A Child-Friendly Space: Involving Kids in the Kitchen, Part II
Preparing meals, cleaning up after meals, unloading the groceries, getting snacks, washing dishes, preparing the next meal, cleaning that up, putting away the clean dishes...
it never seems to end. With all the time I spend in the kitchen, it should be no surprise to me that my daughter ends up spending a large chunk of her day in there (or nearby), as well. She’s always been one to stick close, rarely venturing too far out of earshot or eyesight from the adults she trusts. So if I’m in the kitchen, that’s where she wants to be.
From the minute she became mobile (perhaps even before), she was searching through the cabinets looking for things that sparked interest - which was pretty much anything she could find, from pots to spoons to bowl lids. Not long after that she started showing interest in the things I was doing - wanting to play in the water as I washed the dishes, climbing into the dishwasher I was unloading, asking to touch the toggles on the high speed blender that made the most fascinating sounds.
In our research at Sprout, and in our experience as parents, we’ve found that many children often prefer to be where their families are. Rather than spending the majority of their time in a playroom by themselves, they like to be near the action, the conversation, the hustle and bustle of daily life.
I personally don’t love when I feel I’m constantly telling my child she can’t touch this or play with that, having to repeatedly pull her away from the many intriguing tools and buttons in our home, or grabbing yet another thing for her from a shelf she can't quite reach. It can be tiring and time-consuming, to say the least. In order to ease some of this tension, we have created what we call “yes spaces” throughout our home. Few things that can be seen or reached are off-limits, and there are places for her to neatly keep her personal items (toys, books, care items, etc.) where she can access them easily. She is allowed and welcome in these spaces and has freedom to move and do and be.
We’ve found that, instead of child-proofing the house, making our spaces child-friendly to our toddler has increased autonomy and reduced stress for everyone in our home. Our kitchen is no exception, and there are many ways to make room for “yes space” in your kitchen, as well.
Child-friendly Kitchen Utensils
Allowing children access to safe kitchen utensils is a great way to show your child that you trust them with kitchen work. Keeping a few utensils in a drawer dedicated for child’s work can go a long way in encouraging autonomy and creating a sense of ownership for the child. Even just a small basket for a handful of tools or a sorting tray on a shelf for forks and spoons can be a good start for very young toddlers.
CREDIT: Kylie @howwemontessori
It’s also a good idea to get a few tools that are made specifically for children’s hands. Having safe, child-sized tools lets kids know that kitchen work is their work, too, and it’s valuable enough that we have made it functional for them. Some great equipment to start with:
- Small or lightweight and break-resistant bowls
- Lightweight scoops, measuring utensils, spatulas, and spoons
- A set of child safe knives are great tools for children. If you are wondering what knives are suitable, Frida be Mighty and The Kavanaugh Report both offer excellent reviews on options for child-friendly knives.
- Kids’ oven mitts and an apron are fun and helpful if you do any baking with kids.
- Other fun and helpful tools include a vegetable peeler, apple corer and other specialty slicers, herb scissors, cutting board, cheese grater, tongs, a whisk, a sifter, a rolling pin, citrus juicer, and a small colander.
For Small Hands is a great resource for child-sized kitchen items such as mixing bowls, measuring cups, mashers, knives, and more!
A good knife makes a huge difference to a child’s experience in the kitchen. Eloise Rickman
Convenient Prep Surfaces
Once you have the right tools, it’s important to think about the space you will be using. How can your child move within the space safely? Most of us probably don’t want our kids climbing drawer stairs or scaling the cabinets, and sitting on the counter can take up valuable prep space (not to mention the safety hazard and increased mess potential). If you have the space, you can set up a food prep area just for your children at their own height. There are some wonderful examples of these Montessori-inspired kitchen setups, including this one from The Kavanaugh Report.
If this isn’t an option in your space, or if it’s just not your thing, our Sous-Chef Toddler Tower can be a great asset. It provides safe steps and a sturdy platform for secure access to adult-height surfaces.
Access to Water
Water is an essential tool in kitchen work; we use it before we begin when we wash our hands and as we work when we tidy up spills, rinse dishes, or get sticky dough off our hands. Then, we finish it all off by wiping up any messes made and washing any dishes we’ve used. Giving the child safe access to a water source - whether in a bowl or tub at the child’s height or providing a Sous-Chef Toddler Tower to reach the sink - will invite them to participate in all parts of the process and encourage tidiness and cleanliness. Placing a rug below the sink or under water tubs can catch any spills and help prevent slippery floors. It’s also helpful to keep rags or towels where children can easily reach them to clean up any stray puddles (which, of course, are inevitable).
