Play kitchen or playing in the kitchen?

Play kitchens are fairly common toys for kids; they can range from cheap ones you can get free off of Craigslist (or abandoned at tot lots), to gorgeous heirloom ones. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the different options in this arena:

No play kitchen

In the Montessori educational philosophy, preschoolers do not have play kitchens. Instead, they learn to prepare very simple foods in the kitchen of their own home or at school. Other than buying a few child sized kitchen tools, and a small apron for cuteness and clothing protection, this is the least investment in “stuff.”  This is most appropriate for families living on boats or in very tight spaces, or blackbelt minimalist families. No pots and pans, artisanal knitted or hand-crafted wooden foods. The best part about this approach is that children feel useful and are more likely to eat food that they’ve taken part in making. The downside is that it takes much longer to make dinner. So where to put your kid in the kitchen?

  • On counters: it goes without saying that tight supervision and childproofing are paramount with this option. See this post from one of my favorite blogs on making do.
  • On a stepstool. We have a simple one from IKEA.
  • In a special structure such as the Learning Tower or the “Kitchen Helper”. We have neither of these. This is more expensive and may not be practical for families extremely tight on space.
  • At a child-sized table. The above picture is V “helping” us make scallion pancakes.  The table and chairs were made by cutting the legs off a set from IKEA. The Michael Olaf catalogue has a good overview of the Montessori prepared environment broken down by age and areas. Here is the section on food and eating. The table can also be used for crafts, so it can be multi-functional.

Some parents believe that the act of dramatic play is important for emotional and cognitive development, and a play kitchen can help with that. There are several routes you can take here…

Play kitchens

DIY: Handy parents may want to build a simple play kitchen for their kids. We created this simple kitchen out of a $20 pine box from a local unfinished wood furniture store. Other resources for DIY’ers:

  • Apartment Therapy has a roundup of DIY play kitchens and a more comprehensive collection of play kitchens. Search on their website if only to get inspired by other people’s creativity.
  • You can also do a quick search for “DIY play kitchen” on Flickr.
  • You can download plans for a cardboard kitchen that you can assemble yourself.

The other commonly procured play kitchens are thrifted/second hand ones that can be found on Craigslist, at thrift stores or yard sales, or storebought ones. I covet this gorgeous kitchen, but we will probably save our money.

Outfitting the play kitchen

  • Small pots, pans, and utensils can be found at thrift stores; we got our set brand new from IKEA.
  • Acorns, pinecones, seashells, leaves and flowers can serve as “food” – you will need to determine the right size of these “food” items for choking hazard reasons. The rest below are not necessary, rather they are icing on the cake.
  • Wooden foods can be bought or made.
  • Play foods can be knit or made out felt. I have been very tempted, but I don’t have the time. We bought some wooden fruits and vegetables from a second hand shop, and a set of wooden eggs. Part of me also doesn’t believe it’s necessary to be too specific in representing food, especially if the goal is to exercise children’s  imagination.
  • Mittens, potholders, etc can be make on a sewing machine from materials you have on hand
  • Tiny sized ketchup bottles, mustard , honey and jam jars can be collected at restaurants (they are usually thrown out after a single use). Use your own judgement/discretion when it comes to glass jars. You can also save various food containers such as milk cartons (rinsed thoroughly), yogurt containers, etc. They can be stored in a basket next to the play kitchen.

Other resources/articles I found helpful:

PBS article on the benefits of dramatic play

This article in Rhythm of the Home has suggestions and ideas for play. I follow the author’s blog.


5 Replies to “Play kitchen or playing in the kitchen?

  1. Hi 🙂 I’m also interested in Montessori, we are thinking of putting our girl to a part time Montessori preschool.. when she is older. She is 1,5 years now. If she wants to go.
    On the subject of play kitchens – there is no room for one in our kitchen, I will try and let her “help” with real food 🙂 and play with pots and pans… I don’t think kids need “play” everything, sometimes they much prefer the real thing anyway.

  2. We had our two children in Montessori. They (and us) loved it. Now they are older (almost 6 and 7) and we’ve got them in public schools. As far as the play kitchen, we never bought one for our kids; they played in our real kitchen with anything that didn’t have sharp edges or was too dangerous! Plastic (aka: Tupperware, Reg TM?) bowls and lids, used/cleaned large size yogurt containers and lids, and plastic spatulas and wooden spoons are wonderful. NOW our kids LOVE to help me in the kitchen and setting the table (clean up? well, not so much, so at least I’ve got their help w/ the preparation!).

  3. We live aboard also, though currently we’ve been in port for going on 12months – sigh. The plus side is our 1.5yr old has been attending the local Montessori school for 3 hours in the mornings. The teachers are wonderful and even learned ASL to help communicate and he’s picking up Spanish too.

    Dylan loves to help me ‘cook’. We clean the floor and then set out ingredients and mixing bowls on it. He helps scoop flour, tip it into the bowl, mix in water etc – A huge mess and great fun – pancakes are the favourite. Then I put the final mix on the counter and we clean together, sweeping and wiping. His favourite is helping to wash dishes – any excuse to play with water.

    I love the Montessori approach and my boat has never been so clean. As soon as he’s done eating Dylan is madly signing ‘wash’ and heading for the sink so dishes I may have left for later are done right away.

    I love your blog Serena, so much inspiration! Thank you. Maybe we’ll see you in an anchorage some day.

    1. Thanks Heidi, I’d love to hear more about where you’re docked and about your sailing adventures. I’m looking for more ways to include my 1.5 year old in boat life and you’ve given me some ideas. Right now they like to clear the dishes and push them over the half wall between the main cabin and the galley sink. A bit disconcerting if I’m not expecting dishwater to crash down while I’m doing dishes. I’ve also done a bit of baking. With 2 kids it tends to devolve into floured chaos…

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