Baking / Cooking: A well-rounded learning activity!

Food has always been a big issue with my toddler. For as long as I can remember, mealtime has been a lottery, not knowing whether she would eat or not. I tried a variety of flavors, offered them in colorful utensils, even made her rotis in fun shapes and colors – nothing worked. One day, instead of giving her toy utensils and water to play with, I decided to give her idly* batter and an idly mold and asked her to pour the batter into the mold. While we had a small mess on our hands, we achieved two things with this exercise: we had a great activity to develop fine motor skills, and of course, the child was so proud that she had helped to make the food that she couldn’t resist eating it!

Since then, I’ve loved having her stand on a ladder and assist while I cook. The rule I have set is that she isn’t allowed near heat (stove, oven) or knives but other than that, she’s good to go! She loves adding ingredients like salt/sugar/flour, stirring, mixing, pouring things and more. We often spend the afternoons baking cookies together, which is a great activity for a toddler as she can do everything except get the baking tray in and out of the oven. I usually measure out ingredients into small bowls and give her the ingredients and a large mixing bowl, and she loves it! In keeping up with the “I did it!” goal, she is very proud to share her creations with her family and friends!

I decided to take the activity one step further. Instead of measuring out ingredients and leaving them out for her, I decided to take a simple recipe and convert it to a form that she could read. While A can read simple words and count, obviously she  can’t do fractions like “1 1/2 cup” or understand the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. Instead of using a standard one cup measure, I used a quarter cup measure which would be easy for her small hands to handle. Instead of using the words teaspoon and tablespoon, I used a set of colorful measuring spoons I had and the recipe called for “1 green spoon” and so on. This way, she had only one variable to deal with – the number of spoons /cups to add, and identifying a spoon / cup by their color was definitely a simpler task than identifying them by their measure!

This sounds really confusing, but it was actually very simple. Here’s a sample recipe that I converted. We decided to try cheese muffins today, as it seemed to be a fairly simple recipe with minimal ingredients and not to mention, A’s favorite ingredients. Here’s the original recipe. I have halved the recipe and converted it to a language that A could understand. Here you go:

Cheese Muffins Recipe**:
3 cups flour
1 green spoon sugar
1 green spoon baking powder
1 red spoon salt
6 cups shredded cheese
2 cup milk
1 egg
1 cup melted butter

1. Ask Mom to preheat your oven to 375F.
2. Put muffin liners in your muffin tray.
3. Mix all ingredients to make a batter.
4. Add 2 blue spoons of the batter to each muffin liner.
5. Ask Mom to put the muffin tray in the oven.
6. Wait for 30 minutes. When you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything!
7. Ask Mom to take the tray out of the oven.
8. Eat your muffins!

A’s measurements vs. Actual measurements:
1 cup = 1/4 cup
1 blue spoon = 1 tbsp
1 green spoon = 1/2 tbsp
1 red spoon = 1/4 tsp

I’ll also suggest that you personalize your recipe. For example, my daughter calls me “Mimi” and my recipe had Mimi instead of Mom, or of course replace with the name of the caregiver at the time – Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Big Sister etc.  Customize the recipe to the measuring cups and spoons you have at hand. I also had the recipe written out on a sheet of paper, which was affixed to the refrigerator at A’s eye level, making it easy for her to refer to whenever she wanted.

This activity teaches skills on so many levels! Oh, where do I even begin! At the very least, your child is working hard to read the recipe and the fact that they are excited to get to baking / eating means that they are further enthused to read! If your child doesn’t read yet, supplement the text with an image of a green/red/blue spoon, and then read the recipe out loud with your child. Math skills also improve as they measure ingredients. Not to mention that the chemical reactions causing the muffins to rise is a wonderful chemistry experiment. Above all, they are developing an invaluable life skill!

So no matter what your reason – whether you have a picky eater, a bored child on summer vacation, or just a craving for a homemade snack – do give this activity a try with your kids. Let me know what recipes you try out, and do share your customizations to make your recipe kid-friendly!


*Idly is a dish from Southern India wherein a fermented batter made of rice and black lentils is steamed in a special mold. It’s an extremely healthy dish loved by children and adults alike.

**Disclaimer: This post is a guideline to a method, and not a recipe post. The objective of this post was not to share the recipe for muffins with you, but to share with you my way of implementing a learning activity with my daughter. Apply this method to any recipe you’d like to try out with your kids!

A’s thoughts on Eclipses

We spent a lot of time indoors last week as A was unwell. We read books, colored and when we watched videos, they were generally on her favorite topics – space and the solar system. One morning, we were watching a video about eclipses and I explained to A “see, sun and moon are playing peek-a-boo”, an explanation which apparently tickled her fantasy.

That afternoon, when I was taking her to the doctor’s place at 4 PM, the moon had already risen but the sun was also still out. She pointed at moon and said “moon!”. Then, puzzled, she said “Uh oh!” I asked her, “Why uh oh? What happened?”

