Whether you consider yourself a foodie or not, your kids are likely all about food. Food is at the center of daily life and the heart of family rituals and traditions. Every day, kids watch us shop for and cook it. They love to help make and, of course, eat it. So, there's no more universal context for pretend play—and no more free and engaging way to play chef that than in your very own outdoor kitchen.
So, pack up kitchen tools (pots, bowls, spoons, cookie sheets, etc) and head to a spot outside that offers open dirt and plenty of nature treasures (sticks, leaves, grasses, flowers, berries, tree fruits, etc.). Make sure the ground is wet, that you have access to water, or that you bring a gallon or two with you. Do something to transform that space into a special spot just for nature cooking. Give a few prompts just right for your kids age and stage. Then, just let the play roll.
Why is this activity great for kids?
By introducing a set of kitchen tools (pots, pans, spoons, cookie cutters, etc) in a setting with the greatest of raw materials (water, dirt and nature stuff), you provided a context that invites sensory play and pretend play in an appropriate and engaging way for kids 1.5 to 8 or even older. Lots of our kids get to help in our kitchens, but an outdoor kitchen is their domain and one in which both kids and parents can totally embrace the mess. This kind of unbridled mess-making frees up kids to develop genuine creativity.
Imaginative or "make believe" play emerges between 18 and 36 months, starting with children being able to pretend that one object (e.g. mud) is another object (e.g. food!). As children get older, the scenarios involved in their play get more complex and social. The older the child, the more elaborate their dishes and the more involved the pretending that surrounds the “food.” Older kids will, quite naturally, work together to make something with meaning like a birthday cake, an enemy pie, or a holiday feast; and the play won’t stop with the cooking but will morph into something more involved like a party with friends or to the delivery of pie to the bad guys.
The kind of mixing, smashing and mashing that kids do in an outdoor kitchen may seem so very simple to our adult brains, but are noted by experts as actions that “transform” the objects involved and are a powerful and universal way to support brain and body development (yet another one of those schema we talk about).
Finally, as parents, it's nice to know such a simple way to turn a dirt patch into an outdoor kitchen and inspire a day of sustained, imaginative play.