The Story of Milk – Making Butter with Preschoolers

While exploring a food theme, I really like to teach the children about where food comes from.  Milk and dairy products are a great group to explore this way.  I start out by asking the children if they have milk at their homes.  They usually all reply in the affirmative.  Then I ask where milk comes from.  MOST kids know milk comes from a cow, though they’re a bit hazy on the details, and every now and then you’ll find a little one who hasn’t even come to the cow-milk connection yet.  Once we establish that milk comes from cows, I ask if the children have any cows at home.  Most children don’t.  So then I ask how they got the milk they have in their refrigerators?  They came from the store!  Well, does the store have any cows?  None that they’ve seen!  So how does it get there?  It’s a long journey! Then, I explain that I want to tell them the story of milk!

I like to tell the story using pictures (I’ve linked some samples for you) and telling about my grandfather who was a dairy farmer.  I tell them a little about him, then show a picture of cows grazing.  I tell them that when cows eat grass, some of that food goes to giving the cow energy and making it healthy, and part goes to making milk in the cow.  Next, I show a picture of udders (closer here).  This is a point of confusion, and not just for children.  Have you ever seen the animated movie “Barnyard”?  ALL of the cows, including male characters, have udders.  It drives me crazy!  But I digress.  Be clear that the udders are where the milk is stored in the momma cow.  You may have someone claim that the udders are used for going to the bathroom.  Simply dispel that as false, and focus on the milk! 

When my grandfather first started farming, he milked cows by hand.  I tell the children that I don’t have a cow for them to milk, but I have something similar.  I bring out a pair of latex-type gloves (be mindful of allergies here) that have been filled with watered down milk.  The fingertips have been pricked with a pin.  I give each child a chance to squeeze these imitation udders and try to squirt the milk into a jar.  (You may need several sets to get through a large group quickly.) 

Once everyone has had a turn, I point out that with all that work, we only have a little bit of milk.  Well, dairy farmers have a lot of practice and they get pretty good and pretty fast at milking.  But along the way, someone was very clever and came up with a milking machine so that dairy farmers could milk a lot of cows very quickly all at once!    Once the milk is collected, it is cooled and pumped into a special tanker truck designed specifically for transporting milk!  (Of course I show another picture  here.) 

The truck takes the milk to a factory where it is prepared.  It might be packaged into a carton of milk like the one in your fridge or it might be used to make another kind of dairy food.  I show a few samples like cheese, yogurt, and my favorite of course, ice cream!  I also show factory pictures (tons to choose from, just google “cheese factory pictures”) and talk about how the factory is kind of like a huge kitchen where they can cook and stir and mix the milk with other things to create another kind of food.  Then I tell the children that we are going to be like a small factory and make butter from a part of the milk called cream.  Here’s how:

Label clean, small baby food jars with the children’s names.  Fill them about half-way with cream.  Secure the lids and wrap them in paper towels in case of leaking.  Have the children shake them vigorously.  It takes about 10 minutes for the butter to congeal into a little ball (there will also be a separated liquid called whey).  You may want to have the children shake while they dance and then as they listen to a story.  Some may need to continue shaking throughout the day or at home.  If you’re sending these butters home, prepare a note ahead of time explaining the activity so that parents know that this mysterious ball is butter and that they may need to help complete the task.  Or you may choose to use one larger jar and take turns with the children shaking it and use the butter at snack time.

If you weren’t lucky enough to grow up with a dairy farmer as your grandpa, and you’re not so comfortable just ad-libbing your own milk story, don’t worry.  You can find the story of milk online at (click on the icon that reads: The Virtual Tour, The Story of Milk).  You could also use one of these great books:  Milk Comes From a COW?  by Dan Yunk or From Grass to Milk by Stacy Taus-Bolstad.  Intersperse whatever storytelling method you use with the milking and butter-making activities!  These combined activities are great for teaching the origins of food, which builds science knowledge, and it even promotes large and small motor skills as the children milk the faux udders and shake their jars of butter!  If you’re fortunate enough to have the resources, you might even consider taking a field trip to a dairy farm or a cheese factory!

For more food-themed activities, click here!

Top cow photo by marijnvb.

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Filed under book activity, Learning through Play and Experience, Recipes - Edible, science activity, Snack Time

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