PICK ANY Saturday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and you're sure to find dozens of children swarming around the main hall, feverishly looking around every corner for dinosaurs and diamonds.

The atmosphere is more subdued, however, in a classroom downstairs, where a handful of children and their parents are busy piping whipped cream into pastry swans and layering thin slices of bread with cream cheese and cucumbers.

The class is learning how to make an "American Tea," part of the "Smithsonian Feast: Adult-Child Cooking Class" series sponsored by the Resident Associate Program's Young Associates & Family Activities program. In four classes, the young students have learned to make such treats as Chinese steamed dumplings, Ethiopian bread and tea sandwiches.

They've concocted these dishes in an environment that can best be described as makeshift -- probably part of the appeal for the young cooks. Brown paper is taped to the tables as if in preparation for a crab feast, and a small hot plate, along with a bowl or two, rests on the table at the head of the classroom, next to shopping bags spilling paper plates and salt containers.

Although parents may feel pangs of either dismay or bewilderment upon entering a classroom devoid of sink, refrigerator or stove, teacher Catherine Evans sees those disadvantages as an opportunity to instruct. Using a hot plate, bamboo steamers and a wok, she discusses sources of heat: how a tiny source of energy can heat dozens of dumplings, how the Chinese use woks or how Ethiopian bread is cooked on hot stones.

The parents have different reasons for bringing their children to the class. Speaking of her 5-year-old son Matthew, Katherine Hoehn said, "He's got a little brother at home, so it's a good way to spend time together alone. And now he helps me in the kitchen."

Muffarah Jahangeer said that before she and her 6-year-old daughter Karen took classes together, her child never helped her in the kitchen. "Except to make pizza, of course, because it's messy and she can get her hands in it," said Jahangeer. "Now she makes sandwiches, and I say to {Evans}, 'I don't know how you do it.' "

Evans, a professional cooking teacher who also teaches children and adults at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, isn't surprised. "I find {children} are very receptive to new ideas," she says. "If they put it together themselves, they eat it."

Evans says teaching kids helps her get back to basics. "The kids ask every question, they're not afraid of anything. I'll bring whole fish in and pretend to swim them through the classrooms so they can see how they move.

"I think of myself as the auntie down the street," she says. "I don't worry about the mess and I don't worry about failures. I remember cooking when I was their age, and I loved it. If I can spread that around, that's great."

Suzanne Sutton, who teaches classes for children and adults from her home in Rockville, got her start by being the "auntie down the street."

"It was mostly neighborhood kids who would drop by," says Sutton. "Some kids would come home from school and say 'hi' to mom and come over to me."

She took other children berry-picking and once threw a birthday party for her daughter where goats and chickens were running around. Sutton taught the children to milk the goats and take eggs from the chickens; the party then proceeded into the kitchen to make bread. "It was definitely hands-on," says Sutton.

Now when she gives small classes (eight to 10 students), the emphasis is on teaching the children how to make things that are nutritious -- without letting them know it's good for them.

"I don't tell them it's healthy," she says. "It's all in how you market it."

Evans is aware that while most children have a long list of food dislikes, learning about food, rather than having it thrust upon them, is a good way to get around those instinctive childhood phobias.

"It's a skill that just builds forever. Even if the child never again makes what he learns, every time he eats it he will know where it came from," she says.

This summer, Evans will teach a class at L'Academie de Cuisine for older children that covers such basics as sanitation, nutrition and hygiene. "We throw in table manners, too," she says, "basic things like how to handle a knife.

"It's sort of organized chaos sometimes, but I give them things to do that they can handle. Kids are bored with lectures. When I get a good class going, they know what to do and my job is to just guide them and I let them run with it. I want them to feel confident, and I think this builds confidence."

Both Sutton and Evans give children recipes to take home, the theory being that the recipes should be easy enough to master, and easy enough to become routine.

"One of my favorite memories is of the time we were . . . dipping vegetables into a cheese sauce," remembers Evans. "One kid came up to me later and said to me, 'Hey, don't tell my mom I'm eating broccoli.' "