She pointed back and forth “sun! moon! sun! moon!”. After thinking for a few moments, she asked me “sun, moon, peek a boo?”

I was amazed that she’d grasped the concept of an eclipse, not to mention applied it to that instance where she saw that both the sun and moon were out. Since then, every time we’ve seen them together, she’s been asking them to play peek a boo!


Kids learn at an amazing rate. It’s hard to keep up with them! It’s important to nurture that thirst for knowledge and encourage a spirit of life-long learning. It’s also amazing how early they establish interests. Some kids like cars and other modes of transport, others like everything about dinosaurs. My daughter established very early on that she liked anything and everything to do with “stars”, and all things space. It all started when she indicated that “Twinkle, Twinkle…” was her favorite nursery rhyme. She then moved on to a fascination with “sun-moon-stars” (in her words). Over a period of time, she amazed us by learning the planets, and constantly asking us to read her books on planets and space!

We have been working out ways to encourage her curiosity. As I’ve said before, I strongly believe in learning through play, so that learning stays fun. I’ve often heard that we should not pressurize children into learning, and I fully agree. However, I believe that we can encourage learning without putting pressure on kids, and that a child who wants to learn must be nurtured and encouraged. It’s also wonderful when children can choose their subjects of interest. In that vein, I’ve been working on ways to feed her curiosity about planets and space as long as she is interested.

Here’s a really easy one. We all have an excess of empty paper towel rolls. These double up great as telescopes! A has been playing with these empty rolls for months now as her pretend “telescope”. The next logical step was to bring the solar system to our home. Print colorful images of the planets, stars, the moon, anything really. (We downloaded ours from here, and I love the posters! Bright, attractive and detailed!) Stick these up all over your home, hand your kid the “telescope” and let them “star-gaze” from the comfort of your home.

There are a number of ways you can play around with this activity. You can start off with whatever your kid likes, of course. Play around and switch locations every now and then, add/remove elements, making it a fun new game each time!

Further, I’ll bet this activity would work to convert your home into any new realm for your kid to explore. Wildlife would be a fun one, for example. I imagine another popular choice could be dinosaurs. I’m sure everyone has their own great ways of implementing this, and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

Lego & all the learning benefits: Part 1

As expected, A’s first set of Lego Duplo has opened up a world of learning opportunities for her. Obviously, we have all read numerous articles on how Lego promotes STEM education. However, what I would like to analyze is the specific skillset attained by blocks. To do this, I’m going to revisit an old friend, the competency.

Let’s start off with the formal definition. A competency is defined as an effective ability, including attributes, skills and knowledge, to successfully carry out some activity which is totally identified. While the term competency is typically applied in formal learning environments, I firmly believe that competencies are achieved at every stage of life. Since the first pediatrician appointments, we have been asked about A’s milestones such as feeding, laying down for tummy time, rolling over, etc. In my mind, these milestones are competencies achieved by the child. Taking the concept further, each competency has a number of sub-competencies as well. My mind was blown when my nurse at the hospital explained why it was so difficult for the newborn baby to learn to feed – the child must learn to a. suck; b. swallow; and c. all while breathing. The competency of “feeding” had so many sub-competencies!

Coming back to blocks. The obvious first competency to be achieved by the child is to put two blocks together. But wait! That isn’t the first one! While A was fascinated by the first sight of the Lego blocks, and even though it seems elementary, she couldn’t start off with putting two blocks together! So we started with what seems like the second competency: Taking two blocks apart.

So, why is this the easier competency? Let us look at the sub-competencies for the two competencies of putting together and taking apart Lego blocks:

C1: Taking blocks apart given a set of blocks that are joined together
C1.1: Identify where the two blocks meet
C1.2: Grip the blocks in the right way that they come apart
C1.3: Pull in the right direction until they come apart

C2: Putting blocks together
C2.1: Identify two blocks that will fit together
C2.2: Identify the right location to join them
C2.3: Grip them appropriately to push them together
C2.4: Join the two blocks together

We shall now identify the easier competency. Is difficulty a subjective factor? To some extent, definitely, but we can break it down into as many objective factors as we can as well, and allow learner subjectivity to be a factor too. Factors are also task-specific – while some factors are common ones, many factors are specific to the competencies we are analyzing. For recap, here is an overview of the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains. Let us identify a set of factors for difficulty in this case:

  1. Number of sub-competencies
  2. Cognitive processes required for each sub-competency
  3. Psychomotor skills (fine and gross) required for each sub-competency
  4. Affective stimuli induced by each sub-competency
  5. Subjective difficulty of each sub-competency

Here’s an analysis of each sub-competency with respect to the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains:

Sub-competency Cognitive Affective Psychomotor
C1.1 Analyze Characterization Perceptual abilities
C1.2 Evaluate Characterization Skilled movements, Perceptual abilities
C1.3 Apply Organization Fundamental movements, skilled movements, perceptual abilities
C2.1 Analyze Characterization Perceptual abilities
C2.2 Evaluate Characterization Perceptual abilities
C2.3 Apply Organization Skilled movements, Perceptual abilities
C2.4 Apply Organization Fundamental movements, skilled movements, perceptual abilities

So, C1 has 3 sub-competencies to master, while C2 has 4. While this does not automatically make C1 the easier competency, it is certainly a factor. The sub-competencies of C2 require more cognitive, affective and psychomotor processes as well. Another factor is how difficult each of the sub-competencies are. With A, she certainly found it easier to accomplish C1 before C2.

