Updated: Aug 16
All the details to set up a functional toddler kitchen- from why it's important to must-have supplies.
We often underestimate how capable children are, even the youngest toddlers! As adults, it's often easier (and definitely quicker) to just zip up our child's coat or pour them a glass of milk, rather than allow them to learn by doing. When given the opportunity, children enjoy practicing independence in an authentic way. Although they seem like mundane chores to us, practical life activities are empowering and exciting for our little ones to master. You'll find more information on the benefits of practical life activities in the section below.
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Practical life activities are often split into two categories-
Care of self: These activities teach the child to become physically independent. Activities may include learning to wash hands, put on clothing, nose wiping/blowing, brushing teeth, putting on a coat, brush hair, and food preparation.
Care of the environment: These activities teach the child to care for the space around them. Activities may include learning to set the table, water plants, wash windows, clean dishes, wipe the table, arranging flowers, and vacuum.
What's the purpose of a functional kitchen?
A functional toddler kitchen provides your child the opportunity to practice caring for themselves and their environment. In the Montessori environment, a play kitchen is typically not used. Instead you'll often see a functional kitchen that allows the child to do purposeful work. In a functional toddler kitchen your child might wash their hands, cut fruit for a snack, or store their dishes. Your child will be practicing lifelong skills while also becoming more responsible, confident, and independent.
What can you use a functional kitchen for?
Filling a glass with drinking water
Self-serve snack area
Supplies you need to own-
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Kitchen: Ikea Duktig (We decided to use the Ikea kitchen but did a few simple things to modify it.)
Stove- We didn't install the battery powered stove and instead placed a wooden cutting board (another similar option) there instead. You might choose to glue the cutting board down, we didn't so it could be removed and washed.
Sink faucet- We didn't install the fake sink faucet and instead placed a water dispenser in its place.
Microwave- We didn't install the door on the microwave and instead use it as an open shelf.
Cleaning set / Container / Dish towel (I like to get seasonal towels)
How do you introduce a functional kitchen?
There are a few ways you might choose to introduce a functional kitchen to your toddler. Some prefer to slowly introduce parts of the kitchen one at a time while others might offer all the materials at once. This is a personal preference and will likely depend on your child's development.
If you'd like to slowly introduce your child to a functional kitchen, you might decide to start by using the kitchen as a hand washing station. Your child will visit the functional kitchen before each meal to wash their hands, giving them a purposeful way to explore. You'll then gradually offer another use for the kitchen- for example, next you could add a cup for them to get their own water.
At our house, we chose to introduce all the materials at once with specific modeling how to wash dishes appropriately. We introduced Em to the functional kitchen when she was 2 years and 10 months, but if she was younger, we'd likely choose to gradually introduce the materials instead.
What age should I introduce a functional kitchen? Personally, I think around 16 months is the perfect time to introduce a functional toddler kitchen (some children might be ready sooner and others later) but there is no limit on when is too late!
Which is better- a functional kitchen or learning tower? We don't have a learning tower but we do use a stool in our big kitchen. We use both a stool and functional kitchen but the functional kitchen gets used much more frequently. We use the stool when we cook/bake together or when Em is doing a task I need to directly supervise. I also like that the functional kitchen has everything in one place vs. having to move a stool/learning tower around to access different parts of the kitchen.
How do you prepare the kitchen? At night, I'll reset the functional kitchen for the next day. I'll pour out the water in the sink (sometimes I'll do this at nap time too if it's nearing full). I'll check that all the dishes and utensils are clean and make sure there's 2 of every material. I will also empty any washcloths from the laundry basket and make sure there's clean cloths. This typically takes less than 5 minutes for me to prepare.
How do you keep your child from not playing in the water? In the beginning, I'd only full the water dispenser with a small amount of water. Controlling the amount of water guarantees that your child won't flood your house. As Em began to understand how to use the water dispenser appropriately, I increased the amount of water in the dispenser. If you notice your child playing in the sink, I recommend taking note of that interest and setting up a more appropriate place to play with water. You might say something like, "This water is not for playing, we can splash in the bath tub." You might also set up a water sensory bin to encourage that sensory exploration in a different environment.
How do I keep a functional kitchen safe for a younger sibling? In a typical Montessori environment, you'll see children using real dishes and cups made of porcelain and glass rather than plastic. Although we don't want to intentionally harm our child, using real materials provides opportunity to learn about cause and effect, controlled movements, and caring for the environment. If this is a concern, you might opt for stainless steel dishes instead. I'd also recommend adhering the cutting board to the kitchen and controlling the amount of water offered at a time.
What are the benefits of a functional toddler kitchen versus helping in the real kitchen? A functional kitchen is 100% toddler safe and supports your toddler's independence. In a functional kitchen they can do everything on their own rather than constantly ask for help or rely on an adult.
Do you rewash the dishes after your child cleans them? At the end of the day, I'll reset the kitchen so everything is ready and clean for the next day. I don't expect the dishes to be as clean as they would be if I was washing them myself, but if I notice a dish hasn't been cleaned the best, I'll point it out and discuss it with Em. She'll often go back to rewash it before using it.