Our Dish Washing Station provides children with a way to access water and wash dishes at their level. It even provides a place to store a few dishes and hang a towel for drying or cleaning up spills.
CREDIT: Kylie @howwemontessori
Have towels, sponges or rags within easy reach for cleaning up spills or messes. Placing child-sized cups nearby, like Kylie from How We Montessori does here, also encourages autonomy and healthy habits by allowing children to get a glass of water whenever they are thirsty.
If you would like your child to have access to small and healthy snacks, consider setting aside a space where you can place a bowl of fruit, a couple small jars of prepared snacks like cereal or trail mix, or a small basket of packaged foods like pretzels or squeeze pouches. This is a great way to encourage intuitive eating and independence in choosing when and what kinds of foods to eat (and you still get to have some control over nutritious choices by putting out what you are comfortable with).
Our simple Montessori snack station: We keep a carafe of water and a bowl of fresh fruit on top of our food prep area, plus a couple of jars of trail mix and cereals nearby for our daughter to access whenever she wants a snack. Fun bonus: when she wakes up early on the weekends, she can get herself a banana or an orange, and I don’t have to get out of bed! ;)
Kitchen Safety for Kids
Anyone wanting to work with kids in the kitchen may worry about safety, and that is a valid concern. Many tools and appliances used in cooking and baking can pose hazards to those who are not familiar and mindful. But that doesn’t have to keep you from allowing your child access to these things. Exposure and supervision are key, and constant reminders are helpful.
- Narrate what you are doing and exactly how you are using each tool and appliance. Use words like sharp, hot, steam, burn, and cut frequently and with purpose. “This oven is very hot, so I’m going to open it carefully and use these oven mitts to protect my hands from getting burned.” “I’m going to use the sharp edge of the knife to cut the vegetables. I want to keep my fingers away from the blade so that it doesn’t cut my skin.”
- Demonstrate how to use each tool and appliance with safety. Children will mimic what you do, so be intentional about how you hold tools and position yourself around equipment. My daughter is quick to point out bad habits that my husband and I have developed (like picking up hot things with our bare hands), or to comment when we use things in ways she’s not been instructed to (for instance, when using a paring knife requires the blade to touch skin). Be aware of these things and try to avoid them or address them when needed. If your child will be using the sink, include water safety and how to adjust the faucet to make the water a comfortable and safe temperature.
CREDIT: Marketa @schoolathomeandbeyond
- Be explicit about which things are only for adults. Remind your child never to turn on or open the oven without the help or permission of an adult. Keep any tools your child does not have permission to use on their own put away in a place they cannot access.
- Always supervise when your child is using tools and appliances that could be harmful. Even if your child is used to using them with ease and proficiency, it can be easy to get lax on safety and make mistakes. It’s always a good idea to keep a watchful eye.
- Accidents will happen! Even the most seasoned professional chefs get burns and cuts from time to time. If and when your child has a minor accident in the kitchen, it is important to remain calm and show them how to proceed. Provide appropriate first aid, acknowledge their pain, and provide loving comfort. There may also be disappointment and even fear of trying again, but it is important to show confidence in your child’s ability to make safer choices after an accident.
Preparing the environment for child involvement can make sharing the space more peaceful for both caregivers and kids. Instead of a place where children are in the way or can stumble upon obstacle after obstacle, strive to make the kitchen a place where kids can and want to be involved.
My daughter loves being able to get into “her drawers”. She will often bring her knife to the counter and ask if she can help chop vegetables for dinner or check if we have any fresh herbs she can cut up. She is comfortable getting and doing things for herself now, and while this can be frustrating or messy at times (like the time she dropped the eggs on the floor...or that time she poured half a carton of almond milk into a cereal bowl), I know those “oopsie” moments are also learning experiences for her (and often for me). We just keep trying, rearranging, making small adjustments as we see a need.
There are endless ways to set up safe accessibility - and even “yes spaces “ - in your kitchen. From a few small tools in a low drawer to full-blown, child-height kitchen setups, large spaces to small, full free-range parents to those of us who like a bit more control, anyone can make this work in their home. Keep your space, your comfort level, and your family structure in mind and do what works for you.