While this is not conclusive evidence to prove that C1 is easier than C2, the logic has certainly worked in the case of A. One of the reasons the logic may not work is the assumption of higher cognitive levels being more difficult than the lower ones. Another reason it may not work could be differences in psychomotor skills. Every learner is different especially in the case of little ones. It is important to identify these differences and guide learners in the way that suits them best!

Disclaimer: As with any course design process, this is iterative and I may have left out some obvious sub-competencies. Please let me know if I have!


First blocks!

We got blocks for kiddo today! She got Lego Duplo, nice and big blocks so she can’t put it in her mouth. She was fascinated from the first moment she laid eyes on the box! First she was excited by the rattling in the box. Then she opened her eyes wide at the bright colors! Her dad showed her how to join two blocks together, and she was amazed! She was thrilled to make a small plane and watch him fly it.

All in all, a great buy! She’s only played with it for ten minutes so far and we’re already very excited. Bring on the Lego, bring on the creative learning!

STEM and kiddos

Through my PhD, I dealt with higher education, with late teenagers and undergraduate education in STEM-related courses. So when I was pregnant and discovered that Amazon and Flipkart had a separate category of toys called “STEM toys”, I was astonished! Why would my little baby want to play with toys that taught her engineering at a year old, I wondered.

Since then, I’ve been experimenting and playing with a lot of toys, courtesy A. She goes through phases of toys. As a 6 month old, when she first started playing with toys, it was all about the color and sound and not much else. Rattles were a favorite, as were anything grab-able and hold-able. As she approached a year, she moved on to stacking rings, her eyes focused as she maneuvered the rings over the rod and formed a stack. After her birthday, she started working on puzzles and shape sorters. I was amazed at her sponge-like mind, learning to use new toys everyday!

So this brings me back to my original question – what are STEM toys? STEM toys are toys that promote learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They claim to help children work towards careers in these areas (a claim which I question for the time being). They promote cognitive and psychomotor development in children, which I definitely do see.

So what are some of the popular STEM toys? A browse through Amazon and others brings up robots, building blocks, physics and electromagnetic kits and the like. There are also numerous articles detailing that “STEM toys so far have been geared to boys” and “it’s time to make them for girls too”, which is certainly baffling to me. I recently attended a mind-blowing talk by Leah Buechley, a keynote speech at FABLearn 2016, where she speaks of this issue. She is the mind behind Lilypad Arduino, and a champion of feminine making traditions. During her keynote speech, she broadened the audience’s view on STEM toys and activities, leading me to believe that STEM is everywhere, and that it is the world’s view of STEM toys which is pigeonholed into a subset of toys. Here are some of my favorite toys which I believe promote learning

  • Shape sorters: These seemingly elementary toys teach shapes, and then matching a shape to its appropriate slot. Its not just about matching the shape, but also turning the shape to fit into the slot appropriately. Some shape sorters double up to teach colors as well. Of course,  shape sorters can double up as stackers, blocks, even grab-ables for the little ones.
  • Puzzles: And of course, I mean much simpler puzzles to start with, such as this one. Apart from the obvious skill of matching the right piece to the right location (like the shape sorter), playing with these also provides numerous teachable moments about the objects in the puzzle like animals or food. Pulling the pieces out of the puzzle individually also helps develop fine motor skills.
  • Stackers: In addition to the fine motor skills of grabbing, holding and placing, these also teach sizing and order. For example, largest on the bottom and smallest on the top? Stackers include the old favorite – stacking rings, but also stacking cups, stacking blocks that even have books embedded in them, and more. You could stack these one on top of the other and it’d be a fun game to make a tower than doesn’t collapse, teaching balance in the process.
  • Boxes and lids: not a toy! But this is my kiddos personal favorite. She started off trying to close her snack box. She then moved on trying to close any box with the lid I gave her. One day, she found a sippy cup top and a random cup, and just trying to match the two just because they were the same size! Which they didn’t belong to the same set, I was amazed at how her young mind worked! These days, she is easily kept occupied with a bunch of random boxes and lids, working her way through matching them, and then closing them until they seal!

These are just some of our current favorites. I’m sure there are many more out there! The thing is, STEM is way more than what we know, it’s everywhere! What are some of your favorite toys (for your kids or yourself!)