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Build an Outdoor Kitchen

Age: 0 to 8 Time: 1 hour+
Materials: Kitchen tools; Twine; Water; Tarp; Rope
Skills: Creativity, Imagination, Behavioral Schema, Sensory

Whether you consider yourself a foodie or not, your kids are likely all about food. Food is at the center of daily life and the heart of family rituals and traditions. Every day, kids watch us shop for and cook it. They love to help make and, of course, eat it. So, there's no more universal context for pretend play—and no more free and engaging way to play chef that than in your very own outdoor kitchen.

So, pack up kitchen tools (pots, bowls, spoons, cookie sheets, etc) and head to a spot outside that offers open dirt and plenty of nature treasures (sticks, leaves, grasses, flowers, berries, tree fruits, etc.). Make sure the ground is wet, that you have access to water, or that you bring a gallon or two with you. Do something to transform that space into a special spot just for nature cooking. Give a few prompts just right for your kids age and stage. Then, just let the play roll.

The Guide

  1. Set the context: Start chatting up the idea. “I was thinking we could cook up some nature food outside. What’s a good spot to make a nature kitchen? What stuff can we use to make pretend food?” Have forest fairy fans? Make something to leave for the fairies. Know your kids' favorite dishes (unanimously pizza in our house)? Suggest making that. Note: If you have kids 2 or under or who just get antsy, simply start by dumping out the kitchen tools and getting right to the making.
  2. Gather “ingredients” and additional tools: Establish that you might need to gather more sticks for stirring and objects for ingredients. Kids can use a bindle, bag or pail to gather sticks, leaves, seeds, tree fruits, flowers, grasses, etc. Kids can also just pick up more as they cook. Find objects with a variety of colors, sizes, weights, and even smells to bump up the sensory impact.
  3. Build the kitchen: In our experience, many kids want to jump into mixing, stirring and pouring more than they want to set up an outdoor kitchen. That said, we’ve found that doing simple things to transform a spot into a kitchen heightens the experience and promotes even more imaginative play. For example, we like to work with the kids to drape a tarp or bed sheet over a rope strung between two trees to designate the patch of earth as a special space. Kids can enter and leave, and they just seem to know that special stuff happens there. We’ve also found that helping to build and appoint the kitchen is great for kids who simply don’t love making messes. Such kids can use sticks, leaves, twine or even sidewalk chalk to turn a tree stump or log into a stove, a pile of sticks into a roaring fire, or the hollow of an old tree into an oven.
  4. Promote improvisation and invention: One twist we like to throw in is, “Oh no! We forgot the spoons (or some other valuable tool)!” The fun starts when kids have to improvise and use the materials around them to get the job done. Kids will get to wonder things like, “Which piece of bark makes the best spoon? If we use bark, a stick and some twine, can we make a spatula?” By limiting the tools, you also surface a sharing lesson, and kids this age can’t get enough practice with that.
  5. Guide play: Let kids play and play alongside them. Periodically “ooo” and “ahhh” about their dishes and ask them about what they are cooking. Play the Sous chef. Sprinkle “ingredients” (leaves, tree fruits, grasses, etc.) around where kids are working or set them out in small pails or piles. Do some experimental cooking yourself, and share your own dish when ready.

Why is this activity great for kids?

By introducing a set of kitchen tools (pots, pans, spoons, cookie cutters, etc) in a setting with the greatest of raw materials (water, dirt and nature stuff), you provided a context that invites sensory play and pretend play in an appropriate and engaging way for kids 1.5 to 8 or even older. Lots of our kids get to help in our kitchens, but an outdoor kitchen is their domain and one in which both kids and parents can totally embrace the mess. This kind of unbridled mess-making frees up kids to develop genuine creativity.

Imaginative or "make believe" play emerges between 18 and 36 months, starting with children being able to pretend that one object (e.g. mud) is another object (e.g. food!). As children get older, the scenarios involved in their play get more complex and social. The older the child, the more elaborate their dishes and the more involved the pretending that surrounds the “food.” Older kids will, quite naturally, work together to make something with meaning like a birthday cake, an enemy pie, or a holiday feast; and the play won’t stop with the cooking but will morph into something more involved like a party with friends or to the delivery of pie to the bad guys.

The kind of mixing, smashing and mashing that kids do in an outdoor kitchen may seem so very simple to our adult brains, but are noted by experts as actions that “transform” the objects involved and are a powerful and universal way to support brain and body development (yet another one of those schema we talk about).

Finally, as parents, it's nice to know such a simple way to turn a dirt patch into an outdoor kitchen and inspire a day of sustained, imaginative play.

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We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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