Cookie Season: a Sweet Time for Little Bakers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Life is sweet for Alex Vice. This time of year - every year - she, her mother, and her ''Grammie'' get together to bake Christmas cookies. ''I like tasting the dough, eating the scraps,'' says the six-year-old from Kingsport, Tenn.

''We make reindeer, Santa Clauses, snowmen, and the cookies you press out: They're called spritzes,'' she says. ''We decorate them with frosting and sprinkles.''

Nowadays, Alex's younger brother, Shea, gets in on the action. But ''sometimes he doesn't push [the cookie cutter] down all the way,'' Alex says.

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Alex and Shea are two of countless children who will be up to their elbows in flour in the coming weeks.

As families unearth their heirloom cookie recipes and dust off their rolling pins, they are reminded that cookie time in the kitchen is part holiday tradition and part family fun.

''It's nice that you can keep the tradition going from generation to generation,'' explains Juli Vice, Alex and Shea's mother.

But along with tradition come many educational perks. For one, baking cookies is often a child's first introduction to the kitchen. ''Children love things they can do with their hands, such as shaping cookies,'' says Maida Heatter, author of numerous baking books, including the latest ''Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies'' (Random House, 244 pp., $25). They experience accomplishment and reward for their creative efforts: ''Look, Mommy, I made a house,'' she mimics sweetly.

In addition to learning about measures, chemistry, kitchen safety, and reading and following directions, children practice patience and the art of giving. ''The whole idea of cooking at home means sharing,'' says Marion Cunningham, who has just come out with ''Cooking With Children:15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook'' (Knopf, 171 pp., $18).

''There's a natural curiosity that cooking brings out,'' Ms. Cunningham continues. ''Making cookies for the holidays is celebratory, festive, and memorable. There's something endearing about all this.''

Some adults may consider kids in the kitchen a recipe for disaster, however. Here is where parents learn patience, say the experts, who point out that the rewards usually outweigh the mess.

''You have to look at it as a fun activity to do with kids; you can't expect to get all your holiday baking done,'' says Beatrice Ojakangas, author of ''Beatrice Ojakangas' Great Holiday Book'' (Clarkson Potter, 357 pp.,$25).

Ms. Ojakangas says that when she makes cookies with her two grandchildren, aged 3 and 4, they are in it strictly for the dough. ''Kids are always interested in baking,'' she notes, ''it doesn't have to be a holiday.''

If you are baking cookies for gifts, include children in packaging them, too. They'll enjoy placing them in colorful tins, with ribbons, and jotting a special note. Some people you may want to give to include: teachers, postal carriers, janitors, bus drivers, the babysitter or day-care provider, or neighbors who live alone, Ojakangas suggests.

Beyond tradition, education, and enjoyment, many parents find that cooking together in the kitchen often sparks valuable parent-child chit-chat.

''You can learn so much from each other doing something that takes time,'' Ms. Vice notes. ''I wouldn't miss it for the world.''

Marion Cunningham offers these tips for baking cookies with children:

* Be patient, especially with young children. Let them experiment with shapes and decorations. Challenge older kids with reading the recipe and following directions.

* Safety first. Supervise. Teach children how to use the oven and stove. Make sure they are working at the right height. Don't let electrical equipment do too much of the work. Children should learn by touching and smelling the dough. Use pot holders; oven mitts are usually too big for children's hands.

* Introduce children to ''the friendly sudsy bowl.'' Everything goes in it to soak, making cleanup a lot easier at the end.

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