children to consider for this first web. While bakeries were certainly an ongoing part of children’s play and discussion, the exploration focused more on the process of baking. Had off-site field work been possible, we would have focused more on the physical space of a bakery.

Figure 2. Children’s initial web of knowledge about bakeries. 

After we made the initial project web, I met with children in small groups to generate topic-related questions. I later compiled the list of questions and displayed them next to the Phase 1 project documentation board. These questions, listed below, were revisited throughout the course of the project and answered through research and experimentation.

Children’s initial project questions included: 

  1. What is bakery food? 
  2. How do they make the food? 
  3. How do we make rainbow cupcakes? 
  4. Who makes the food? 
  5. Can girls work in a bakery? 
  6. How do you make the flavors? 
  7. How does the flavor get in the middle? 
  8. How do you order a cake? 
  9. How do you make doughnuts? 
  10. How do you color the frosting? 
  11. How do they decorate the cakes? 
  12. What are the sweet flavors? 

Phase 2: Developing the Project

Investigation of baking began with a class cupcake recipe based on the children’s thoughts. This initial experiment was entirely child-directed. While presenting the class recipe, I asked if anything was missing. The children felt the recipe was complete and predicted it would create wonderful cupcakes. Children were provided with ½ cup flour, 2 eggs, ¼ cup sugar, ½ cup butter, and vanilla extract in containers that only labeled the ingredient, not the amount. Measuring cups and spoons were prepared just out of sight in case a child suggested they were needed, although none did.

Through open-ended questions, the children were encouraged to discuss how much of each ingredient should be used. The final decision was to use most of the flour, a little more than half the sugar, a splash of vanilla, and all of the other ingredients. While mixing the ingredients, children observed that mixing in the butter, which had not fully softened, was difficult. They took turns mixing until they felt the appropriate consistency had been achieved (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Left, David mixes batter with a wooden spoon. Right, Gabe scoops batter into the cupcake pan.

The next day, the cupcakes made from the class recipe, as well as those made using a recipe found online, were compared and taste tested. Before frosting the cupcakes, children were quick to realize that the ones made with the class recipe had many holes and did not rise much while baking. Some predicted that this might have been from the butter or eggs. The general consensus was that the class recipe cupcakes did not taste like other cupcakes.

This experimentation launched an opportunity for research. The children met as a large group to compare the two different recipes and recognized that their class recipe had fewer ingredients. Chris exclaimed, “We didn’t measure when we mixed our batter; we just put all the butter in!” These realizations motivated the children to try baking cupcakes again, this time with the new recipe. In this second baking experience, the children read and followed a structured recipe, carefully measuring ingredients and following the list of instructions. Through this process, the children began to deepen their knowledge of measurements as well as various ingredients and their purposes. They were rewarded with their delicious cupcakes. 

The children were particularly fascinated by rainbow baked goods. While reading a recipe on how to make rainbow cupcakes, Meyer suggested that rather than separating the batter before dying it, “all the dye colors can be mixed together to make rainbow; we don’t need separate bowls.” While some children agreed that would work, others predicted that mixing all the colors without separating the batter would result in all the batter becoming one color, specifically purple or brown. While experimenting based on the prediction, Chris said, “First it looked rainbow, then it turned purple, but then it turned gray.”

Many other opportunities for prediction and experimentation emerged throughout the project. Some of these included baking quick breads and cookies; taste-testing doughnuts, brownies, pies, and bagels; and using piping bags to frost and decorate sugar cookies.

Throughout the project, children were supported in developing and conducting surveys with peers (see Figure 4). Students with various ability levels were included in the surveys by using supports such as picture cards that displayed various response options. Children also exchanged roles to make sure they all had a chance to ask survey questions, display picture cards, and record responses. 

Figure 4. Left, Chris asks Ahmad if he would like the dramatic play area turned into a bakery. Right, Marcos asks a survey question while Meyer displays picture cards and Charley records responses.

Although there were no collaborative three-dimensional constructions for this project, children did collaborate on two-dimensional art, including developing a sign for the dramatic play bakery. This collaborative effort began with children discussing what should be on the sign. Children then individually developed designs for the sign before sharing them. Through discussion, a final design was chosen.

