Cooking with Toddlers Made Simple

chopping salad with toddler

Cooking with toddlers made simpleAfter sharing some thoughts yesterday on how to invent a recipes with kids (by opening your kitchen up as a lab for experimentation), I thought it might help if I backed up a bit and shared a few tricks that have helped me set the stage for kitchen experimentation.

Here are my top four tips on bringing toddlers into the kitchen, making cooking with little ones fun, and keeping it simple…

 chopping salad with toddler

TIP #1

Spend time in the kitchen. I’m a big advocate for bringing children into the kitchen at an early age.

Babies won’t do much in the kitchen, obviously, but the kitchen is full of sensory experiences that can grab hold of the attention. As soon as my kids could stand, they’ve been active observers; watching me chop, stir, mix, and pour.

TIP #2

Give them tools. And as soon as they show an interest, I give my kids small bowls to mix pretend batters and salads while I make the real thing right next to them.

My youngest is 18 months old, and she loves mixing just about anything. She’s not as efficient as I am, and she’s certainly not as neat, but I know that if I include her at this young age she’ll feel comfortable in the kitchen as she grows older.

TIP #3

Find some kid-friendly knives. Did you see that my toddler is wielding a knife?

kid knives curious chef

One of my most creative friends, Rebecca Jordan-Glum (she’s just building her Facebook page — visit her here: https://www.facebook.com/JordanARTandDESIGN ) turned me on to these incredible kid-friendly knives from Curious Chef. We bought this pack of 3 knives for under $10, and use them all the time. If they’re out of stock, you can also find the knives through other Curious Chef cooking packages.

My 3.5 year old knows where to find them and can help herself, and my 18 month old will ask for “knife.” My youngest doesn’t use the knife as its intended, but she wants to join the party and I’m not going to stop her.

The knives are appropriate for children ages 5 and up, so supervision is recommended for little ones.

toddler mixing salad

TIP #4

Involve them in simple cooking projects. When I’m having a long day and I’m not in the mood for a massive clean up, I’ll try to find neater cooking projects for my kids to help with. Chopping salad is one of these projects. Scooping flour is not. Spreading butter on toast is one of these projects. Making pancakes is not.

Cooking with Kids: Resources

I’m loving Foodie Parent. It’s hilarious and there’s a section of the site called “Cooking with Kids.”

Cooking with My Kid is a beautiful site, full of practical ideas. Macki describes herself as a “Foodie by day, microwaver by night, I set out to teach my kid (and myself) the art of cooking.” I’m kicking myself because she was at Blissdom, and we didn’t meet!

Do you like to cook with your kids? What are you favorite cooking-with-kids tips? What is the most challenging part of cooking with children? Do you have a favorite “neat” cooking project?

 

Note: I share affiliate links for products I adore or think you’ll find useful. If you purchase through those links I will receive a small percentage of the sale; thanks for your help keeping this blog running!



Felt Cookies

frosting and sprinkles

Lately, a lot of play-acting around here seems to revolve around cooking. We have a slew of play food, but up until last week we had no cookies. When we wanted to bake a batch, the play dough would usually come out.  Not a bad thing — I love play dough — but while doing some research for another project, I hit on this fun and easy idea from Mirror-Mirror and Laura Bray for making felt play cookies. If you’re not a stitcher, don’t let that curb your own enthusiasm for making a batch of these.  The project is fairly simple, and could even be done with a glue gun instead of stitches if the mood strikes. These are not only great imagination-builders for your own play kitchen, but also make excellent gifts and could be a thoughtful donation to your favorite pre-school or school fundraiser.

The Prototype Batch

Since I had some felt and embroidery thread lying around, I decided to whip up a batch to see if these were worth making. A few iterations on the first batch and a couple visits to the craft store later, and I think I’ve nailed the project down pretty tight.

