Involving Toddlers in the Kitchen: A Stage-By-Stage-Guide

Involving Toddlers in the Kitchen: A Stage-By-Stage-Guide

We've asked Montessori Madre to share her notes on supporting her toddler son, Papa, as he practices cooking with her. Here's what she wrote for us. Transferring is an essential skill required for many practical life tasks, especially when it comes to working in the kitchen. As adults, we spend a significant amount of time in our kitchen whether we’re prepping a snack, serving a glass of water, or cooking and baking.  The moving of foods and liquids repeatedly back and forth is a common practice in many homes on a daily basis. As toddlers observe these movements, they may also be intrigued by the purposeful tasks that they fulfill.

Transferring tasks are fundamental practical life skills

Your toddler might begin to notice that you toss veggie scraps in a bin or remove the seeds of the cantaloupe into a separate bowl. They will see that pancake batter can take on a completely different form when you transfer it onto a hot pan. All of these movements and transformations are exciting to the absorbent mind.
Toddler in Kitchen Pouring Batter
photo credit: Montessori Madre

A Guide to Transferring Activities in the Kitchen

From the time Papa was 12 months old and could confidently stand in his learning tower, he was able to begin the essential first task in attaining a complex skill: observing. During this early phase, Papa observed a variety of movements as the adults whipped away in the kitchen. As he demonstrated interest in what was happening, I began setting up invitations for him to become an active participant. At 12 months, this included
  • transferring chopped veggies with his hands from a bowl to a cool pan on the stovetop
  • moving peels and scraps from a chopping board to a pail placed right beside the learning tower
  • placing prepared food from the kitchen onto a plate for eating
All of these opportunities helped him develop an awareness of his movements, coordinating the eyes and the hands, as well as the discipline required to complete a task. Transferring in this simple way also involves cross-body movements which are an essential part of brain development. For mastery of movements to occur naturally, repetition is important. An easy way to offer toddlers multiple transferring opportunities is to keep a bowl nearby when a child is chopping or peeling their fruit. Transferring the peel or seeds to the bowl creates a multi-step activity while also developing the child’s sense of order (helping them understand where things go while preparing meals).
photo credit: Montessori Madre
At around 15 months old, we invited him to put blueberries into the pancake mix, which served as another easy way for Papa to engage his fine motor movements, such as the pincer grasp while transferring. He was also interested in moving liquids from one container to another. We invited him to pour his own glass of water during mealtimes. Providing a very small pitcher with the exact amount of water to fit a small glass incorporated a natural control for error as he attempted to move all the water from the pitcher to the cup without spilling.
photo credit: Montessori Madre
At around 16 months old, we introduced Papa to spice shakers. It started with letting him experience the shaking of a spice that could be freely poured, such as garlic powder or turmeric, while modeling with the spices that require more control, such as the salt or cayenne pepper. Once your child has some experience with the wrist movements required in transferring water to a cup, they might be ready for pouring larger amounts of liquids into a mixing bowl. I would fill a pitcher with liquid contents, such as almond milk for Papa to pour into the dry ingredients of the pancake mix. Around 19 months old, his wrist movements became more sophisticated, which allows for success with pouring pre-measured dry and liquid foods.
photo credit: Montessori Madre
At 21 months old, we continued to provide transferring opportunities with various kitchen tools by having Papa self-serve his portions at the dinner table. Using a serving spoon to transfer his food onto his plate not only gave him some autonomy around his portions but also increased his motivation to accurately transfer. As a parent, I marveled to observe that the more purposeful the transfer work, the more attuned and focused Papa would be to his work. At around 2 years old, after hours of observations and hands-on experiences next to a supportive adult, your child might be ready to begin pouring ingredients on a pan that is over a hot stove. Transferring food to a pan over heat or moving a pancake from a pan onto a plate requires the ability to focus. Your child must become hyper-aware of the high temperatures of the cooking equipment. Long tools like a spatula will provide a good amount of separation between your child's hand and the heat and are a great way to keep a child safe as they practice this skill. At around 30 months, after working on these skills for a while, we invited Papa to crack eggs over a bowl. When he mastered that skill, we encouraged him to crack eggs over the stove. After much practice with various kitchen tools such as bowls, pitchers, funnels, spoons, spatulas, and measuring cups, Papa was finally ready to transfer pancakes carefully from the stove onto a plate, holding the pan’s handle (cool to the touch) for balance.
Toddler transferring pancakes using a spatula
photo credit: Montessori Madre
Ultimately, a toddler who is repeatedly invited into the kitchen and given multiple opportunities to refine their movements in the presence of a patient, supportive adult who lets them learn through mistakes, will build the practical life skills that are necessary to move from dependence towards independence, cooking their way through mealtimes in the coming years. The heart of Montessori philosophy is observing and following your child, in appreciation of the fact that child has a unique development path. Observing your child for readiness will help you discern when they need more practice on a simple task in the kitchen and when they might be ready to turn up the heat.

Read more about supporting practical life skills

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