By Sylvia Small

Margot Fumo, left, and Juliana Dinkle, seventh-graders at First Montessori School of Atlanta, check out an ingredient for a dish they are cooking.

For a growing number of students, the basic skills associated with cooking a meal provide an opportunity to acquire academic knowledge in a creative, hands-on environment, area educators say.

Whether in a classroom or on a field trip, cooking can be the first step in developing a life-long love for the culinary arts while simultaneously teaching students the basics of measurements and shapes, as well as a sense of independence and teamwork, teachers say.

Buckhead’s Sarah Smith Elementary School recently scheduled a cooking lesson as one of their field trips for eight kindergarten classes. “There was nothing like that experience whatsoever,” kindergarten teacher Dara Campbell said.

Jennifer Fox, owner of the five-year-old Sandy Springs Young Chefs’ franchise, worked with Campbell and the other teachers to develop exercises that integrate with the Georgia Performance Standards for elementary school curriculums.

The kindergarten classes measured wet and dry ingredients for recipes. Students were introduced to the concept of shapes when they manipulated dough to create three-dimensional objects while baking. The students had a fantastic time and didn’t even realize they were learning, she said. “At their age, kids need to reach out, touch and try things for themselves,” Campbell said.

The young boys got in on the action, too.

“Cooking can be a little messy, so I think they really enjoyed that aspect of it,” Campbell said.

The academy accepts participants as young as 3. The popularity of chefs is growing even among young students, apparently. Fox said she was surprised at how many youngsters are aware of television cooks, such as Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay. She credits the various shows on Food Network with whetting their appetite for cooking.

Jack Hrinko, an eighth-grader at First Montessori, prepares a dish.

In addition to being a creative outlet for kids, cooking touches on a wide range of disciplines -– from food safety to geography.

During a recent class, students “traveled around the world” preparing and sampling different types of cuisine each day. When the lesson focused on Italy, the instructors talked about the various herbs, cheeses, pastas and sauces the country is known for. During the process of preparing and eating the various meals, students learned about a country’s “food footprint” and the types of food that are indigenous to a country.

Cooking is an important aspect of what First Montessori School of Atlanta calls “practical life.” The school, located on Long Island Drive, is the Southeast’s oldest Montessori School. Cooking helps kids develop leadership skills and fosters a teamwork approach, said Head of School Jerri King. It also can lead to an “I-can-do-it” attitude, she said.

“Cooking helps establish the power they have to contribute within their home, the classroom, and ultimately the greater community,” she said. “Even a young child can gain a sense of confidence and self-esteem when they cook.”

Preparing and sharing food is an integral part of the school’s classroom experience at all ages. Students cook biscuits, bake birthday cakes and often set up snacks for their class.

Primary students transform heavy cream into butter by shaking it in baby food jars to the rhythm of classical music. Middle school students develop their own recipes that they cook at the Land School, the school’s 86-acre campus in northwest Georgia.

Margot Fumo practices her soup-making skills. Cooking is an important part of the curriculum at her school, First Montessori of Atlanta.

At First Montessori School of Atlanta, cooking is also part of its community service. Everyone comes together at Thanksgiving to harvest and cook some of the crops grown at the school for a local homeless shelter.

How do you measure educational progress?

“I use the analogy of adults working hard at their tennis or golf game. It doesn’t feel like work to them. Over time, their skills develop. Sometimes there are ‘ah-ha’ moments when students recognize they’re learning,” King said.

“They may tell you a story about what they learned about a particular spice or how they modified a recipe to accommodate classmates with food allergies. When that happens, you know the child gets it.”