Some parents obsess over baby milestones, anxiously awaiting the first tooth, first word or first step. But for me, the most exciting day was when my year-old son placed two toy vegetables in a plastic bucket, stirred it purposefully with a stick and said “Mmm!” with all the panache of a master chef. He proudly toddled over to me with this inspired cucumber-and-mushroom concoction. It was the first clear example we saw of him playing make-believe, and my heart puffed up like a giant soufflé. I had been waiting for this day for so long, so immediately after asking him “Are you making a soup?” I turned to my wife and said “It’s time to start thinking about a play kitchen.”
I dove headfirst into the research. Was a wooden or plastic model best? Something simple or something fancy, with a microwave oven that beeped? What did kids like? What did parents like? Should we just make one ourselves? I finally decided on a basic but well-designed wooden model, which I spruced up with a little yellow-and-copper-coloured spray paint. I filled it with a carefully curated assortment of pretend foods and other tiny accessories: metal pots and pans, handmade felt fruits and vegetables and wooden doughnuts that could be baked again and again. I was completely exhausted after assembling it, yet I found myself rearranging the tiny accessories again and again, standing back to admire my work.
The next morning, he was initially surprised to find what he considered a new piece of furniture but delighted to find that it was just his size and came with play food. He got the idea pretty quickly, and now he loves to dream up new and exciting dishes (egg, apple and ketchup soup, anyone?) and feed them to his parents and stuffed animals. He carefully sautés wooden sushi, eggs and felt lettuce in his tiny metal pans and makes coffee in his adorable coffee press (for a more complex flavour profile, he’ll add a stuffed tomato). Again and again, he takes the plastic sink out of the wooden countertop because it’s funny to put things through the empty hole. When neighbourhood kids come over, they head straight for the little yellow kitchen in the corner. One kid prefers to methodically organize all the foods and cooking utensils, announcing “Look, I put all the cups together!” while another just wants to cook toy dinosaurs.
But over time, I’ve come to realize something: The fancy kid-size kitchen in our living room is as much for me as it is for my toddler. Almost every night, I find myself sitting on the floor, lovingly sorting and organizing velcro sushi, wooden milk and cream cartons and teeny-weeny dishes. I like to put the baking foods in the oven and the basket of vegetables on the countertop between the stove and the sink. I refold the little tea towel and hang it back on the oven door and survey my handiwork with pride.
There’s another kitchen in our home—one that is full-size and has burners that work. It also happens to be yellow and very well loved but in an entirely different way. My wife and I are both somewhat accomplished cooks. She makes incredible collard greens and fluffy biscuits; I won’t let anyone else in the kitchen on pizza night and can whip up a simple, moist cake without a recipe or measuring cup. Maybe that’s part of why I wanted my kid to have his very own kitchen: I want him to share in that family joy before I entrust him with a hot burner or sharp knife.
But why am I so in love with the pretend kitchen when there’s a real one in the next room? Well, maybe that’s exactly the point. The play kitchen is, literally, for play. It’s all of the fun with none of the mess. There is no consequence if you forget to clean up a stir-fry in the little kitchen—the fabric and wooden pieces won’t go bad. The wooden kitchen, with its fake copper sink, is never the subject of an argument over whose turn it is to do the dishes (it’s mine again).
During the day, my child gets to be as creative as he pleases, making lettuce-and-apple stir-fries and drinking the imaginary ketchup right from the wooden bottle. I’m happy for him to have that experience—one I didn’t have as a child. But at night, after I put him to bed and glance at the horrified mess in my actual kitchen, I get to open up the yellow cabinets and breathe a sigh of relief. I should be scrubbing the stovetop but instead I’m taking the pretend orange juice out of the pretend oven because it just looks nicer on the shelf. And sometimes, when I’m all alone, I even catch myself whipping up a little pretend food—just for me.