Our favorite tools and activities to help kids develop cooking and kitchen skills. | via barley & birch
All, Discover, Eat

Discover: Hands-On Activities to Help Kids Develop Kitchen Skills

Watering herbs, pouring milk, washing dishes, folding laundry, and peeling fruits…they’re the life experiences I grew up on, and the practical life skills that give kids a unique sense of pride and importance.

That’s why I’m dedicating a full series to hands-on ideas, kids cookbook favorites, recipes your kids will love making, and more you can use to encourage your child’s development of priceless kitchen skills. For this “Part 1” I’ve put together a list of 20 kitchen utensils that will take your little ones from play to actual cooking, 18 hands-on activities that offer a wide range of food experiences, and a list of our own “house rules” for the kitchen.

As with most of the projects I share, I’ve refrained from suggesting appropriate ages for the tools and activities because, in my own experience, every child is different. Use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to experiment with new responsibilities. Adult supervision is not only recommended, but an essential part of helping kids learn their way around the kitchen.

Why Kitchen Skills (& Play!) Matter

Studies have shown that the best way for children to learn is through experience, so when it comes to kitchen skills, it’s a no-brainer that letting your kids loose with real utensils and ingredients makes for positive learning practice.

From math (tasks like counting or measuring out ingredients) to reading (interpreting recipes) to actual cooking (science in action!) there is so much to be learned from the fun processes presented in kitchen practice.

Our favorite tools and activities to help kids develop cooking and kitchen skills. | via barley & birch

Working in the kitchen helps kids build confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Proper handling of tools, direction-following, and collaboration/cooperation all need to happen for a child to be successful in the kitchen. Beyond the hands-on skills they learn, it provides an opportunity to teach them about nutrition, eating a balanced diet, and connection to food sources and production.

Our Top 20 Kitchen Tools for Kids

Back in my own early baking days, I remember honest-to-goodness “real-life” kitchen tools being an exciting part of my daily play and learning experiences. At school and at home I had tons of opportunities to put genuine cooking supplies to work in both useful and imaginative ways.

Those early experiences made such an impact that kitchen utensils are among some of my very favorite items to use with kids for play AND actual cooking. This “top 20” list features many classics that I used growing up, with a handful of newer options I’ve found equally indispensable.

I’m sure you’ll have most of these things already and I encourage just using what you have, but I’ve also provided a product link for each tool with my go-to brand recommendation in case you’re looking for examples or gifting a DIY cooking kit (you can see the quick-list here)

A collection of our very favorite kitchen learning tools for kids | via barley & birch

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains a few Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

  1. A Cutting Wedge – This wooden cutting tool doesn’t actually have a blade, making it a great choice for kids who aren’t quite ready for real knives yet. Wonderful for working with doughs.
  2. A Tray – Trays are honestly a godsend for messy young makers and bakers. They’re wonderful for transport, setting up stations and catching spills, and so useful to have in a variety of sizes – from massive to mini!
  3. A Mini Scoop – A fun way to work with dry ingredients that don’t require exact measurements (and scoops are often easier to use than large spoons).
  4. Condiment Bowls – Perfect for using as snack bowls, with fruit cutting, or for pre-measured ingredients (just like a cooking show!) and a great size for toddlers to play with.
  5. A Visual Timer – These visual-style kitchen timers are INGENIOUS! So handy for kids still working on time and clock concepts, these actually *show* the time ticking down with color.
  6. A Lettuce Knife – One step up from a cutting wedge, a lettuce knife will cut through quite a few produce items without the sharpness of a regular knife blade.
  7. A Carrot Peeler – Preparing fresh vegetables is a good place for kids to start with serious kitchen tools, and a carrot peeler helps to teach this necessary step in prep with minimal safety concerns.
  8. Measuring Cups – Hello math skills! I don’t think I would have learned fractions at all had it not been for the measuring necessary to bake box cake mixes!
  9. A Colander – A small colander is another useful tool for teaching food prep and safety basics. A smaller-than-average size works well for little ones – especially when rinsing berries for snacks!
  10. A Large Wooden Spoon/Spatula – A must-have in any kid kitchen! I like to have a few different sizes that kids’ hands can grow into.
  11. A Small Pitcher – Pitchers were an absolute cornerstone of our “kitchen work” at Montessori school. Plastic, glass, measuring ticks, or plain – any kind (as long as it’s a manageable size) makes an excellent tool for practical kitchen skill learning.
  12. Tongs – Give those fine motor skills a workout! Although you can use any kind, I like to have a set of big “adult” salad tongs and some smaller ice tongs on hand.
  13. A Whisk -I don’t care how old you are, whisks are pure fun, aren’t they? This is another kitchen item that can be beneficial in a variety of sizes.
  14. Cookie Cutters – As a kid, I had a vintage stainless steel miniature set we used to make tiny cookies for tea parties, and its such a fond memory! Many now (like the ones I’ve linked to here) have silicone covers that make pressing easier on little hands. And wow – talk about a sandwich upgrade!
  15. A Non-Slip Cutting Board – The essential note here is “non-slip”. Both kids and parents are going to be more nervous about knife lessons if the cutting board is skidding across the surface like a hockey puck.
  16. Oven Mitts – Though I don’t recommend little ones grabbing things from a 425-degree oven on their own, kid-sized oven mitts are better for handling cooling pans or muffin tins than potholders, and a sensible way to incorporate food safety lessons.
  17. A Mixing Bowl – A variety of sizes is nice to have, but I think the most important thing is that they have just enough weight that they’re not waffling around the countertop, yet still aren’t too heavy for kids to move around easily. Your standard stainless steel bowls have always worked well at my house.
  18. A Funnel – Funnels are kind of an unsung hero of the kitchen if you ask me. I absolutely love them for liquid transfer practice and the new silcone kinds provide a lot of size flexibility.
  19. Squeeze Bottles – Now that we don’t have to go looking around restaurant supply stores for these, I think they make so much sense when working with kids, They provide an easy way to take the mess and frustration out of a number of tasks.
  20. An Apron – Spare those clothes! It might just be my own preference, but I think pockets are a necessity for every apron – even (especially?) for kids!

