The kitchen is said to be the heart of your home, yet young children are often kept out of it. Food preparation is a wonderful way to allow your children to contribute to caring for the family, refine their fine motor and executive functioning skills, master sequencing of steps, and build their sense of independence. Even picky eaters will often delight in the food they prepared themselves. Here are some Montessori ideas to make your kitchen a safe and welcoming environment for your children as young as 3 to 6 years old.
Tip #1: Prepare your mindset
One important aspect of Montessori education is the concept of “helping children to do things themselves.” As adults, we help the children just enough so that they are able to be independent. Young children are often capable of doing a lot more than we give them credit for. Although it may be a lot quicker and easier to do it for your children, we are essentially robbing them of the opportunity to learn. Take advantage of your young children’s interest in helping you, and involve them in age-appropriate chores. Remember that children are not too young to help around the house!
Tip #2: Make sure everything has its place
Having a prepared environment is key to any Montessori classroom and home. Assign a place for everything and keep everything in its place as best as you can. Of course, every home is going to have a junk drawer, or two, and rarely do we ever have picture-perfect kitchens. However, try your best to plan your kitchen so that at least the most frequently utilized areas are well organized. This way, your children will know where to find the utensils, cups, napkins, and plates if they were setting the table and how to put the dishes away. Have a system for what you plan to do for clean-ups and spills. Consider where your children should get the clean towels for wiping the table, where to hang wet towels, and what to use for table clean-up and floor clean-ups. For example, in the classroom, we reserve the mini crumber for tables and the small dustpan and brush for floors.
Tip #3: Incorporate child-sized furniture and tools
It is very helpful to have some child-sized furniture or tools that the children can easily access without adult assistance. Having a step stool would allow the children to be independent when washing their hands and cleaning up. Also, consider preparing a child-sized broom and small dustpan for them to clean up any dry spills. It may be helpful to have a designated snack area and cabinet where your children can comfortably reach any basic supplies that they need to set the table, prepare a simple snack, or get cleaning supplies.
Tip #4: Be diligent in maintaining safety measures
Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. Before involving your young children in food preparation, double-check that all knives, sharp objects, and cleaning chemicals are placed in hard-to-reach places or placed in cabinets or drawers with child-safety locks. Firmly talk to your children about the importance of staying away from open fire and hot ovens unless you have given them explicit permission to do so while being heavily supervised. Be clear about the rules of what they are allowed or not allowed to touch. Stay vigilant in watching your children when they are in the kitchen, especially if they are doing anything with slicing or peeling. Also, teach your children to clean up wet spills right away to prevent slipping.
Tip #5: Give mini lessons
Teaching food preparation is just like how we teach any new lesson in Montessori. We first demonstrate the lesson by slowly and carefully showing each step, and then allowing the children to try. It could be helpful to break down complicated concepts into smaller, more manageable tasks. When we see that they have mastered a particular skill, we then gradually add to the difficulty by introducing new skills and reducing the amount of assistance given. For example, you can isolate the different skills needed in the kitchen into spreading, slicing, mixing, washing, squeezing, measuring, pouring, and cutting. Even very young children can learn how to spread jam onto a piece of bread, pour a cup of sugar into the mixing bowl, or cut a banana using a blunt butter knife.
Tip #6: Provide opportunities for practice
The long-term goal of food preparation is to help children become more independent. This will also increase their confidence and interest in caring for others. In order to do this, we need to give children ongoing opportunities to make food for themselves and for others. Once your children have mastered a few basic skills, you could encourage them to start preparing their own snacks. As they get older, you could even involve them in making their lunches or occasionally preparing food for the family! When I was a young child, I had a recipe binder with super simple recipes that I could make. Each recipe only had a few ingredients and very basic instructions. We gradually added more complicated recipes as I grew, and it was a great source of joy for me knowing that I had the ability to prepare food for my family and friends.
Tip #7: Incorporate breakable dishes
When you step into a primary Montessori classroom, you may be a bit startled to find a lot of breakable glassware and ceramics. Children can learn to be very careful with fragile objects if we give them the opportunity to practice. When children know we trust them, they feel very honored and will step up to meet our expectations. Teach children to use both hands and only carry one thing at a time. Of course, accidents may occur occasionally, but seeing something break will also very quickly teach them that there are real-life consequences if they are not careful. You may be pleasantly surprised by how infrequent those accidents are!
Tip #8: Relate food to the real world
Montessori education has an interdisciplinary approach because we understand that everything in the world is connected. You can strive to relate topics your children are learning in the classroom with the food on the table. Talk about the countries the food comes from, how the fruits and vegetables grow, how the food affects their body, and so on. This scientific approach can greatly increase their level of interest in food and nutrition.
Tip #9: Allow plenty of time
Young children will need more time to complete various tasks. Budget extra time so that they will not feel rushed. If they are taking a long time slowly picking up one cheerio at a time, resist the urge to help them! They are developing critical fine motor skills, concentration, and responsibility. Think about how difficult it is for you to complete everyday tasks with your non-dominant hand, and you will understand why children need more time.
Tip #10: Embrace imperfection
Allowing children into the kitchen can be messy. You may have grand and exciting plans, but in reality the outcomes are less than ideal. Do not be discouraged! While ensuring safety measures are in place, try to step back and allow your children to make mistakes. Mistakes and self-correction are critical components of learning. There will be spills, splatters, and smudgy faces. It’s okay! After all, that is why we teach children how to clean up after themselves.
Enjoy food preparation with your little ones! Years down the line when you are eating a home-cooked meal prepared by your not-so-little ones, you and your children will both thank you for bringing them into the heart of your home — the kitchen.