One of the best ways to teach your child about letters is to provide a wide variety of opportunities and materials for her to interact with. Children learn best not in isolated abstract experiences with workbooks and flashcards, but with natural activities that arise from their daily life and interests. As you well know, eating is an important and interesting daily activity — so why not use food and cooking as an interactive and organic way for your child to learn about letters?
The following activities are meant to provide your child with edible experiences with making and matching letters, even writing. Have the alphabet letters nearby for your child to use as a reference. Write them BIG on a piece of paper, make a chart, or use ABC magnets on the refrigerator. These will provide your child with visual examples of all the letters when she wants to remember how to make an "M" to put on a cookie for Mom.
Shape letter sculptures: One of the best ways to practice making letters is to sculpt them. Use this simple recipe to create a dough that is easy to shape into letters. When it is refrigerated, it will set into delicious peanut butter kisses. With clean hands, have your child mix and knead together 1 cup smooth peanut butter, 1 cup dry (powdered) milk and ½ cup honey. Once the dough is smooth and pliable your child can sculpt letters and words. Try decorating with chocolate chips, and sprinkles and serving at an ABC tea party!
Cook dough letters: Another great dough to use for letter sculpting is breadstick or soft pretzel dough. Find uncooked dough in the freezer department at your grocery store. Defrost and follow directions for shaping and baking — except make letters instead of sticks and twists.
Sort spices: Using the alphabet printed on a strip of paper, have your child organize your spices in alphabetical order. Ask her to create a spice alphabet train. Then transfer the "train" to your spice shelf. Next time you need something, your child can find it for you just by finding the matching letter. Notice the spices you haven't used lately and find a recipe to use it in. What can we do with cloves? Plug the ingredient into a recipe search engine for a new idea and cook it together!
Make letter-shaped sandwiches: Invite your child to make the letters with a sandwich. Spread two slices of bread with cream cheese and jelly. Then carefully use a cookie cutter to cut out the letter shapes. Your child can make his (or your!) initials with the letter sandwiches. Or if he is really hungry, he can make his entire name!
Use ABC cookie cutters: Your child can also use the ABC cookie cutters to cut letters, initials and words out of gelatin blocks! Make an "Initial Salad." Ask your child to help you make gelatin blocks (recipe on box). When set have her cut the first letter for each family member's name and place on a leaf of lettuce. Make place cards for everyone. At dinnertime have her match the gelatin letter salad to each name as she sets the table. Ask her for more ideas: "What else can we cut with alphabet cookie cutters? How about cheese slices?"
Practice with pudding: Children need to practice writing letters with big fluid lines. Put a dollop of pudding on a large plate or tray and invite your child to use clean fingers to practice making her letters. Clean-up is delicious!
Make egg-yolk paint: Mix 1 egg yolk with ¼ teaspoon water and lots of food coloring. Use a paintbrush to paint letters and words on freshly baked cookies. Return cookies to oven until egg has solidified. This also works well on toast.
Form letters with food: Try using veggie sticks, potato sticks and/or pretzel pieces to make letters. Your child can use the pieces as is or bite them into shape. The traditional curve shaped pretzels (like a knot) are perfect because their lines and curves are similar to lower case letters. Prompt your child: "How can you bite off part of the pretzel to make a 'b'?" Remember to have your alphabet chart around for reference.
Create a word pizza. Gather up your favorite ingredients — shredded cheese, pepperoni, zucchini (sliced), red and/or green pepper (cut in sticks), etc. Using your favorite sauce, top a prepared pizza crust with the cheese and invite your child to create letters using the vegetables and meat. Bake according to label directions. What to spell? Your child's name or the word pizza!
Serve alphabet noodle soup: Follow package instructions to make delicious vegetable soup with alphabet noodles. While preparing, have your child go on a letter treasure hunt, looking through the dry noodles for the letters in her name. You might want to add a magnifying glass to the fun because the uncooked letters are very small. At the table, invite everyone in the family to go on a letter hunt in his own bowl. What letters can they find?
Play "B" is for biscuit: Focus your child on the sight and sound of a particular letter by providing a simple and fun cooking project. For "B" make homemade butter and biscuits. To make homemade butter . . . fill an unbreakable container with heavy cream. Cover tightly and shake, shake, shake until the cream turns to butter! To make quick biscuits, mix together 2-cups of self-rising flour and 2 Tablespoons sugar. Add 1-cup milk and 1/3 cup mayonnaise. Drop mixture by spoonfuls into a muffin tin lined with paper baking cups. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Write your name with alphabet cereal: Make frosted cupcakes or spread graham crackers with frosting, then use alphabet cereal to label them with names. Use these as edible place cards at a birthday party or family gathering.
Sort animal crackers: Using a printed alphabet or cards, ask your child to sort animal crackers by their beginning letter sound. Say the name of the animal together ("bear") and then find the letter! Ask: "Which letter did you find the most for?"
Write on your food: An ingenious invention, FooDoodlers are markers filled with edible ink. What child wouldn't want to write before she eats? (Available at Sugarcraft.)
Make up a silly fruit story: Language and storytelling are an important part of learning to read. What would happen if fruits were characters in a story? Place some fresh fruits in a basket or market bag to create a pass-around story for dessert. Start by taking a piece of fruit and saying, "Once upon a time there was a happy little apple who was walking through the forest looking for his friends. As he turned a corner he saw his friend…" At this point pass the fruit basket to the next person at the table so he can continue the story using the fruit he chooses. Continue the story back to the first narrator and create a "happily ever after ending."
Go shopping: Next time you are making your shopping list from a grocery story circular invite your child to make his own list. He can cut out the foods he wants and paste them on a sheet of paper. Invite him to write the first letter of each food he wants to help you buy. Take the grocery-shopping list to the supermarket, encouraging your child to try to find the food items on his list. As he sees the relationship between the written list and the real objects, your child is making an important letter/sound connection and also experiencing the usefulness of reading.
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