Watering herbs, pouring milk, washing dishes, folding laundry, and peeling fruits…they’re the life experiences I grew up on, and the practical kitchen skills that helped promote a unique sense of pride and importance.
That’s why I’m dedicating a full series to kitchen skill development – hands-on ideas, kids cookbook favorites, recipes your kids will love making, and activities you can use to encourage your child’s development of priceless practical skills. For Part 1, I put together a list of 20+ kitchen utensils that will take your little ones from play to actual cooking and a list of our own “house rules” for the kitchen. For Part 2, I’m sharing 18 hands-on activities that offer a wide range of kitchen play and food experiences.
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.
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.
18 Activities to Encourage Practical Kitchen Skills
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.
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. As a Montessori student, pouring water and mixing it with a big wooden spoon was my first introduction to practical kitchen skill development and it remains an actiivty that I find instantly calming!
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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.
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!
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??
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?
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.
*A note about 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 or Woodpecker Crafts. 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!