Maggie And Jack Make Cake – Is It About Us Or Them

by Mary Ann on May 18, 2010

Maggie Jack and Mary

Three of my grandchildren live just a couple of blocks away. Maggie is almost four and Jack just turned two. Mary is brand new. Maggie has cerebral palsy. She is sharp as a whip but working her arms and legs is a real challenge. They belong to my oldest daughter. Today is her birthday. I had planned to make her a cake and then decided to have Jack and Maggie help me.

Maggie cooking

My intention was to allow them to experience new things, really help make a cake, and have a lot of fun. I knew that there would be a huge mess, something unexpected might happen and I would be worn out when we were through. That knowledge has come from working with hundreds of children of all ages.

Because of Maggie’s condition she has a special chair that she sits in. It isn’t high enough to reach the table and so I just put her and the chair on the table. Jack, of course, took his position on one of the kitchen chairs. I opened the cake mix bag and allowed each one to pour half of the contents into the bowl. Some made its way to the table top and some to the floor. Next I filled three measuring cups with liquid, 1 cup water, ¼ cup water and 1/3 cup water. I helped Maggie get hold of the large cup and pour it into the bowl. Because this isn’t the first time that I have cooked with them I wanted to see if Jack could pour the cup himself so I said “pour it in Jack.” He took hold of the 1/3 cup and gently tipped it to one side onto the table. Ok… I see that he still needs help. So we emptied the ¼ cup and refilled the 1/3 cup and poured it in the bowl, with help.

Next came the eggs. I showed Jack and Maggie how to break one and how to get the contents out. Wohoo!! Whacking eggs suited Jack

Jack Cooking

just fine. He gave it a whack and voila! egg all over the table. Not to worry. We just picked out the egg shells and scraped the egg into the bowl. Good thing we started with a clean table. Next I helped Maggie get hold of her egg and smack it against the cup edge. That was necessary to make it pliable enough for her to squeeze the contents out of it; and squeeze she did. Some was dripping down the front of her shirt, there was a small stream running down her knee and the rest was oozing out her fingers. We did get all the egg out of the shell, the shell pried out of her little fist and hands wiped clean. Whew!

My sister had come in just as we began and was observing what we were doing. As I got a cloth to wipe up egg Maggie, who was just desperate to “do it herself”, reached way down and plunged her arm into the batter. I turned around at that same moment. It was perfect. I took hold of the bowl and said, “Stir Maggie, stir.” She really had a tremendous time stirring that batter. It is very difficult for her to hold a spoon and when she does I have to help her stir. For a 4 year old that is so lame. But stirring on your own, now that is living! I would have never come up with the solution she found. I was so glad my sister was there because she was able to video that small moment of magnificent success and joy for Maggie. You can see Maggie make cake here.

Of course being unable to control her limbs, her hand and arm went in and out of the batter a couple of times and so we had cake mix on her, Jack and the table. Not to worry, there was enough left to bake!

A taste test!

I put the bowl on the mixer stand and turned it to stir and smiled. Watching them learn to cook was so fun. Each time I accelerated the mixer the change in sound would make Maggie jump. She is very sensitive to sound. I would pat her knee and say, “its OK Maggie.” After a few times Jack reached over patted her little knee with his littler hand and said, “It’s loud.”

Soon the cakes were in the oven, all hands were wiped and the table cleaned. Then I put on Winnie the Pooh and made the frosting myself. :  )  When the cakes were done and cooled I invited the kids back in and we got to work. Maggie, like any 4 year old wanted to lick the beater. I gave her the rubber spatula. She held it in place on her knee, bent her head down that low (ah, the flexibility of children) and got busy. For the next half hour we didn’t see her face once but we heard lots of smacks and slurps. She cleaned that spatula completely off. While I was frosting the cake and Maggie was smacking her lips on the spatula,  Jack was sucking frosting out of the decorating bag. It was a grand sight. Grandma letting her little friends experience new and enjoyable things. There was no nagging about being neat, quiet or being patient. We just did our thing however it happened to happen.

The cake was beautiful and I suspect despite the fact that it didn’t get its full measure of egg, it will taste just fine. On the way home Jack almost fell asleep. He was totally worn out with a fabulous day at grandma’s house. Maggie cried because she knew we were going home and it is so much fun at grandmas!

