Designing the Kitchen With Children in Mind

Often, when collecting information about the family and the activities that a new kitchen is to support, we hear about the children of the household. Sometimes it is a concern that the youngest child be included in the socializing, but be kept safe from the cooking. Sometimes, because of a child’s interest or a desire to improve eating habits, even very young children are participating in food preparation activities.

Older children, by interest or necessity, may be contributing to meal preparation. And there are myriad other activities that commonly take place in the kitchen in its role as the hub of the household. These issues create both a responsibility and an opportunity for designers, so we’ll take a look at some of the considerations that apply to the kids’ zone in the kitchen.

Safety First

A child’s body is constantly changing, with coordination, balance and dexterity among the areas where development is in the early stages. In addition, language and reasoning skills and the ability to pay attention are not yet mature.
These facts call for caution with regard to access, and especially, safety. As a result, a first step in the design process should be to clarify at what age children in the household will be included in food preparation and specific details of what they are to have access to or be restricted from.

Having long been a devotee of Universal Design, I am totally aware that with increased access comes increased risk, and decisions about the children’s zones must be the responsibility of the adult involved, with guidance from the designer.

The place in the kitchen for the younger cook must be carefully integrated into the work and traffic patterns of the overall space. What a disaster it could be if Junior is spread out in the midst of Senior’s work triangle, or where others are trying to pass through the space.

Given a child’s height, sight lines should be factored in as well, including the space itself and the windows or doors to outside. Cooks make messes, and child cooks excel at this, so easily maintained surfaces and finishes should be selected.

Kid Prep Zones

When the activities a child will be involved in have been decided, his/her zone can be planned within safe and easy reach. A general guide is that the average six-year-old is close in height to a seated adult, but as always, it is better to measure the cook you are working with, keeping in mind that growth spurts are a part of childhood.

If snacks and beverages or breakfast are part of the picture, then this zone might include a work counter at a lowered height (30"+/-), with low storage for the prep and table items needed as well as for the food. In fact, little cooks, starting at age three, can now take culinary classes through a franchise, and the schools also sell a line of utensils designed for child-size hands.

When possible, an undercounter refrigerator and a sink are good additions. When a sink is included, careful selection of a faucet can improve the experience, with such features as anti-scald, clear cuing and motion sensor controls. If a microwave is to be part of this zone, it, too, must be at a safely-accessible height for the child. Placing a freestanding microwave on a shelf or counter would be a way to allow for easy adjustment in height as the child grows, and if it is to be built-in, the low end of the recommended range, 24" off the floor, would be best.

Depending on the age of the child, this can also be a school lunch station, so storage for the thermos and or lunch box or bag makes sense. Just as in the main prep area, there should be easy access to waste and recycling and close proximity to the dishwasher.

In reality, often not all of these things can be done and still maintain a functional kitchen for the primary cooks or a reasonable budget. Installing a pull-out work surface in a lower drawer has the advantage of not breaking up the standard work surface, and the drawer base can be designed to accommodate moving it up a drawer as the child grows in height. A secure step stool, preferably with a railing for support or tucked in a corner where returning counters will serve as a rail, can eliminate the tendency to crawl up on the counter.

The location of lighting may need to be adjusted in a child-height work area, and a tilt-down front or simply a fixed panel just under counter height can be a good place for the controls and outlets. Proximity of water and outlets prompts a reminder about the safety rules and responsibilities that must be part of the plan.

Other Activities

Space for homework or arts and crafts should also be considered for kitchens. Proper storage within a child’s reach should be planned for these needs, and may require a careful inventory of what is to be stored. A well-lit place to sit and work, within sight of the main work area of the kitchen, should include computer access or provision for the computer.
An opportunity to develop the skills and enjoy the social aspects of eating can be as easy as a comfortable place to sit and eat together – already a priority in most kitchens – and children do better at table-height seating, given their stature.

Restrictions

Along with planning access for a child, restricting access to those things not intended for the child’s use is critical. Today’s appliances, particularly ovens, cooktops and dishwashers, often have a control lockout feature, and a batch feed disposer or a continuous feed model with a clearly marked control, out of the reach of small children, will help prevent accidental use.

Designing the cooking area with generous clearances will help offset the risk of a child’s curiosity leading to burns or related injuries. The simple solution of a lock on particular cabinets – whether they contain medicines, poisons or sharp objects, or simply things off-limits – is readily available as an integral part of the cabinetry or as an add-on. The space plan and the elevations within the kitchen can help to discourage use as well.

From pre-school years, I have always loved the kitchen, and the thought that a space could be this supportive of our future chefs seems like a great opportunity for design professionals. More ideas can be found in Chapter 10 of the NKBA book, Kitchen Planning.

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