The very tough Test Kitchen

Materials

  • Acrylic Felt swatches like these: you can find these in craft stores for about 30 cents a piece (9″ x 12″).  Choose colors that you’d like for your cookies and your frosting. Good choices for us were tan, pale pin, dark brown, white, and cream.
  • Embroidery Thread to match the felt
  • Embroidery Thread for Sprinkles. My variety-pack includes pink, hot pink, yellow, and green.
  • Chenille or Embroidery needles. I prefer chenille needles because the eye is a little larger, making them easier for me to thread. Either way, make sure you get something with a sharp point. Stay clear of tapestry needles with their blunt tips.
  • Polyester fiberfill stuffing, such as this.
  • Pencil or fabric crayon

Directions

Fold your felt in half, or stack two pieces together, and draw your cookie shape. I made circles, but you could make gingerbread men, ducks, etc. My cookies are about 3″ in diameter. I like to cut free-hand, but you could place a cookie cutter or the bottom of a glass on top of the felt to get a clean shape.

Cut the felt out.

Make some frosting. Cut an organic circle-ish shape out of contrasting felt.

Layer the frosting on top of one of the cookie pieces. Select a color for the sprinkles. Thread the needle. Knot off one end, and stitch on some sprinkles. Add a couple colors if you ‘d like.

The back will look something like this.

Layer the bottom piece of cookie beneath the frosted top, and stitch around the cookie with a blanket stitch. Be sure to leave a gap to fill in the cookie with some fiberfill stuffing. Stitch the hole closed.

Place your cookies in a jar for gift-giving, or put them on a plate.

Happy Baking!

Please share your thoughts! Despite the format of the comment section below, you don’t have to register your name and can share anonymously :)

Finding Nature with Kids

outdoor abacus

Outdoor Abacus. Tot Spot, Children’s Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Although I grew up in the culturally-rich and naturally-poor concrete jungle of Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of having a wild backyard at my imaginative disposal. On the hillside of our rough-and-tumble yard, my parents thoughtfully installed a playhouse filled with nooks and crannies for storing treasures and a magical trap door, hidden beneath a rug, where we could escape into a dirt patch next to an apple tree. We built forts in the overgrown bushes, picked apricots, pears, and plums from our trees, and generally invented our own little universe in the world behind our house.

In contrast, 100 yards beyond our front door lay a busy intersection, replete with a fire station, liquor store, abandoned hospital, and a bar that opened at 6 am and advertised “live girls and pool.” Until I was about eight, I actually thought they had a swimming pool in there, and imagined girls floating around on rafts just beyond the saloon doors. Sigh. Despite our less than pastoral location, having access to a backyard wonderland filled me with a love of nature that one wouldn’t expect in a city child.

Similarly, you may live in a less-than-ideal spot with few options to take your kids on nature walks or let them roam the neighboring creek, and it could be helpful to peek at an idealized utopia of nature-play to seek some inspiration for fostering creativity in the great outdoors.

Playing with Mud and Water

To get us started, in their article, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature (1), playground designer and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining their ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slides…a surprising observation in light of what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (2) and promote competition rather than co­operation (3).” (Play Outside. Public Schools of North Carolina.). Slides and swings are no doubt fun, but children will bore more quickly of these closed-ended activities than they will of open-ended play spaces like sandboxes, forts, ponds, and climbing trees that allow for plentiful interpretations.

Playground designer, Randy White shares a comprehensive and workable list of things that children prefer in outdoor environments. I’ve found that some of these ideas can be implemented on a small-scale, and that inspiration can be found for even the most lacking of outdoor spaces.  These are also great things to look for when searching for playgrounds or preschools that foster creative growth through outdoor play.

Basic Components of Naturalized Play Environments (4):

  • Water
  • Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with
  • Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs
  • Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water
  • Diversity of color, textures and materials
  • Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather
  • Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade
  • Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views
  • Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts

References:

(1) White, Randy and Vicki Stoecklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature. Early Childhood News magazine, March/April 1998.

(2) Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 23­29.

(3) Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75­98.

(4) White, Randy. Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future. Taproot, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 16, No. 2. The Coalition for Education in the Outdoors, Cortland, NY.

Resources

Play Outside: Recommended Resources for Outdoor Learning Environments. Inspiring quotes, articles, and research for parents and early childhood educators.

