If you’re hosting a play date or birthday party for your child and you suddenly bring out a play kitchen, 99% of the kids will swarm around you excitedly, no doubt about it. Most parents know that a play kitchen is one of the most popular toys among kids, from toddlers to preschoolers, for both boys and girls. There is something about pretending to bake their favorite cake, slicing carrots or maybe cucumbers, and serving you coffee with a chocolate-strawberry-mint cookie (depending on what your child wants the cookie to be that day) that children love to do.
A play kitchen is one of the best toys that encourages imaginative play. Sometimes parents can fall into the trap of placing more importance on academic activities (reading, writing, and arithmetic) but it’s important to remember that imaginative play has huge benefits for a child and is equally important as school-based activities, especially for younger children.
Scientists have learned that free play isn’t just something children like to do—it’s something they need to do
– TIME’s Special Edition: The Science of Childhood
Play is such an important part of a child’s development. It affects almost all aspects of a child – play helps children learn how to regulate their emotions, it teaches them how to get along with others, and it improves a child’s abilities to plan and organize. Parents should remember that for a child, playing is not some useless endeavor. They are constantly learning about themselves and the world through playing.
Imaginative (or pretend) play specifically, has many benefits for children 2 and a half to 7 years old. This type of play helps kids understand and express their feelings better and helps develop language as well. Researchers have also suggested that make-believe games, including imaginative play, is one of the most important forerunners that can help children learn how to self-regulate. Learning this essential life skill results in reduced aggression, learning how to delay gratification, civility, and empathy. Taking on different roles while playing also allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem-solving, and empathy. All of these are much-needed skills your child needs to learn to grow up to become a happy and healthy individual.
Another aspect of imaginative play is free play. Scientists say free play, defined as play without the encircling structure of adults, isn’t just something kids enjoy doing but it’s something they need to do. Free play keeps kids physically active, exercises their minds, and encourages creativity. It teaches them both how to be alone and how to be with others. When kids are allowed to engage in imaginative and free play, they are actually learning. For children, play is actually their “work” and they learn best through play-based learning. Again, parents should realize and recognize that much more happens during play than can be seen with the naked eye. Encouraging and giving ample time for play should be an important part of childhood.
Benefits of a Play Kitchen
There are few toys that encourage imaginative and free play more than a play kitchen. It is the perfect backdrop for countless creative stories – Imagine a 4-year-old – “This is my restaurant by the beach, please sit down while I cook you apple soup”. It’s a great toy for pretend chefs, pretend servers, and numerous “pizza with sausage, blueberry cupcakes, and broccoli” served. It’s the perfect toy that allows a child to use his or her imagination to its fullest extent. Here are a few benefits of a play kitchen:
- Gives children the opportunity to interact and play with each other, learning cooperative play and taking turns – For example, “Let’s bake a cake together! Crack the eggs and I’ll mix it for us.”
- Encourages the development of language skills – Your child will learn the names of various kitchen tools, cooking terms such as mix, whisk, cook, bake, names of fruits and vegetables, among the many other words they’ll discover.
- Nurtures creativity and imagination – Your child can pretend to be a chef, a baker, a mom cooking, a dad preparing dinner, a server in a restaurant, a person cooking for the school cafeteria, the list is endless.
- Develops fine motor skills – Turning knobs, grasping spoons for mixing, and holding other small toys help develop important fine motor skills.
- Exercises creative problem-solving skills – For example, imagine your child’s thought bubble: “Hmmm…What should I do if me and my sister both want to use the stove at the same time? Maybe I can offer the stove to her first and I’ll use the oven while waiting.”
- Allows unstructured playtime – No need for further explanation, just watch your child from a distance (try not to interrupt!) and watch the magic unfold.
- Helps children cope with stress – for children who experience stress but are not verbal or mature enough to express themselves, playing can help release this stress.
- Teaches empathy and understanding the feelings of others – By role-playing with other children, kids learn how to see the perspective of others and can understand them better.
Who will enjoy a Play Kitchen?
In one word, everybody! Think back to your own childhood and for sure, pretending to cook or bake was part of it, even without an actual play kitchen. All you needed was a few pot-looking containers, maybe some toy food, and a flat surface that served as a stove. It’s a universally enjoyable activity for all children. No wonder most play areas and indoor playgrounds have at least one, or multiple, kitchen or cooking areas. Once a baby turns into a full-fledged toddler, at around 2 years old, he or she will enjoy and reap the benefits of a play kitchen.
As mentioned earlier, young children 2.5 years old to about 7 years old benefit the most from imaginative play. This is also the age group of kids who will enjoy play kitchens the most. If you buy a play kitchen when your child is 2 years old, this will be among the most-used, and most-played-with toys of your son or daughter. Expect a good play kitchen (well-made, creatively designed, and with interesting features and accessories) to last you as long as five years. It can even last longer, if your child has younger siblings. A good play kitchen is like a great gift that keeps on giving, to both parents and children.
Do boys like Play Kitchens?
Both boys and girls will love having a play kitchen and all kids will benefit from playing with one. Kitchens (like all toys) are neutral, they are neither “boy toys” or “girl toys”. If a parent finds herself hesitating to buy her son a toy kitchen, it’s important to remember the importance of pretend play. The benefits of imaginative play are for all children, regardless of gender. If you still need more convincing, remember that the majority of professional chefs and restaurant owners are men. Play kitchens (and grown-up, real kitchens too) are definitely not just meant for little girls and women. If you’re worried about the design of a play kitchen being too “girly”, luckily, there are so many neutral and contemporary designs of play kitchens now available. Many of them look like real kitchens, featuring “stainless steel appliances” or clean wooden finishing. There are endless options to choose from. Some might even look better than your actual kitchen! Parents can choose a play kitchen based on budget, amount of space it will take up, accessories included, features, and design.
A note for Parents...
Another bonus that parents might not think of initially – remember that hours (or at least an hour) of free and unstructured play also means some free time for parents. All parents will definitely enjoy this extra perk. You might just have a few extra minutes to yourself, thanks to a play kitchen. Children need alone time to play and learn by themselves, allowing their brains to process what they’re doing. They don’t need constant interference and coaching from their parents. It’s tempting for moms and dads to constantly talk to their child. Communication between parent and child is definitely important, yes, but so is alone time for their child. When there are no outside voices constantly telling the child what to do or giving instructions, the child is given the chance to develop independence and self-esteem, learning about themselves and the world around them. With a play kitchen, they can play by themselves, getting lost in their own worlds, exercising their imagination and creativity to the fullest. When they’re ready, they’ll tell you all about the food they made, the people they served, the ingredients they used. To extend their play and develop language skills further, you can ask follow-up questions to the stories they tell you about their play kitchen. Just remember to give them some much needed and important unstructured play time and wait for them to come to you.
A play kitchen is one of the best toys a parent can give their child. Imagine the endless hours your child will spend playing with it and at the same time, all the learning that will happen. Though it seems like a simple toy, a play kitchen can be an important tool in promoting the well-being of your child, both physically and emotionally. If you haven’t gotten one yet, begin looking around for the perfect play kitchen for you and your child and start the fun!