Cooking with kids often sounds good in theory, but in practice? It can get hectic quickly! However, as is the case with much of what we do within Montessori, patience, practice and preparation go a long way in helping kids learn to cook in a kitchen without the mess or stress.
The Montessori Method is about more than just teaching kids about math and reading. This way of educating children extends into every facet of their life, seeking to make them self-reliant and independent people. While traditionally educated children often have a play kitchen, Montessori kids are typically given real, hands-on cooking and cleaning work in your actual kitchen.
Cooking with Kids: Montessori in the Kitchen
Kids see their parents doing this real-life work every day and want to both help and be included. It not only makes them feel good to be needed, it also gives them that sense of responsibility that Montessori strives to instill in them.
Many parents forego teaching their children about cooking until they’re older, thinking it will be too hard when they’re very young. The fact is, however, that the younger you expose children to real life cooking experiences, the more helpful and skillful they will be later on. It all starts by setting yourselves up with a functional Montessori kitchen.
What is a Montessori functional kitchen?
While many kids have toy kitchens - little plastic plates and microwaves that light up and hum - a Montessori kitchen is functional. This means there are no plastic knobs that don’t do anything, or faucets for decoration.
A functional Montessori kitchen mimics everything except the heat of a real kitchen. It’s basically the real deal with smaller risks of injury.
The faucets work, the prep area is real, and clean-up is a part of the process. You can even convert some play kitchens into functional ones with minor changes, such as running a small hose into a carafe of water so the kids can actually wash their hands or dishes. You can choose to give them a real cutting board and a safe play knife to cut veggies or fruit for themselves. Of course, always provide adequate adult supervision and tools based on the unique age and developmental stage of your child.
In the cabinets, you would place real tools, plates, and utensils that your child can use to prepare and serve snacks. You can fill up a small bottle for them to pour their drinks, and they can use the sink and water dispenser to wash up when they’re done. This is fun, functional, and so much more satisfying than pretending to cook.
Your small children won’t necessarily be cooking with their own little kitchen, but a Montessori functional kitchen shows them:
- how it feels to prep food
- practice washing their hands before working with meals
- how to serve a snack or meal
- how to wash dishes
- how to put those dishes away
If your children are playing in a functional environment from an early age instead of a play kitchen, they will be ready to help you in the actual kitchen much sooner.
Or, even better, you can get a kitchen helper and invite your small child to assist you in the REAL kitchen. I’ve personally done this with both of my children, being thoughtful and purposeful about tweaking their kitchen helpers and cooking activities based on their ages, personalities, motor skills and maturity.
Honestly, as I look back on the time I spent with toddlers in my home, these are some of my favorites. I’m telling you with my whole heart that this was 100% worth the investment and time. I mean, seriously, who DOESN’T want their 7-year-old making dinner while their 5-year-old sets the table, AmIRight?
Are Play Kitchens Montessori?
While a play kitchen may emulate real-world function, it is not purposeful work. Why have a child spend time pretending to cook when they could be helpful and simultaneously learn to actually prepare food in a real kitchen? From the child’s perspective, it feels better to perform a productive function and reap the benefits of that function (prepping fruit to eat later on, for instance).
That’s not to say that play kitchens are bad. There are several positive things that can be said about them.
They teach children that everything has a place and help them learn organizational skills.
They also provide kids with a feeling of satisfaction when they “serve” friends and family, often providing a chance to practice grace and courtesy. They also get a crack at cleaning up their own messes and honestly - sometimes, Mama just needs the kids to do something independently, while she sits still. So, don’t feel like you have to throw your play kitchen in the garbage!
But, do keep in mind that whenever possible, a Montessori functional kitchen - or inclusion in your real life kitchen - can give your children the same positives of a play kitchen and even more by teaching them real life skills and providing bonding opportunities. So ultimately, a play kitchen isn’t bad, but it’s definitely inferior to a functional Montessori kitchen.
Why invite kids into the kitchen?
Modern people are extremely busy, so inviting kids, especially little ones, into the kitchen can seem like a significant time investment. If you’re going to invest time into anything, however, it should be your children, and cooking is a critically important skill. In fact, it will pay off down the road for you when they can actually help cook on nights when you’re slammed with work or exhausted after a particularly stressful day. The example I used earlier about my 5 and 7 year olds is from real life. After ankle surgery, the kids did just about everything in the kitchen independently. Boy, was I ever singing the praises of inviting kids into the kitchen then!
Learning life skills is important
Children who learn practical life skills like cooking and cleaning from an early age begin mastering them quickly. This process makes them feel responsible for their space and keeping it tidy. It also gives them a better connection to the food they eat, which in turn reduces pickiness. And, of course - it helps Mom out, too.
Helping out feels good
Kids who help out feel connected to their family. They also feel important - cooking and cleaning are things adults do, so it’s a big deal to be included. Quite a bit of Montessori learning is based on behavior that the teacher (or parent) models to kids, so when they can emulate your behavior and truly be a functional part of the family team, it feels good.
Real kitchen work teaches important skills
Teaching children to wash hands not only before they eat, but before preparing food, reinforces the importance of cleanliness. Kitchen work helps them become independent - when they want some fruit, they can prepare it themselves. Washing dishes isn’t a chore when they learn to love doing it beside you from an early age. And, learning to operate in a kitchen builds executive functioning skills, which are critical for life-long success.
Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through links below.
Montessori Kitchen Products
If you’re ready to get your kids cooking with you, or turning their play kitchen into a functional Montessori kitchen, here are a few Montessori-inspired kitchen products we love.
Flexware collapsible sink
This little sink collapses for easy storage when not in use, but it’s a perfect basin for their washing needs. It’s small enough to fit into converted kid kitchens, but large enough to be functional for them.
Guidecraft Kitchen Helper Step-up
When your children are ready to help you in the kitchen, one of the biggest obstacles will probably be accessibility. This step stool helps get them to the counter, and it has high side walls to prevent falls.
Curious Chef 6-piece children’s prep set
Hutzler banana slicer
Exzact children’s flatware set
Curious Chef kid’s kitchen set
When your kids start helping in the kitchen, having their own sets of kitchen tools can help them feel more included. These are great materials for a Montessori functional kitchen as well, and they’re BPA-free, something everyone can feel good about.
Get kids cooking
Cooking is both one of the most important life skills a person can have, and also one that is woefully underdeveloped in most modern adults. Learning how to prepare food and cook from an early age is a great way to teach responsibility, motor skills, executive functioning skills, and to help your kids feel included.
If you already have a play kitchen, consider modifying it to allow them to wash dishes and prepare food. Simple changes like removing useless aspects of the kitchen and installing a cutting board can make a play kitchen into a functional one.
Finally, if you’re looking to help your children gain practical skill experience in the kitchen, our curated list of Montessori cooking items can help tremendously.
Kids love helping, and cooking gives them practical experience and a reverence for food that a play kitchen can’t.