In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman states that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases. Study after study as proven that excessive exposure to media (television, video games, iTouch, etc.) stunts brain development. As parents, we should seriously consider the value or detriment television and video games have on our children’s brain development.
Too much TV has a detrimental effect on the attention span in children, and on their ability to concentrate at length. Television is a continuously changing medium hopping from one topic to another to gain and retain viewership. Insert in a few commercials and you are fortunate if any one, continuous, focused stream of thought stays the same for more than a couple of minutes! We scratch our heads wondering why our kids’ attention span is so short. Why would we remotely expect our children to develop critical thinking skills, or focus and stick with anything to completion, when TV reinforces immediate gratification with no effort required in thought processing?
A healthy alternative is getting your children’s hands dirty in the kitchen. However, one must consider two critical elements when getting your children actively participating in the kitchen: 1) Attention span and 2) Age-appropriate tasks/functions
Attention span is divided into two categories – focused and sustained.
Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts attention such as a doorbell or telephone ringing or the noise made when something is dropped. Focused attention span is very brief and is often measured in seconds. The child will typically look away, then return to his or her previous task, or think about something else.
To produce consistent results in a given task over time, sustained attention is required. For example, if the task is slicing something, then an individual showing sustained attention will likely stay on task, not cutting themselves, but a person who loses focus might wind up cutting themselves, as I have done on several occasions (such as answering my wife’s questions). To lengthen and sustain a child’s attention, they must be either interested in the activity or have some motivation for performing the activity. If your children see you cooking and enjoying it, they are more likely to want to cook as well. If you don’t like cooking, find another venue in which your can explore his world.
As a general rule of thumb, a child’s attention span is approximately one minute for every year of his life. Considering this, our children’s school teachers have a huge daily challenge to keep their subject matter fresh and continually engaging in order to maintain the sustained attention required to learn long-term life skills such as reading and mathematics. Fortunately for me, a chef/instructor teaching children to cook, most kitchen activities are relatively short and sequential, thereby providing great opportunities to develop sequential or “order of operation” processing, as well as offering the child something fun to do. Teaching your child to cook is significantly easier than teaching him long division or sentence structure. Why? The reason is cooking is a kinesthetic and visual learning experience (vs. auditory, abstract and theoretic), making it easier to deal with attention span.
The information below comes from Janis G. Hunter, HGIC Nutrition Specialist, and Katherine L. Cason, Professor, State Program Leader for Food Safety and Nutrition, Clemson University. It will serve as a guide to help you know what skills you can reasonably expect your children to master.
Age 2: Two-year-olds are learning to use the large muscles in their arms and can help with these activities:
wiping table tops
moving premeasured ingredients from one place to another
playing with utensils
snapping fresh beans
breaking cauliflower or bread for stuffing
rinsing and tearing lettuce and salad greens
scrubbing and dipping vegetables and fruits
Age 3: This age level is learning to use their hands and can manage all of the above, plus jobs such as:
pouring liquids into a batter
mixing ingredients such as muffin batter (Use an extra large bowl to contain mess.)
shaking a milk drink in a covered container
spreading soft spreads, such as peanut butter on firm bread (This may be messy!)
kneading dough and simple shaping
wrapping potatoes in foil for baking
putting trash in the garbage can
Ages 4 – 5: Kids in this age group are learning to control smaller muscles in their fingers, so offer experiences such as:
setting the table
mashing soft fruits (bananas) and cooked vegetables with a fork
rolling bananas in cereal for a snack
forming rounds shapes with hands
measuring dry and liquid ingredients
peeling loose-skinned oranges and hard-cooked eggs
beating eggs with an eggbeater or whisk
cutting parsley, green onions or dried fruits with dull scissors
cutting with a blunt knife (e.g. fruit on a cutting board)
Ages 6 – 8: This age level has mastered all of the previous jobs and is ready to learn tasks such as:
cleaning surfaces before and after use
gathering utensils and ingredients
greasing or spraying baking pans
peeling onions and garlic
washing fruits and vegetables
advanced measuring (e.g. measuring liquids and spooning dry ingredients into measuring cup and leveling off)
crushing crackers in a bag with a rolling pin
washing dishes and putting away ingredients and utensils
Ages 9 – 12: Children at this age level still need adult supervision, but they can manage jobs such as:
planning and preparing simple meals and snacks
following a recipe, measuring accurately and preparing a product
reading and interpreting ingredient and food labels
operating small appliances like blenders, mini-choppers, juicers, and microwave ovens
moderate chopping, dicing and cutting
sautéing and pan frying
steaming, broiling, boiling and baking
handling and storing ingredients and finished products safely
cleaning up, knowing how and what to hand wash or wash in the dishwasher
Teens: By adolescence, kids are making most of their own decisions about food and are capable of:
performing tasks that require multiple preparation steps or close timing
creating new flavor combinations, shapes or decoration
planning and preparing whole menus for meals or entertaining
making shopping lists and shopping for ingredients
helping younger children learn about food and how to prepare it
enjoying cooking with peers
The greatest motivator is you and the quality time that you spend with children. Never let self-doubt or worries creep into your child’s mind. Teach what interests him or her the most. A child allowed to pursue his/her interests is prone to enjoy studies as well. If cooking is not their thing, but go-cart racing fascinates them, then become a go-cart enthusiast and join in. You will not only create memories lasting a lifetime, but you will also develop a common ground both of you can return to when the adolescent tough times come.
Chef David Hall