Additional Utensils & Supplies to Consider:

18 Kids Activities to Encourage Creative Kitchen Learning

So you have all the tools for some GREAT kitchen learning…now what? Honestly, the very first thing you can do is just hand them over to your kids and see what they come up with for entertainment. Combine a few kitchen supplies with water…maybe some leftover dry ingredients – the exploration can provide fun for DAYS.

Use kitchen utensils to set up a pouring station for kids kitchen skill play & learning.

A cookie tray and a few cups, pitchers, and tins filled with water make a delightfully drippy pouring station. If you don’t want to deal with the mess water can make, pasta or rice are good substitutes!

Use kitchen utensils to set up a pouring station for kids kitchen skill play & learning.

Beyond the basics, here are some flexible ideas to help your kids get excited and learning about ALL THINGS KITCHEN….

1. KITCHEN OR RESTAURANT DRAMATIC PLAY

Kitchen and restaurant pretend play was an absolute staple of my childhood! I’ll be honest with you…I have found restaurant play ephemera from my **teenage** years. YES, it was a serious obsession, friends. I don’t know how to interpret the fact that I’m not a successful owner of a chain of high-end bistros, but if it’s any consolation, I do design them…out of cardboard.

This cardboard set of play market food is an easy DIY, a great way for kids to learn about food, and looks SO adorable . | via barley & birch

Now, you’ll find folks who assert that all kitchen play should be done with actual kitchen supplies – real tools, real ingredients. Although I’m Montessori born-and-raised and used so many genuine kitchen utensils, I have to say the pretend play felt really important to me then and still does now. For a good example of the kinds of lessons that can be taught through pretend versions of the real foods, visit our sushi play set DIY.

2. GIVE YOUR KIDS THEIR OWN CABINET IN THE KITCHEN

Rather than spending a small fortune on a pretend kitchen, why not assign one of the kitchen cupboards to your kids? Pick a floor-level cupboard and stock it with a set of their very own kitchen supplies. A small bench or stool can give them an easy working surface so they can practice kitchen skills right next to you, but independantly.

3. VISIT THE FARMER’S MARKET OR A U-PICK FARM

The experience of eating farm-to-table fresh food you’ve picked out and cooked yourself is incomparable. From learning what kinds of food grow locally, to understanding the process of harvesting, there are so many valuable lessons to be learned from a visit to the local farmers’ market or u-pick site.

Fresh vegetables from the U-Pick

If you live near a U-Pick farm, many also have live animals (always a thrill!) or allow a peek into the processes of our food supply chain we don’t often get to see in our own daily lives.

4. MAKE PLAYDOUGH

Playdough – just about the perfect “intro” project for kids who are learning measurements and ready for stove responsibilities. Great for pouring practice, mixing, and washing dishes, it is also an introduction to the idea that not *everything* made in the kitchen has to be eaten. I use play dough in so many projects (you can find the recipe I use here) but for kids of a certain age, this lumberjack-breakfast-inspired slime/playdough combo is a winner when it comes to kitchen skills learning!

