Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Making math meaningful for your child
In an earlier article I talked about the importance of meaningful learning opportunities for autistic children. Meaningful learning opportunities help to motivate children whist providing opportunities to generalize skills they may have previously learnt so that these skills stop being abstract and have a practical purpose. To recap, a learning activity is meaningful if it has a purpose, produces a finished product or if we are interested and enjoying what we are doing. If there was a competition for the most meaningful learning opportunity out there for me, the winner would have to be cooking!
Cooking really ticks all the boxes in the meaningful checklist, its purposeful, there is a finished product, and it is rare to find a child that does not enjoy it. Some autistic children may find the sensory aspects of cooking difficult, there are plenty of smells, tastes and tactile experiences that can be challenging but when you start cooking up their favorite foods (cupcakes seem to appeal to most children!) you may be surprised by the lengths your child will go to overcome their sensory barriers and what a wonderful thing that is to witness! I have found that many autistic children enjoy cooking even if they are not interested in eating the finished product, these may be our future chefs and restaurant owners. The ones who eat all the ingredients, so you have nothing left to put in the oven? Well maybe they are not destined for the world of catering but if they are enjoying themselves and learning than it still sounds like a success to me!
Cooking can be used as a medium for teaching pretty much any curriculum area you can think of such as literacy (following recipes, identifying ingredients etc) or geography/R.E. (trying foods from different countries or religions) to name a few but to avoid me rambling on for too long, in this article I will be focusing on mathematics skills. Making math meaningful is an important thing to do as whilst many autistic children can learn to count and sequence numbers it can be easy to miss the point that there is a purpose in doing so. Below I will give some examples of my favorite recipes for teaching math and please do share your own in the comments section at the end of this article!
Vegetable kebabs are simple to make and provide a whole host of opportunities for teaching math. You could focus on number (for example you might need 3 tomatoes and 4 pieces of onion) and sizes (cutting big pieces of pepper or using the small tomatoes) but the reason it is one of my favorite recipes for teaching math is that it allows us to meaningfully learn about patterns. When putting the kebabs together you can provide all kinds of patterns for your child to follow, these might be simple involving only two vegetables (pepper, onion, pepper, onion) or more complicated (pepper, pepper, onion, zucchini/courgette). You could also choose to show them the pattern for them to copy or start the pattern for them to continue. If your child is not keen on vegetables, try making fruit kebabs instead. One safety issue that can come up when making kebabs is the sharpness of the skewer so make sure your child is supervised while making kebabs and you can always cut the sharp end off the skewer if you have a good pair of scissors.
Potato Gratin/ bread pudding
You may wonder what potato gratin and bread pudding have in common but from a math perspective they both offer the same problem-solving opportunities, to learn about enough/not enough or more/less. When making something with layers you need to decide if you have enough bread/potato to complete each layer. Now you may decide to be sneaky here and make sure that there is not enough for your layer to give you the opportunity to ask ‘Is that enough? Or if your cooking skills are anything like mine this might just happen naturally! You can also teach about numbers (getting 3 potatoes or 4 slices of bread) and when making potato gratin you can even teach the concept of heavy/light by comparing the weight of a potato to a pepper.
Muffins (or any cakes really) are a great way to teach the concept of big and small. I usually use bananas or apples in my muffins, and you can start by cutting the apples into small or big pieces. Then if you measure your ingredients in cups and spoons you can provide further opportunities to use the terms big and small, for example adding a big cup of flour or a small spoon of cinnamon. If you prefer you can prepare the ingredients in advance and ask your child to get the plate with more flour or the bowl with less apple. Making muffins also provides opportunities to teach one to one correspondence which is an early math skill through which we learn to count each object in a set only once. When preparing your muffins for cooking you can practice this by putting one cup case in each segment of the muffin tray or putting one cup of mixture into each cup case. If you decide to decorate your cakes you could continue to practice this skill, for example by putting one cherry on each cake, the possibilities are endless!
Not only is fruit salad a healthy snack but it also provides us with opportunities to learn about numbers and fractions. For those children who are not ready to learn about fractions yet, you can focus on counting out the ingredients for example 2 bananas or 5 strawberries but once you are ready you can introduce the concept of fractions. You can do this by providing ingredient lists that require fractions of items such as half a banana or a quarter of an apple and have your child find the correct amount of fruit, or you could give recipe steps that involve fractions such as cutting the strawberries in half or the bananas into quarters. As with the other recipes allow yourself to be creative. For more inspiration try doing an image search for ‘fun snacks for kids’ and you will come up with plenty of creative ideas to teach the concepts described in this article.
One thing to consider is that autistic children have a great skill for rote learning or memorizing a particular way for completing an activity. This means that if you follow the same recipe by the letter each time you cook your child might just learn to memorize the recipe rather than learning the concept you are trying to teach so do try to mix it up a bit. This does not have to be too much work, for example when making fruit salad maybe the first time you use half an apple and the next time you use half a banana. You can change up the recipe you use to make your muffins and choose a different pattern to make your vegetable kebabs. Just remember keep cooking, be creative and have fun!