Designing for Little Ones in the Kitchen

Recently, I built a kitchen. Friends and family had a good laugh over my efforts as I constructed a play kitchen for two little family chefs who were coming to visit. Six hours, many pages of instruction and even more parts and pieces later, I had completed the job just in time for a visit from Sam, age 3½, and Sydney, age 18 months. The whole joyful experience prompted me to write about little ones in the kitchen.

During the building process, I had plenty of time to review what I thought must be the main concerns when planning for this age. Then I experienced the “post occupancy” of both the play kitchen and my own real kitchen when put to the test by the girls. Although the experience taught me a lot about life, I’ll focus here on a review of some of the priorities we must have when designing with children in mind.

Learning Opportunities

At 3½, Sam was very capable in both kitchens, and while Sydney was less involved in the real kitchen, she was right in the thick of things in the play version. Both girls practiced social graces, and every step of kitchen work from shopping to food prep. Mixing was really big with the girls, while they also enjoyed playing in their kitchen with healthy eating. Then it was on to setting the table, serving and clean-up.

It was also a great chance for relationship building, as shyness seemed to go away when the focus was on the task and not just on “making nice.” There was much to do with sharing, building confidence, creativity and doing for others. What I’m really trying to point out is just how much play has to do with development in young children, and how important it is for us to provide for this opportunity by planning aspects of our own kitchens that will function as safe and supportive learning labs.

Design Considerations

When it comes to design considerations for a child-friendly kitchen, safety is the first thing that we must consider. What are the children going to be involved in and what will be off limits? At these young ages, there must always be an adult involved, and it is imperative to plan sight lines and clearances that allow the adult to see and accompany the children at “work.” It also suggests which storage, appliances, tools and controls might be planned out of reach and which items will be stored at child height.

At home, my nieces have a “bridge” that allows them to climb safely to work at counter height, held in place by a “fence” of sorts. In my kitchen, we worked at my lowered counter with Sam on a chair and me serving as the fence. Coordination, balance and dexterity are obvious key concerns, and this recent experience reminds me just how short the attention span is and how rocket-fast these slippery little cooks can move, calling for doors that are not in the traffic space at child height, and soft, easy maintenance materials, especially on the floor where much production takes place, whether intended or not. This was a lesson my stone floor demonstrated repeatedly.

A second design decision has to do with whether the kids will have their own prep zone or if they will be integrated into the main kitchen zones. In my kitchen, the girls were incorporated into the main zones of the kitchen wherever appropriate. Planning a lowered height counter, with base cabinet storage within easy reach for those items used by young chefs, can be a way to do this. This will not be the place where small appliances are stored, but rather a clean and resilient counter would be a good choice.

My lowered counter space happens to be next to the main refrigerator so we could place items they used on the lower shelves. I served as gofer for items out of safe reach. For older children and for a household with children, planning a separate kids’ prep zone might be the better option as older children might be involved in their own breakfast and lunch preparation as well as getting their own snacks and beverages (and hopefully their own clean-up). This might include storage of their lunch and snack items and equipment, as well as a refrigerator drawer and/or a sink for their use.

Sam was totally into the emptying of the dishwasher, albeit with supervision. Given that many appliances and most dishwashers today have a control lock-out feature, proximity to this appliance can be considered without abuse to the appliance or risk to the child. Baking is a big hit, so including related equipment, other than the oven, could be another choice, especially given that the lower counter can work well for the average-height cook for related tasks.

A third design consideration has to do with storage and play space for activities just for children, especially with younger ones like Sydney. Toys and playthings might evolve to arts and crafts items. At one point in our visit, three four year olds were comparing movies on their iPads – what can I say? While the charging of these items would need to be an adult activity, proximity to the child’s area would be a good plan.

Constructing the play kitchen gave me the opportunity to again appreciate the time, skill and attention our contracting professionals must devote to our work. Never having been a parent myself, these last couple of weeks have taught me new lessons on the value of planning for children in the kitchen.

While far from exhaustive, hopefully these thoughts will give you a chuckle over my efforts and a chance to rethink your approach to the design of these spaces for the little ones in our midst.

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