Make gingerbread and snowmen with these festive winter play dough mats! Add spices, peppermint and glitter for a fun winter sensory experience. | via barley & birch

Pet-Owner PSA: Homemade playdough is extremely toxic to pets due to the high salt content. I only found this out after my dog ate a small chunk and I had to call the doggy ER, so now I share this no-so-fun-fact whenever I have the opportunity. My big guy is fine (he’s enormous and was able to get through it without medical attention) but save yourself the concern and keep it out of your pet’s reach!

5. START A TABLETOP HERB GARDEN OR RE-GROW VEGETABLES

I ran across these themed egg carton herb gardens from Backyard Safari Company that felt like such an inspired idea. The pre-bought versions make growing a snap, but you could easily recycle egg cartons to create your own. Feeling REALLY motivated? You can convert a kids’ sand or water table into a mini stand-up garden. Just drill some drainage holes, fill with dirt and plant (here’s an adorable example of a water table garden upcycle from Twichetts).

Kids watering a tabletop herb garden

And if you’ve never tried re-growing vegetables from your scraps – wow! It’s so amazing to watch the process, and a fun science experiment for kids. I found a great graphic with a list of all the vegetables you can re-grow and which part of the plant you should keep & the instructions to make it happen.

6. MAKE A PERSONALIZED APRON, TEA TOWELS OR MARKET TOTE

Proclaim your kids’ own place in the kitchen with their very own DIY’ed accessories!

Make a DIY vegetable stamped kids tote for the farmer's market!

A little bit of ownership goes a long way when it comes to skill-building encouragement. By putting a simple monogram on a kid-sized apron, or stamping tea towels or totes together, you can instill a sense of pride, accomplishment, and belonging even before your kiddo sets foot (or finger) in the “grown-up” kitchen.

7. MAKE BIRD FEEDERS

Bird feeding wreaths or other seeded hanging shapes are a perfect and practical way to get kids pouring, mixing, stirring, and smushing in the kitchen. You can find the simple instructions for our own DIY bird feeder wreaths here, but I really like this simple cardboard tube solution from Little Bins for Little Hands.

8. MAKE YOUR OWN SOAP

Gone are the days of slaving over a big pot filled with (very scary!) lye to make your own suds. We regularly make our own gentle goat’s milk + manuka honey soap and unbelievably, the process takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.

Kid-Made Goat's Milk and Honey Soap via barley and birch

In addition to being simple kitchen skill practice, this activity is a wonderful way to encourage good hand-washing and hygiene habits.

9. START COOKING WITH SIMPLE RECIPES OR STATIONS

When starting out in the kitchen, I like to recommend beginning with one the “three P’s” – popsicles, peanut butter, and pizza. There isn’t much that can do drastically wrong, and there is lots of room for experimentation!

It’s no wonder I remember pizza being one of the very first foods I made on my own. Whether you start with English muffins, or make your own dough, this is such a great project for first-time cooks & young taste-adventurers alike. It also lends itself perfectly to stations!

Kids making mini pizza crusts

Now in my many years upon this earth as a pizza-lover, I’ve actually come across an unbelievable number of people who just aren’t into it (shock face!). For those of you who hate delicious things, here are some other “toppings and stations” activities to try:

  • Cookie decorating
  • An ice cream parlor party
  • A mini “burger” bar (they’re peanut butter treats!)
  • Taco truck play

10. MAKE ART IN THE KITCHEN

As a designer, the kitchen has always been a big source of art inspiration for me (and part of art’s own long history!) I often find myself using natural ingredients (see our coffee ground bison art project) or kitchen utensils to experiment with new processes. Did you know your kitchen cabinets are home to an amazing collection of art and mark-making tools??

This constellation process art project uses everyday household items to create your kids' names in the stars! | via barley & birch

Basing brushes, forks, sponges and scrubbers are just a few of the kitchen supplies I’ve used in my own art projects (we used the specific set above to make some gorgeous kids constellation art!)

Hungry for more? My friend Bonnie used a salad spinner for these marvelous spin art butterflies over at Make It Your Own. Small paper cups are the stars of these playful 3-D carousel horses the expert Arielle made for ART CAMP. And for upcycled milk carton and paper plate masks that will blow your mind, look no further than the fabulous collection Shelly from Creating Creatives has put together.

11. USE KITCHEN TOOLS FOR FINE MOTOR SKILL PLAY

You know that thing that happens when you see a little video of a simple kids activity and your brain kind of explodes and you wonder how it’s never occurred to you before? That’s exactly what happened to me when I saw this kitchen whisk toddler play idea from my friend Agnes over at hello, Wonderful. It’s not the end of kitchen-tools-as-play ideas and each and every one will blow your mind.