Let’s Make Some More

Reading about our cake baking adventure is fun but there are some important things that I want to point out that will help many of you. When you work with children, no matter the age, your intent and your expectation really do matter. This experience with my grandchildren would have been very different if I had worried about keeping my kitchen clean or making sure that everything was in order and done a certain way, or trying to keep clothing clean. It wouldn’t have been as much fun if even once I had said, “don’t be so messy”, or “don’t spill”, or “look at your clothes”. You know what I mean. We all do it. That’s because our expectation is that it will be a well run project, go smoothly, and the end product will look wonderful or taste wonderful.

As we begin to feel the tiredness that comes from working on a project where things don’t always go smoothly or right we start to feel impatient, frustrated, and possibly even angry. That is because we expected to have this perfect time with out kids and it wasn’t perfect, at least not in our eyes. But think about that; when we work with children whose eyes matter, whose interpretation of what should happen matters. I have learned that for most children it isn’t the end result that they care about, it is the process. They like doing. They like experimenting. Sometimes cookies will taste bad, be too dry, or burn. Sometimes the plaster of Paris is too runny or the paint too thick or the glue, too much. It doesn’t matter to kids.

Neighbor’s enjoying cooking at our home

I used to go to my children’s school class every December to make gingerbread houses. I had my stuff really well organized so it was a pretty smooth project. I could help 25-30 kids make a wonderful house, that is, after I gave up needing to see the project in a certain way. I am going to be really honest here. When I first started it mattered to me how the houses looked when they were done. I knew they were going home and I wanted those parents to be so amazed, to see what a great teacher I was. So when the kids were doing their thing I would go around and make sure that the entire milk carton was covered up, that candies were evenly spread on the house. In short, I meddled with everyone’s creation. As I got older and wiser I stopped doing that. I learned that kids don’t always care if milk carton is showing. Sometimes all the candy will be on one side of the roof and no where else. I learned that not everyone wants icicles that look like icicles. Some kids would rather do it themselves even if they are just bumps on the side of the house.  And you know what; I never talked to a parent yet who didn’t think their child’s house was great, no matter what it looked like. The truth is that in my early days the project was about me, not the kids.

I suspect that that is true for a lot of you if you are really honest. It is your expectations you think about. It’s your outcome that matters. It isn’t about just being with your kids and letting them learn and enjoy. Be honest. When we are honest about that we will approach projects with a different set of expectations and a very different intent.

If we can accept what is really likely to happen, then as we begin to experience the tiredness we don’t get frustrated or angry because we knew it would be some work and we might be tired. We knew there would be a mess and that something unexpected might happen. We will realize that the process of creating whatever it is, is what counts, not how the end result looks or tastes.

Made by Kate, age 6

Now I want to share two examples so that it’s really clear what kind of meddling I am talking about. I want it clear because the best intentioned of us do it when the agenda is about us not them. I had a lot of experience with teachers in the schools. One year after I wised up and let the agenda be about the kids and not me, I had a kindergarten teacher who had a plan for the houses. She had a table covered with white paper. It was going to be a beautiful snowy village. Then all the other classes were going to march through her class to see the wonderful work. She was very excited about that.

Here is what I noticed. She made sure all the milk carton was covered even if the kids didn’t want her to put frosting there. She made sure candies weren’t all clumped in one spot. One little boy took the tin foil the candies were wrapped in and made a cool lopsided ball which he glued onto his roof with frosting. She made him remove it. After all it wasn’t part of the decorations, the candies were. One little fellow put the door on his roof. So his house didn’t have a door. She made him change it. Doors are on the side of a house and not on the roof.

It was a beautiful village. It looked so colorful and all the kids from the school really thought it was great. But for a few children it wasn’t as great as it could have and should have been. And the other children heard loud and clear, don’t go out of certain boundaries. This isn’t really your project.

The Spark Station works like this. You provide fabulous materials. Then you let children create and play and experiment. You don’t worry about the outcome or if an item is being used the way you think it should be or planned for it to be used. You will put things in there with a certain outcome in mind and your kids won’t get it. They will do something totally unexpected with the materials. If it isn’t dangerous, harmful to others or damaging to furniture then let them go. Let them love learning.

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