Friday, April 28, 2017

Open-Ended Baking: A Sweet and Savory Tale of Child-led Play

Guess what?  I learned something new about myself: I am a fan of open-ended BAKING opportunities!!  Who knew?

Up until the tale I'm about to share with you happened, I believed baking was a time for children to learn about following directions, and definitely not a time for leading with their own ideas.

Baking was a time for my inner-control freak to come out, guilt-free and take over the job of leader.  I was, after all, teaching children how to follow a recipe, we HAD to do it right....right?


Open-ended baking can be a thing.... in fact, it SHOULD be a thing!

What does open-ended baking look like?  Does it look like what it sounds like?

YES.  Yes, it does.   As with all open-ended opportunities in my program, open-ended baking involves no adult expectations or direction.  The children are given the freedom of time, task, technique and most importantly, TRUST.   My job is to be in the moment,  quietly following their lead, gathering ingredients they may decide they need.

Truth be told:  as I was setting the environment in which this tale begins, I was expecting the children to have engaging conversations about the smells and loads of fun "pretend" cooking.  I NEVER anticipated this was going to turn into the EMPOWERING experience that it did.

Here is the tale of how open-ended baking happened organically in my program:

A couple of weeks ago,  I set the environment at my play school with a large bowl of flour, small cups of water with pipettes in them, a bottle each of oregano, basil, garlic powder, paprika and a salt grinder.  I added a plethora (don't you just love that word?) of mixing bowls that I have collected over the years at various thrift stores, as well as spoons.  My expectations involved rich conversations, sensory exploration, trial and error, mixing, blending and grand imaginary play.  I then stepped back and patiently waited for a child to discover what I had placed on the table.

The first discovery.
The gears were turning as this child slowly took in the contents of the table.  Her eyes soon brightened and she called in the troops!

Right here, with this itty bitty bit of exploration, this child was already declaring this day to receive the coveted title of "BEST DAY EVER!".

Creating a plan, instigating that plan...then changing the plan to make it better:
In this child's original plan, water and seasonings were important, but who cares about flour?!?  She later learned, after an exciting discovery was proudly announced, that perhaps she needed to tweak her plan.

During the first twenty minutes of exploration, the rich conversation revolved around the smells and the textures.
I was hearing things like:

" smells so good in here."
"Hey...what is that smell I'm smelling?"
"Feel mine!  Mine is so soft."
"Mine isn't soft, mine is really really sticky!"
"Hey guys...wanna smell this?  It's the best ever!"

Over time, their interest in what they were actually playing with peaked...and someone said "Denita!  What is this stuff?"

I have never met a child who wasn't proud to own words. They listened intently as I told them the name of each seasoning.  Immediately following my desciption, the conversations I was over hearing were along the lines of:

"Can I have the oregano when you are done?"
"Where did the basil go?  I really need it."
"Boy.. you can really smell the garlic"
"I think mine needs just a bit more of the salt."

As more time passed, curiosities grew:
"Is this stuff spicy?" (referring to the paprika)
My reply "You know what?  I am not really sure.  Why don't you taste it and find out?"
Eyes got HUGE as he replied "WE CAN TASTE THIS STUFF!?!"

"YES!  It is ALL edible.  That means you can taste it!"

The children were now not only freely exploring with hands and noses, they were also exploring with mouths!  SO EXCITING!

The richness of the conversations just continued to intensify.

It was during this sampling frenzy that this discovery happened:

"I MADE DOUGH!  GUYS!!  THIS STUFF CAN MAKE DOUGH!!!  Wanna know how?!?!  I can show you!!!"

After this "aha moment", came another one:
 "Denita!!!  We can bake this and see what happens!!! This really IS the BEST DAY EVER!!!"

I immediately set the oven to 350, grabbed my cookie sheet and some parchment paper and waited for the products of their open-ended baking to fill the pan.

Learning from others!  
After the child declared he had made dough, this child quickly re-thought her plan, tweaked it and made it BETTER!!

Self Regulation and Conflict Management 
Shortly after dough was discovered (no less exciting than when gold was first discovered) rollers and cookie cutters were requested.  
Notice how many rollers are on the table?  One.  I call this purposeful conflict.  I intentionally put one roller out to see if 1) they could handle the conflict this would cause 2) if they would have the self-regulation to handle waiting and 3) if anyone would think to ask me for another one.  Guess what?  They made ONE ROLLER WORK.  They all were able to patiently wait their turns.  I was beyond impressed.

Motor work
Loads of muscles were used as dough was rolled, kneaded, punched, pulled and otherwise manipulated by little hands.

Freedom of Technique
Each child discovered their own, unique technique to control the dough, and get the results they were hoping for.