Outdoor Learning Environments. National Clearninghouse for Educational Facilities. A long, detailed list of articles, videos and research on outdoor learning spaces.

Fairy Doors

pa fairy door

Have you ever spotted a fairy door?

Once you see one, your radar will be attuned to them like it might be for ice cream on a hot summer day or your favorite jeans at a basement sale.

We’re blessed to live near the a fantastic children’s library,and my daughter and I made a trip there just before heading off on vacation.  She has a thing for scanning books, and I like that we can be boisterous without ticking anyone off.  After dropping off some books, we wandered back into the toddler area, which is when I happened to spot the fairy door.


Huh? It was this cute little door, stuck to the wall, with no fan-fare or explanation…simply a little door.  And then I remembered seeing these little doors in other places…which prompted me to dig around and discover that there is a whole world of fairy door people out there, building little getaways for fairies in the most unexpected places.  There’s even a shop that just sells fairy doors. Brilliant!

It turns out that Ann Arbor, MI is so rich with fairies that you can take a self-guided tour of all the fairy sites, a very popular activity according to folks who’ve reviewed it on Yelp.

As an example, in the Folk and Fairytale section of the Ann Arbor Library there’s a little fairy home that’s truly inspiring (see photo above).

Okay, fairies may be cool, but fairies = creativity?

After posting last week about fairy gardens, this seemed like a nice follow-up on where the fairy garden idea could go.  This is all about building and supporting imagination and encouraging children the think creatively. I have some friends who build elaborate leprechaun traps with their school-age children every St. Patrick’s Day, an activity that involves a lot of planning, building, imagination, and invention. And then there’s the added benefits of spending quality time with their children and bolstering fun family traditions. If you choose to plant a garden for gnomes, install a fairy home, build a leprechaun trap, or leave lettuce for Santa’s reindeer (our newest family tradition), you’ve instilled your child with the idea that anything imaginable can be invented and created. And they will also experience a sense of playfulness that has the capacity to stick with them for life.

Fairy Garden

garden side view full

After a loooooong day of visiting the doctor, driving 90 miles to San Francisco for an expedited passport, a trip to the garden store, and an active playdate with friends, we treated ourselves to a relaxing evening of Fairy Garden Planting. Because, ya know, that’s what some people do after a marathon day. We just got it started and our Fairy Garden will no doubt go through multiple iterations, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start and I wanted to share the results.

At the garden store, my daughter and I spent a lot of time discussing the need to choose small-scale plants, and we worked together to select moss and mini cacti to fill in our tub.  And when we finally got home last night, the enthusiasm for setting the garden up had mounted to such a level that bedtime was delayed by almost an hour!

The Moss — sooooo pretty.  I love this stuff.

Getting Ready to Plant — It’s all about the knee pads.

A Magical View

Completed Fairy Garden

But why?

Imaginative play holds an enormous place in the lives of toddlers and preschoolers, and it seemed like a great idea to bring dollhouse-style play outdoors. For today, we had fun designing and building the garden (a worthy goal in and of itself), and my long-term hope is that my daughter and her friends will find themselves immersed in the magical miniature garden for countless hours of play.  After we set the little garden up, it occurred to me that we could easily extend the garden into other areas of our yard, giving our fairies loads of places to hide and play.

The scale of this garden naturally lends itself to planters and tiny containers, and the Fairy Garden is also a fabulous route to go if you want to set up a gardening experience for your child and you’re short on outdoor space.

Fairy Garden Resources

I’m not sure where I first got the idea to make a fairy garden, but I’ve since found a TON of creative people who’ve made and documented their magical wonderlands for all to enjoy.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Magic Onions: How to make a Fairy Garden:  Fabulous photos of an inspiring oak barrel garden.

Martha Stewart and Julie Andrews make an Indoor Fairyland (Text and 19 minute Video):  This is not a hands-on garden, but seeing Martha and Julie work side-by-side is a pretty rare treat.

Flickr Group: Miniature Backyard Fairy Gardens: Holy cow, there’s a Flickr group dedicated to this very concept.  Loads of ideas here.