DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — In the midst of the chaos of play, 20 preschool-aged students learned a little about how a restaurant works.

The children in the Preschool Cafe class, offered by Dubuque Leisure Services, buzzed around the Allison-Henderson Park program center, pulling plastic toy food from a bin, writing orders on pads of paper and working a play cash register.

Later, they wrote on menus, practiced setting tables and then had the chance to assemble real egg biscuits and cupcakes to eat.

"My mom told me all about this class, and I was so excited," said Alexis Alseme, 5.

The Telegraph Herald reports that the recent preschool class is one of a bevy of summer courses and activities offered throughout Dubuque that aim to familiarize children with culinary basics.

Organizers of the activities said teaching children kitchen essentials helps them learn lifelong skills that grant them independence and inform them about nutrition.

"We're teaching them so they can be self-sufficient, but also help out with their parents and teaching them something they can do together as a family," said Danielle Day, county program director for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach of Dubuque County.

During another class last week, six older students dove a little deeper into the world of cooking.

During a Jr. Chefs class, open to 11- to 13-year-olds, participants gathered around tables and assembled ingredients to make a savory pancake with onions, peppers, cheese and bacon.

Charlotte Kelley, 11, hovered over a measuring cup, ensuring it was filled with flour.

"I just like cooking because it makes people happy," she said.

Susan Stoppelmoor, program instructor for Dubuque Leisure Services, teaches the Jr. Chefs classes and Preschool Cafe, along with other courses. Her culinary classes offer children a chance to have fun while socializing and learning to follow directions.

In classes for younger children, she focuses on skills like working together, kitchen safety, pouring and mixing, and colors and shapes. Older children have the chance to hone their culinary chops through more in-depth kitchen work.

"Healthy eating, eating habits and learning how to properly take care of your body ... is kind of what's in right now, teaching our young people what maybe was a lost art for a while," Stoppelmoor said.

Learning to cook builds confidence in children, she said. She tries to teach them to work with food they might find at home.

"It's a basic life skill we all need to learn," Stoppelmoor said.

Indeed, culinary classes and activities seem to be popular because they are hands-on and interactive and give children a chance to see an end product, said Tony Elskamp, recreation supervisor for the City of Dubuque.

It also helps that pretty much everyone likes to eat, he said.

"When you get to see an end product and get to enjoy it at the end, it's something that they really enjoy," he said.

It's not uncommon for children to spend their summers at home taking care of themselves, so they need to be able to make their own nutritious meals, Elskamp said.

"It's a lifelong skill, so if we can introduce it to them now, and they enjoy cooking now, it's something that they're going to carry through their lives," he said. "And hopefully, we can get them away from some of the fast-food items."

Day said instilling a passion for cooking is particularly important among young people so it becomes something they want to do as they get older.

Extension programs also include a focus on teaching children where their food comes from and how they can incorporate nutrition into their daily lives, she said.

"It's always easier to learn when you're younger and have it stick with you throughout your lifetime," Day said. "So we want to make sure that we're teaching positive skills."

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com