Practical play - how to get your kids playing and helping in the kitchen!

Want to involve your kids in the kitchen, but find yourself shooing them out instead? Today, we’re sharing techniques and ideas that'll foster independence and get your kids helping you out when it’s time to cook.

There are major benefits to having your kids in the kitchen with you, even when they’re very young: the smells and sounds of cooking are fascinating for them, and helping with food prep develops kids’ confidence and independence. And there’s growing evidence that there are significant mental and emotional benefits for the whole family when you spend meal time together. But kitchens can be stressful places to manage younger children—burners are hot, knives are sharp, counters are too tall to see over, drawers pinch little fingers...it’s a long list to keep top of mind, especially when you’re trying to get dinner on the table. So, how do you make a kitchen more kid-friendly, in a way that encourages them to be a part of the action without being underfoot?

Make them a work space! Work spaces or “stations” for kids in a kitchen aren’t that new an idea - in fact, Montessori schools have featured kitchen work spaces for students in one way or another for the last century. Work spaces are based on the idea of bringing the kitchen down to your child’s size—so, putting the things that they’re welcome to access, like a basket of small kitchen tools, or clean-up supplies - where they can reach them without coming to you for help. A work space doesn’t have to be a big commitment - it might be as simple as dedicating a basket on a low shelf to a few items kids can use to set the table; or a water station, with a water jug and cups your kid can handle by themselves...or it could be something as incredible as this round-up of different Montessori-inspired approaches to kid-friendly workspaces in kitchens

Though the stations in that link are adorable, you don’t have to break the bank to make this idea work for your family. Just keep these principles in mind to make it easy for your kids to find their place in the kitchen: 

  • Store dedicated items—like their cups, spoons or even snacks—at your child’s level.
  • Then, give kids a template for simple kitchen tasks, so they can see what you want them to do with their things—that might mean setting one place at the table, and then asking your kiddo to see if they can reproduce it, or showing them how to wash and rinse plastic items, and clean up any spills with a towel.

Those simple tasks you give your kid can really add up—look at this amazing description of how the kids in one family using these methods help out at mealtime. “Before each meal, I select a kiddo to come help me in the kitchen.  A place setting template/control is provided if they need it, when setting the table.  Food is placed on the counter above their shelves, with necessary tools used for serving. The kiddo who sets the table serves the food. This has provided great practice scooping, using tongs, spooning, and transferring food.  Drinks are poured into cups as well.  At times there are other tasks the kiddos can help with such as chopping fruits and vegetables for salads, etc.”

For tweens and teens:
While work spaces work best for the pre-school and early elementary age kids, older kids will benefit from having spaces in the kitchen where they can easily access the things they need to make meals like breakfast or school lunches independently... and with as little stress as possible. Try setting up a basket in the fridge and one in the pantry containing the grab-n-go supplies they need for lunches (more about this hack here), and make sure their containers and tools are stored where they can easily get to them.

For toddlers:
If your toddler’s ready to join in the kitchen fun, but needs lots of supervision, a modified work/play space is a great place to occupy them while you cook. Playing can help them practice kitchen skills and hold their interest for a surprisingly long time! Try giving them a basket on their shelf that has tongs, two empty bowls, and pom poms to transfer back and forth, or a colander with pipe cleaners to poke in the holes. Some plastic spice jars with different items like cinnamon sticks to smell are also sure to be a hit—there’s a fun example of how to set up your own with lemon, basil and lavender.

For babies:
Babies love to sort and dump, and making them a treasure basket to explore while you cook is a great way to keep them playing safely nearby. To make one, you just need a basket filled with simple and safe objects—check out this idea for a kitchen-themed one to get you started, and here are some great examples that group kitchen objects by material and colour.

Looking to make a smaller change to your kitchen space? Try these hacks for bringing kitchen fun to a kid’s level:

Does your kiddo have a work space in your kitchen, or have you tried some of these ideas at home? We’d love to see your solutions: share your ideas and photos with us on our Facebook and Instagram feeds! And once you’re ready to get cooking, visit our archives: we’ve got lots of recipes and kitchen activity ideas there for you.

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