I think we trick our kids. We lure them with sweet flavors, bright colors, and creamy, soft textures to make them learn the hard skills life requires. At least, that was my impression after seeing the fun, elaborately-creative cake decorations on display at the Dane County Fair in Madison, WI. cake-decorating-1Children in 4-H clubs throughout the county competed for prize ribbons in cake decorating by artistically coating pieces of Styrofoam with colored frosting. The designs they painted on their simulated cakes, cookies, and cupcakes celebrate our life-changing moments and major holidays, -birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, harvest time, Christmas, and even April Fool’s Day -that day we play tricks on each other and laugh.cake-decorating-2

Recalling my own efforts to make King Lingonberry and a spiced nose cake made me appreciate the skills these children exercised in creating their masterpieces. First, the children had to choose the occasion they wished to celebrate and then look inward to tap their unique creativity. They needed to imagine, in fine detail, each colorful image they wished to paint. Then they had to plan exactly how to re-produce that image in frosting. Construction of the imagined final product had to be translated backward into a step-by-step series of actions. The tools needed to be gathered, – the workplace organized.

Then, for most, the hard work began. Any ease in seeing something gave way to the challenge of making it. Eyes, brain, muscles, hands, -the whole body had to coordinate its movements to precisely layer the frosting. Mistakes inevitably happened. Frustrated emotions were curbed and problem-solving practiced. How could the mistake be fixed? If it couldn’t, then how could the design be changed to turn the blemish into an asset? Distractions occurred and had to be ignored, -attention continually redirected to the task, hour after hour. Each child gave a day of his or her life to creating the Styrofoam cakes on display at the fair.

Elsewhere in the Exhibition Center and outside in the fairground barns, children were practicing other life skills. They were grooming and showing the animals they had spent months raising. Some children showed their pet cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Others showed commercial livestock, -their beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, lamas, goats, and poultry. The children were tested not only on the physical condition of their animals, but on their own skills in showmanship.

I watched the nervous intensity that the children focused on their animals,-readying them in the stalls, and showing them in the ring. This was serious business. Months of daily labor would be judged over the course of a few minutes.

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