Adam proposed that the sign should be as big as himself. All the children agreed but later discovered that a sign this size could not be displayed using a stand placed on the ground as they had originally intended. In the lunchroom, Ann noticed the decorations hanging from the ceiling and suggested the sign could be hung in a similar way. As the children implemented their plans, they continued to discuss and make decisions. With a paintbrush in hand, Adam said, “I want to paint the words first.” Ann cautioned, “I think it’ll get covered up if we do the words first. Let’s start with the rainbow background.” After much discussion, Adam agreed that the background could be painted first (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Left, Adam and Ann collaborate on painting the bakery sign. Right, Ann and Charley discuss plans and techniques while painting the letters of the bakery sign. 

Later, I asked whether painting the lettering in rainbow colors on top of a rainbow background would be easy to read. The children considered this and ultimately settled on mixing pink and white paint to create a light pink that would be used for the lettering (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. The children’s collaborative art piece for the dramatic play bakery. 

As noted earlier, off-site field work and guest experts were not available during this project because of COVID-19 restrictions. However other resources were used to fill this gap, such as topic-related fiction and nonfiction texts, online resources such as videos from bakeries (e.g., explaining the baking and decorating process of various foods), and knowledge shared by teachers in the classroom. Additionally, some children began to bake with their families at home, sharing their experiences and learning between home and school.

As Phase 2 developed, children represented their learning through discussions about the question of the day, observational drawings of baking tools, and interactions in the bakery-inspired dramatic play area and in the art area, where they painted, drew, and sculpted with Play-Doh.

Figure 7. Left, Ethena measures vanilla extract with a measuring spoon. Right, Lisa stirs blueberries into the batter with a wooden spoon.
Figure 8. Abby and Ahmad check on cupcakes while they bake in the toaster oven. Right, Adam pipes alternate strips of frosting colors onto a sugar cookie using a Ziploc bag. 
Figure 9. Left, Rachel and Meyer read the recipe from the back of a cake mix box. Right, Ariana “cracks” an egg after reading a muffin recipe.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

Throughout the course of this project, children had the opportunity to learn about many baking concepts while collaborating with peers. Children had repeated hands-on experiences with ingredients, baking utensils and appliances, and recipes. Counting, measurement, writing, drawing, and vocabulary skills were emphasized. These academic skills were encountered through experiences that supported children’s developing social skills, such as collaboration, negotiation, compromise, and turn taking.

As Phase 2 neared completion, children were asked about how they would like to share their knowledge and experiences with their families. Teachers proposed options that would conform to existing COVID-19 restrictions. The children agreed to develop a recipe book that would be shared at home with families. Children decided this recipe book should include recipes that had been made in Phase 2, as well as some of their families’ favorites.

Children helped to organize and design the recipe book, discussing what should be on the cover, how the recipes should be displayed, and what photos should be included and where (see Figure 10). When the books were printed, the children had the opportunity to write their names on the cover of their individual recipe book and choose a ribbon to bind the book.

During these final moments, children discussed among themselves and with teachers which parts of their book they were most excited to share with their family and which recipes they hoped to bake at home. I also included sections that documented the learning process of the project for families. When finished, each child took their recipe book home so they could share their learning with families.

Figure 10. Chris and Meyer view photos from the project and discuss which should be included in the recipe book.

Teacher Reflection

The most significant challenge in implementing this project was balancing COVID-19 restrictions and the limited timeline for completion of the project during my student teaching. Under more ideal circumstances, children would have had the opportunity to experience off-site field work and invite and interview experts, and families would have had the opportunity for more interaction with the class. During Phase 2 and 3, the students would have had more interaction with the community and the project would have continued until children had exhausted their inquiry.

Having acknowledged these challenges, I am proud of what this project offered the children in my class. They guided their learning through inquiry and collaboration. We established a class environment that placed value on the curiosities and ideas of young children while providing them the tools and experiences to experiment so they could discover knowledge without fear of failure. The beauty of project work comes from this ability to encounter many skills, including academic skills, in contexts that respect the needs and rights of each child.

As a student teacher seeking to implement a project from start to finish for the first time, it was my goal to thoroughly document the process. I am glad to have achieved this goal with the help of my collaborating partners, Mrs. Utz and Miss Alicia. Reflecting upon our documentation through the course of the project reveals the children’s increased knowledge of the topic as well as their confidence and ability to collaborate in the learning process.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Reviewed: 2021

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