A Child-Led Project: The Celery Lettuce Cake

Note: This column was printed in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.

I am all for giving children as much freedom as possible.  They need time to play, create and build.  This make-believe and the trial and error of creating teaches them more lessons than they could ever learn from the well-meaning words of adults. This is at the heart of project-based homeschooling.

But in real life, it’s awfully hard to let my five-year-old pursue every project he thinks up.  Sometimes I’m rushing around the house trying to get us ready to go out when he says something like, “Mommy, I think we could make a giant eel out of paper.”  Please, I think, don’t talk to me now, but I don’t say it.  He’ll go on and on about his idea while I’m only half listening.

Other times his ideas are just impossible.  “Mommy, maybe sometime we can go to Greenland.”  Uh huh.  (Though requests like that are good ways to start explaining concepts like money, time and distance.)

For these reasons, I was happy the other day that we had the opportunity to let him run with one of his crazy ideas.  I was cleaning up the lunch dishes, and I had planned to take the boys outside after that.  It was a beautiful day, but my son had another idea.

“Mommy, I have an idea for a recipe.  It would need celery and lettuce, and I would mash them together with that masher you use for making mashed potatoes.  Then I would need that thing you use to mix stuff…”

I’ll interject here to explain that celery and lettuce are the only two vegetables my five-year-old will eat.  He likes celery dipped in Catalina dressing, and he’ll eat a little bit of plain lettuce that he grew himself in the garden.  And after more discussion, I figured out that the second utensil he was referring to was a whisk.

Now he continues, “…and then after it’s all mashed, we’ll make a cake out of it, and then we can put it in the oven and cook it for ten minutes!”

Oh yes…you can imagine how much he was whetting my appetite!  But I stifled my laugh.  Just as I was going to come up with a gentle explanation as to why that wouldn’t taste good, I thought to myself, “What would it hurt to let him find out for himself?”

All the stars seemed to be aligned for this special project.  We weren’t going anywhere, and I had the two ingredients.  The celery we had needed to be used up anyway.  In addition to this, the two-year-old was in a rare, independent mood and went upstairs to play by himself for a while.

I laid out a cutting board, a big bowl, the masher and whisk.  Then I cleaned a few sticks of celery and leaves of lettuce.  I also gave my son a little knife to cut the celery with.  My five-year-old is a cautious fellow, so if he knows something can hurt him, he’s very careful with it.

He stood on our step stool and went to work on his own recipe.  He was very serious about it.  I heard him counting the small pieces of celery he chopped and added to the bowl.  At first he said he’d use nine pieces, but as he continued to work, he decided he needed more celery, and I cleaned a couple more stalks.  He ripped up the lettuce into small pieces too.

He discovered that it’s very hard to mash celery.  At this point I suggested that he chop the pieces smaller.  He tried that, but I think it was too much work.  He went back to the masher.

To my surprise, celery can be mashed if you keep at it a very long time. My son worked diligently for almost an hour.  It gave me time to fold the laundry.

Finally the concoction was ready, but he said it needed water.  We decided half a cup would do, and then I gave him a small casserole dish.  He poured it in there, patted it down, and then I baked it at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

After it cooled down, we had the big taste test.  My son took a bite, and though his expression was subtle, I wish I had videotaped it.  After some contemplation, he admitted it wasn’t so good.  But I knew it was a good day, and I’ll always remember the look of joy and determination on my son’s face while he was making his “celery and lettuce cake.”

Kelly O. Sullivan (@KellyOSullivan), a friend of mine on Twitter said, “That attitude of ‘try again but tweak’ is at the heart of science and experimentation.”  So it is, but when my son said, “Maybe it will taste better if we put something else on top of it,” I finally snickered.  Sometimes you gotta teach them when to cut loose.

7 thoughts on “A Child-Led Project: The Celery Lettuce Cake

  1. My 6-year old has decided to make a “laser-muffin cake.” Thanks to this, I’ll let him run with it…if I can figure out what the ingredients are! 🙂


    1. Oh my gosh! How cute! Please send me pictures, if don’t mind! Maybe he’ll figure out what the ingredients are. You’ll just want to advise him of what can go into the oven and what can’t. 😉


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