Bread-baking seems to be one of the familiar and reliable activities you will find in waldorf/steiner kindergartens and playgroups. With rhythmic kneading of dough to a soothing melody sung by adults and children, this time is looked forward to and enjoyed by all.
I had second thoughts about including bread-making time in my playgroup. First of all we were initially meeting in parks so baking was impossible. Secondly, once we did find a venue with a kitchen, there are many more people around now who have wheat or gluten intolerance. As for myself, I eat grain-free, and even though I and a few others in the group do not eat the bread I decided to include bread-making. Not to test our will-power, but to strengthen it! Like a lot of the activities we do with children, it is about the PROCESS. Everyone can participate and there are enough bread-eaters in the group to take care of the rolls that are left over.
Making bread from scratch helps children understand that food is not magic. It doesn’t just appear or grow in the shops. There are not many items around now where children are able to see or participate in the full manufacturing process. We buy our bread in bags, drink our milk from cartons, slice our cheese from yellow plastic-wrapped blocks. Bread comes in an expected shape, size and colour. Children, being creatures of habit, may become suspicious when their food looks different to their expectations … unless they are often offered a wide variety of foods or have participated in the process of making it. Having children help you make basic food items from scratch will not only increase their interest in eating it, but also help them to gain some great skills in the kitchen and be on the way to learning some healthy habits surrounding food. I’ll never forget watching Jaimie Oliver’s demonstration of how commercial chicken nuggets were made. Ironically though, even though the children he was doing this exercise with were fully grossed out – they still chose to eat the commercial nuggets because they had no connection to food as a source of nourishment.
Ideally we would mix the dough up together in our playgroup, let it rest and watch it rise (my favourite part), then pat it down and knead it and roll it before making it into buns and baking it. We have a short session each week: 2 hours in which we fit quite a lot of interesting things in, so I bring the dough in already made and risen, and the children and parents help to knead it, roll it and shape it.
The other ideal would be for children to be able to feel what it is like to knead the whole or at least half of the full dough mixture. Our group has lots of really little children so we roll out little balls of dough for them, but there is quite a lot of strength involved to squash it down and smooth it out, fold it over and start again. Imagine all the muscles in your child’s arms, chest and fingers that are being exercised. There is the benefit also of learning how to start a task and bring it to completion – and here I am talking about developing a child’s inner strength. Inner strength (known as the “Will” in waldorf/steiner circles) is the ability to persevere. Developing a child’s inner strength also develops their resilience, their sense of helpfulness and empathy, and it helps them to develop good habits such as goal setting and positive thinking.
Can a child learn all this just from kneading a ball of bread dough? No, of course not, but it is the process and the practice that count. Finding as many ways as possible to bring wholesome, healthy and helpful tasks to your children to help them develop their outer and inner strength is thoroughly recommended. It means children participate with their head, heart and hands in the household tasks:
- (HEAD) Children learn about the origin of food and household items, how to make them, repair them, clean them, maybe how these items work;
- (HEART) Children help to nourish and care for the family and their home;
- (HANDS) Children learn how to bring a task to completion without complaining, and to know their own limits so they can genuinely learn what it feels like when they are tired. They use their bodies for work and play in an active, engaged and purposeful way.
It changes the experience of eating bread, doesn’t it?
Beyond the bread – It also means that adults need to be doing these sorts of tasks too, so that children can learn from imitating how it is done. Very young children are excellent at imitating worthy tasks and will happily help you do anything, within their own capacity, around the house. My one year old knows how to sweep with a dust-pan and broom, and will go and get a cloth by herself to wipe up her spills. She knows instinctively that a rolled-up length of bubblewrap must be rolled back and forth! She has learned this from watching me make felt so often at home. My four-year old still enjoys mopping and cleaning with me. My seven-year old prefers to do tougher jobs in the garden – but only if I or his Dad are with him to keep him company, to help him with the tricky bits and to teach him side-by-side as we work together. I’m not saying that all chores and cooking are met with cries of delight. They ARE children and we do still have the daily groans about making beds and brushing teeth, but having adults working purposefully and positively around them certainly helps.
Back to the bread though – there are many reasons to include it in a playgroup or a kindy session. When I first began working in a steiner school I made bread only because the kindy had always made bread. I think it is really important to know the reasons why things are done otherwise you are not bringing a sense of purpose and clarity to the task. You are also not being honest to the children you are working with – unless you are doing the task for the pure joy of doing it. That is a valid reason too 🙂 I do it so that parents can participate in the joy of completing a great task with their child – from start to finish – and enjoy the end product together too. When parents bring purposefulness and joy to the tasks they do with their children then children participate with purposefulness and joy. That’s why we make bread – and also because it is a gorgeous way to end our group by sitting in the dappled sunshine together on some picnic rugs, munching on our freshly made bread rolls.