"Denita!  Look! I made a pizza!!" 

 Once the pan was full, into the oven it went.  I set the timer for 10 minutes and hoped for the best!  I anticipated there were about to be many lessons learned about failing... I couldn't have been more wrong.

While their creations were baking, this child thoughtfully made a pizza sauce to accompany the anxiously anticipated delicacies.  
When that timer beeped... holy cats!  IT WAS THE BEST MOMENT EVER!!

Let the tasting begin!!!
This child is exclaiming "HEY!  They are actually really good!"  AND... THEY WERE!!!  I WAS SHOCKED! No lessons about failing to be learned so far!  They tasted like really good bread sticks you would find at an Italian restaurant!

Learning from failing.
Look closely..... see the sauce?  The verdict?  Too salty.  He followed that up with "Now I know what to do next time."

This very play was repeated that week, and on Tuesday of the following week as well.

Every time they baked, they learned something more and tweaked their "recipe" ever-so-slightly.

They commented on things that happened last time, reminded each other not to do particular things because "remember what happened yesterday...."

When their creations came out of the oven, they learned to tear off their bites, so then they could share tastes with each other and compare the results.

They learned that just because the salt grinder was fun to use, does NOT mean you should use it a lot!!!

They learned that too much water makes a sticky dough, but that problem can be solved with more flour.

They learned that paprika is really fun because it makes the dough red. Unfortunately, the paprika didn't make it past the first day... it was a hot item!

They learned that sticky dough on fingers washes off quite easily.

They learned to ration the flour last Thursday, as we hit the bottom of the bag.  They learned how to help each other out when in a pinch.

On Wednesday, I changed it up!  Instead of the oregano, basil, garlic combo.... I put out mini chocolate chips, sugar and cinnamon with the flour and water.  SWEET FLAVORS OH MY!

The child in the gray shirt was the last to realize what was out on the table.  By the time he joined the fun, there were no bowls for him to use.  The child in red, thoughtfully said "Oliver!  You can work with me!  We can be a team!"


Self Control

I was so impressed with the control the children displayed.  They had FREE REIGN of these ingredients, yet they very thoughtfully added the best part (the chocolate) and were careful not to hog it all.  This served as yet another reminder that children CAN BE TRUSTED.

Then came the favorite part....the tasting.  GUESS WHAT?!?!  These were really tasty too!!!  WHO KNEW open-ended baking could turn out so well?!? (side note:  the sweet version needed a hotter oven:  375)

As the children were comparing their baked goods, plans were made for the next day.  "Denita?  Can you get us some sprinkles?  We think these could really use some sprinkles."

So...of course I added sprinkles to the mix on Thursday!

Comparing and Contrasting
When Thursday's batch came out of the oven, the children just wanted to look at them all.  "Guys!  Don't eat them!  Let's just look and see how different they all are!"  
This was an extremely rich moment as the children commented on how the cookies were alike, and how they were different.  What stood out the most were the three that are more brown than the others.  
"What made them more brown? " 
"OH!  Cinnamon!"  
"Look at how pretty this one is with the sprinkles, and that one is with the sugar on top."  
THEN, it was finally time to TASTE!  After much sampling and comparing and commenting, everyone decided that Elsie's tasted the best.  So, I said "Elsie, do you want to tell them your secret?"  (she sprinkles more sugar on top of hers when she puts it on the pan!)  She was so empowered by the fact that everyone agreed that hers tasted the best that of course she told them her secret!

When I consult with providers, I always get asked "when do you know when it's time to move on?"  It's simple, you follow their lead.  You listen to the children, you look for the joy.

Judging from my observations, there is no end in site for our open-ended baking days.  I foresee this continuing on until the end of the school year.  And honestly, observing them lead this open-ended baking opportunity brings me great joy and reassures me that I have done my job, and done it well.

My observations have told me, loud and clear, that these children are confident, they aren't afraid to try new things, they are kind and compassionate.  They have self-regulation and can handle conflict with impressive ease.  They have impressive vocabularies and understand the meaning of countless words, they can express themselves with words instead of hands even in the most heated moment of conflict.  They know how to make a plan, instigate that plan, and fix it to make it better.  They know how to pick themselves up from failing and try again.  They know about teamwork and are able to collaborate ideas with others.  ALL of those skills were demonstrated during their open-ended baking.

They are amazing, capable people that I am blessed to have in my life.

So then, I encourage YOU to change your thoughts about baking experiences with children.  Put ingredients out that go together and follow their lead.  PLEASE KNOW that your results could and SHOULD be different than mine.  Forget you read this, and keep your mind open to the ideas of YOUR CHILDREN!

About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led philosophy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)
Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)