I’ve used everything from tongs to tweezers for our own fine motor skill play activities.

12. MAKE A MUD OR SAND KITCHEN OUTSIDE

Ahhh the unbridled joy of backyard messiness! And all you have to do is take some indoor cooking supplies outside. Don’t have the space for an outdoor kitchen set up? Bring the outside in with some flower soup! All the fun of nature “cooking” without the trail of messy footprints.

Flower soup kids nature activity and sensory play idea

13. SET UP A LEMONADE STAND

There’s a reason this is such a kids summer standard. Simple cooking processes, good hydration practices, an introduction to business, fiscal rewards…lemonade stands are chock full of learning experiences. You can also work in a little STEAM buidling project by DIY’ing your own stand. How cute is this cardboard lemonade stand set up from Oh Happy Day?! I truly can’t stand it!

14. PUT ON A KID-MADE AND ORGANIZED PICNIC OR TEA PARTY

Let’s face it, we’re going to spend their whole lives telling kids what to do in the kitchen (my mom will confirm – ha!). So just this ONCE, what if you let your kids boss you around. When I was little my grandma had a little tea cart she’d bring out when we’d visit so we could put on little parties for the neighbors. We’d tell her what we wanted to serve (oh gram, you made the BEST tiny cookies!) and she’d just listen, watch, cook and let it unfold as we set a table, made up a menu knocked on doors and put in food requests.

Have a picnic with kid-made food

Those little tea parties felt like such a sweet opportunity to FINALLY be able to do an “adult” thing. Looking back, I realize our ever-patient grandma was so smart in her style of teaching – we never once thought of the events as typical “lessons”. With exercises in meal-planning, kitchen organization, prep, and delivery, a kid-hosted picnic or tea party is a full education (that your kiddos won’t mind a bit!).

15. MAKE MAGIC IN THE KITCHEN

Add a little whimsy and magic to your kitchen with spells and potions! We put together this DIY pixie dust recipe awhile ago and it’s remained a favorite throughout the years (functional too!). The combination of dry ingredients and magic make for fun kitchen skill experience with great sensory-filled learning.

Make Pixie Dust DIY Aromatherapy Linen Powder for Kids!

16. SET UP A KITCHEN SCIENCE LAB

Mix your kitchen time with some STEAM learning for a FULL kitchen skill education. For some fantastic ideas & recipes, visit BabbleDabbleDo where my friend Ana has put together an amazing collection of kitchen science projects.

Our own kitchen science excursions have resulted in some curiously magical salt dough STEAM adventures…!

17. LET YOUR KIDS PLAY WITH THEIR FOOD

Food art! There are so many easy entertainments kids can make and then pack in their own lunch box – why not let them…?

Cute food art kids kitchen activity

If you’re in the market for some eye-popping inspiration, the talented Jessica from Lux and the Lady is an absolute kids food genius and has so many wonderful (and do-able!) food art ideas on her site and also over at hello, Wonderful.

18. COMPILE A KID-MADE COOKBOOK WITH THEIR FAVORITE RECIPES

When I was in elementary school my district put together kid-curated cookbooks as fundraisers. My parents bought them, packed them in a keepsake box, and I honestly didn’t think about them much until I was working with kids myself. WHAT. A. GIFT!

I remember feeling really invested in the process as a kid, but as an adult – oh the nostalgia of looking through that collection of old kid-illustrated recipes! And here’s the thing…I can’t even find similar recipes to some of my regional favorites online! Collecting favorite recipes and having kids put together a small cookbook (complete with illustrations) is one activity I can promise will be beneficial in the short AND long-term.

Some Notes on Kitchen Safety…

It should go without saying that when working in the kitchen, espcially when making food and using real kitchen utensils, kids should always be under the supervision of an adult. You may want to quickly survey the areas they’ll be working in and do a quick sweep to ensure kid-friendliness (put away sharp kitchen tools or appliances, clean surfaces, etc.).

When it comes to kid kitchen safety instruction, I made a quick visual you can reference that has our own “house rules” for kitchen safety. I liked it enough that I thought I’d share it with you as a printable, and just in case things run differently over at your house (no judgment – mine are pretty chill!) I’ve made a free printable template set you can download and personalize.

Our kids kitchen safety rules (with printable templates) | via barley & birch
Help your kids develop practical life skills through hands-on kitchen play and learning activities (with printable templates)!  | via barley & birch

*A note about Amazon affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase, we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

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About Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help families discover their creative potential and be inspired to make the world a better place through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. When not playing with ideas, designs and projects for barley & birch, Amanda enjoys working as a modern art curator and managing her own small design business.

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