There are mixed opinions on whether or not a play kitchen belongs in a Montessori environment, though most lean towards no. In most traditional Montessori classrooms, play kitchens are replaced with purposeful work, e.g. preparing and cooking real food, and cleaning up real dishes. Children not only get more out of this experience, but they typically prefer it. I know that Dakota, at 18 months, prefers practical life work more than anything else. Her favorite activities are the ones she sees us doing every day: putting dishes away, washing hands (Dakota could do this all day), pouring water, helping prepare food, and cleaning up (sometimes making a mess just to do so). I can clearly see Dakota’s focus, satisfaction, and pride as she does these tasks.
To best serve Dakota’s toddler needs, I been making the IKEA play kitchen more and more functional for her. I started by removing the parts that weren’t serving any purpose: the microwave, the faucet that didn’t produce water, and the light-up stovetop. This past weekend, I replaced the faucet with this glass water dispenser that is easy to turn on and off, and can produce a very slow flow of water. She can fill the sink with water, pump a little soap from this soap dispenser, and wash her hands or dishes. It took a few tries to find a water dispenser that fit this kitchen and didn’t arrive broken(!), but we are so happy with the final result. Though she still needs some assistance turning the water on and pumping out soap, she’s not far from doing all this on her own.
I also replaced the stovetop with a cutting board where she can practice chopping real fruit or vegetables. After snacks or meals, I lay out a towel over it for her to place her dishes. For now, this cutting board is most often used to set out snack for her to serve herself. I place a pre-portioned amount for her to scoop or transfer to her plate. Though she likes to fill her water glass from the water dispenser now, she also still pours water and milk from a small pitcher into her glass. She can then carry her plate and glass to her small table to eat. Dakota loves this simple act of independence!
The other big difference between this functional kitchen and a play kitchen is the cupboard. Instead of pretend food and pots/pans, I filled the cupboards with utensils, dishes, and cleaning supplies she uses on a daily basis. On the left she has her spoons and forks, glasses, pitchers, plates, and bowls. I only put a couple of each item out, so that if she wants to “reorganize”, it’s not so overwhelming and doesn’t create a big mess. She likes to help unload the dishwasher each morning and put her dishes back in their place, or at least in the vicinity. ;)
On the right she has larger utensils for helping to bake or prepare snack, towels for wiping up spills, and a small dustpan for cleaning up crumbs and small pieces of food. Each one of these items doesn’t get used every day, but they all serve a function and have been used with purpose. To the left of the kitchen she has a dustpan and brush, a laundry bin for dirty/wet towels, and a compost bin to put her scraps after eating. (The compost we only put out at mealtimes thanks to our always-hungry vizsla!) Lastly, above the kitchen I keep a little wall art for her to look at, and now practice labeling.
Note on the water: Though not strictly “practical”, I do let Dakota play at the kitchen sink, even when it’s not to wash or drink water. She is clearly getting a positive sensory experience by running her hands through water, and concentration from pouring water back and forth from her pitchers. Although I can’t let her stand at the sink with running water for too long due to wastefulness, I do give her time for this each day! One day very soon, it will lose it's magic, and she will simply use water for its intended purpose, so I’m embracing her love of water for now. :)