Set Up an Outdoor Kitchen

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 a few kitchen tools (pots, bowls, spoons, cookie sheets), head outside to a spot with open dirt, and then let the play roll!  

This activity is featured in our free May Activity Calendar. Want your copy? Visit! 

The Guide

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?” 

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 pick up more as they cook. Find objects with a variety of colors, sizes, weights, and even smells to bump up the sensory impact.

Choose a spot for your kitchen: Head to a spot outside with open dirt and plenty of nature treasures (sticks, leaves, grasses, flowers, berries, tree fruits). If you have an outdoor water source (e.g. hose, creek), consider setting up nearby. If not, you can always bring a gallon or two of water with you. 

Build the kitchen: Kids often want to jump into mixing, stirring and pouring more than they want to set up an outdoor kitchen. But 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, 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. 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.

Need ideas? Read here to learn how to make a simple no-nails mud kitchen or here for inspiration from our OutdoorsAll4 FB community. Or, keep it simple! A bowl, dirt and water will inspire just as much imaginative play and learning for kids!

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?” 

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. 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.

Mixing, smashing and mashing may seem so very simple to our adult brains, but these actions “transform” the objects involved and are a powerful and universal way to support brain and body development (a behavioral schema).

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

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