Kitchen Time with Toddlers: From Frustrating Whines to Squeals of Joy!

To a child, the kitchen is a sensory wonderland of textures, colors, shapes, smells, sounds and tastes. It’s no wonder children are so often underfoot in the kitchen!

Unfortunately, this can often be a source of frustration and anxiety for parents who are trying to get dinner on the table, and who worry about having their little ones in close proximity to hot/sharp/spill-prone objects. However, with proper baby-proofing and careful supervision, the kitchen can be a source of endless learning and enjoyment for children and parents alike.

Read on for engaging sensory activities that await your child in the kitchen. These activities will help keep little hands and minds busy while you find yourself likely spending many hours in the kitchen. Using these tips, you can turn a frustrating time into a positive and productive time for all.

Get to know your food

While you are cooking, give your child the opportunity to engage with whole foods. Let her hold fruits and vegetables and point out their unique colors, textures, shapes, smells, and of course, their flavors! Describe the similarities and differences you see (i.e. an onion has a papery skin while an orange has a thick, squishy peel). Allow your child to sniff different spices while cooking and help you knead dough while baking. Engage all five senses in the sensory delights of food. 

Let them help!

From a very young age, children have a fundamental desire to feel a sense of belonging and to contribute as a valued member of their family and community. (In child development parlance, this is referred to as “social interest.”) A great way to foster your child’s sense of ability and belonging is to let him or her help out with household tasks. Toddlers and preschoolers are naturally interested in mimicking our behaviors and want to help out. As parents, our first impulse might be to just do things ourselves because it is faster and more efficient. Giving children an opportunity to contribute sends the message that they are capable and needed in the family. Try letting your child help pour cereal, mix batter, sweep the floor, wipe down the table, or wash shatter-proof dishes in a sink of soapy warm water. These are valuable, affirming activities for little ones.

Make some dough!

Homemade play-dough is very inexpensive, very easy to make, and ensures endless hours of open-ended play for children of all ages. We’ve included our favorite tried-and-true play-dough recipe here, but there are countless varieties. A quick online search will yield plenty of dough options: cook/no-cook, edible, gluten-free, scented, glittery… (so don’t worry if you don’t own cream of tartar and never plan to!). Dig out cookie cutters, kid-friendly utensils, and found natural items like shells and leaves to enhance play. If you have a handheld garlic press, it can be used to make great spaghetti-like strands of dough that kids love!

Homemade Play-Dough

1 cup flour
½ cup salt
1 cup water
1 Tablespoon oil
2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Optional: a few drops of food coloring

Combine all ingredients in a pan and stir.  Cook over low heat, stirring, until a ball forms. Cool before playing. Dough will last for several weeks if kept in a sealed container or bag. 

Make a sensory table

Look in your pantry for dried items that could facilitate sensory play for your child. Dried beans, lentils, rice, grains, cornmeal and pasta are all great staples-not just for cooking, but also for creating an in-home sensory table. Pour them into a large bin for your child to play with. Add measuring cups and spoons for scooping, a small colander for straining, empty jars and cardboard tubes for pouring, tongs for lifting, and watch your child stay engaged for hours. This type of hands-on, open-ended play fosters fine motor skill development, teaches cause and effect, and cultivates problem-solving and creativity. See for more details about the benefits of sensory tables and more suggestions for materials.

Water play

If your child loves playing in the water, you can help make their play even more exciting and educational with “new” toys-consisting of infrequently used kitchen gadgets. Different sized funnels, a turkey baster, new sponges (try cutting them into shapes), plastic containers (i.e. yogurt containers), and strainers can all be repurposed as water toys. The tub or sink is obviously the most contained indoor area for water play, but putting a large tub filled partially with water on the kitchen floor, surrounded with towels, might make for more a comfortable play area for your child. It will likely make a mess, but it’s only water. In our family, we regularly remind ourselves that “water is the only mess that cleans itself.” Like sensory tables, water play cultivates learning and growth in many areas. Playing in water also has a soothing effect for many children (and adults!)-a good thing to keep in mind if your child appears overwhelmed or tense.

Above all, have fun! Enjoy the learning process alongside your child.

-Shannon Jerolmon & Rebecca Walsh