“Mmmm…delicious.” She smiles and nods at her little toddler, rubs her tummy a little bit to demonstrate satisfaction for the carefully prepared meal offered by the tiny chef, because of course that is exactly what we do when we eat, rub our tummies. Is it to help the food digest more properly? Perhaps all natural wood from the agriculturally sustained crops in the Pacific Northwest stained with organic non-GMO vegetation requires a little support to make its way through our intestines. “Slurrp. Ahhhh,” she adds for effect to demonstrate she has downed another cup of imaginary coffee.
But we all know what she is really thinking here.
If I have to fake eat another tomato ice cream soup from this toddler chef I will lose. my. mind.
Yep. You’ve been there. Admit it. This pretend play game. It can be mind numbing. It always seems to go on the list of things I hear parents complaining about.
I don’t pretend play. That is not my thing. Give me a book, I’ll read you that book. Open up a puzzle, I’ll slap that thing together with you in seconds flat. Color? Yes please.
But I don’t want to eat your plastic/felt/wooden/imaginary(the worst) foods. I don’t. Do not make me be the baby. I don’t want to be the baby. Unless the baby gets to just lay hear and sleep and not do anything, then yes maybe I will be the baby. Can I just be the mom that is scrolling through her phone right now? I’m really good at that role. You pretend to be the kid that can patiently and QUIETLY entertain herself. Okay?
I love pretend play. I do. Getting lost in your own imagination is magical. But even I find my performance lacking quality at the end of the day when I just want to take a nap.
But this play is SO IMPORTANT people. It is. The experts tell you this. Play is their work, they say.
Whether YOU enjoy it or not, your child will be drawn to pretend. And if they are not, developmental specialists encourage you to set up an environment where children feel open to explore their world through imagination.
And while you KNOW this is true, you probably just want to go BLAH BLAH BLAH right back at them. Because BORING.
But maybe I can help.
Awhile back I introduced the idea of Intuitive Parenting and how when we relax and have fun with our children, there are some amazing developmental skills that can happen in what seems like such a mundane activity. And today, I want to take one of those areas and make it work for you and your child. Yes, it’s true. I think I can even convince you that pretend play can be FUN.
Imaginary play can happen with anything and everything. In fact, as I break down different play activities from our fantastic Essential Toy Pantry over the next few months (and I will! I promise!), pretend play will be included in all activities from art to building to bath time because it is just that important.
But for the sake of a single blog post we will begin with the most classic of pretend play. The kitchen.
So, you ask, what then do I do with Play Food?
To start with, here are some of my favorite items to work with. Obviously you can go anywhere and everywhere for play food from your own pantry to the toy store to the most creative Etsy shops. While I believe in imagination and creative free thinking (blocks can make excellent pretend food but that is another post for another day) sometimes a few basics is a nice way to set up the invitation to play.
I love these pots and pans from Ikea. Realistic, affordable, and so sensory driven with the sound and tactile feel.
I tend to shy away from plastic food because I am a snob. These felt options here and here and wooden options for food are great. They are probably just as much filled with chemicals and made in foreign countries so this is not a ecological stance as much as an aesthetic one. We still have a hamburger picnic set that is equally adorable but just happens to be plastic. No judgements. But if I were to pick preferences, these are where I would begin.
Don’t go crazy. Really and truly. More is not better. I have pared down SO much over the years as I discovered the tried and true vegetables are the go to’s every time. They may not be doing vegetables of the realistic variety but they LOVE themselves a good wooden salad.
Also, if you really want to go big a play kitchen and shopping cart is really fun to have. Again, not essential. A coffee table and plastic grocery bag work too. But if you know someone who wants to give a big gift instead of that inflatable bounce house that is both ugly and obnoxious, steer them towards these fun and classic items, that also look adorable in your home. You could even go all Pinteresty and make it yourself, if you are of the Over-the-Top variety.
So you’ve got the stuff. Now what do we do with it.
Actually, more important, how do we make this fun, since we have already established that it is NOT. My best advice is to find an imaginary play world that is actually not far off from something you enjoy as an adult.
1. Super Market Sweep
This is best for the child on the go, perhaps the one who will never be caught sitting daintily in a tutu with a circle of teddy bears and sipping water from tea cups. For this game, you set up the pretend play food at one end of your play area. You sit on the other end and give directions for particularly items they need to go retrieve. “Alright, on your mark, get set, get apples, coffee cup, and cheese. Go!” Watch your child race across the room, maybe even set up an obstacle course for added sensory and motor play. They are building cognitive and linguistic skills to remember the items you asked for. They are challenging their body with movement in play. And then when they return, encourage them to create something with what you had them retrieve. Throw in new challenges in the middle of it like “one red apple and two green spoons!” Now you are adding in cognitive skills with colors, size, shape, numbers, etc. But to them, its just funny to have an excuse to race around. Watch giggles ensue. It can be contagious, for adults too.
This popular cooking game show where chefs are given a basket of very random ingredients and challenged to create a meal can be a fun way to break up the boring steps of pretend play. Your child is already adept at creating very extravagant gourmet meals from nothing in minutes (I could really use some help in this department.) Yet the ability to follow directions and complete steps is a fun challenge for them. Why not walk them through the process of creating a pizza or cupcakes. Language skills are being built through this interactive play. Or perhaps you don’t have any eggs to make pancakes? Maybe go ask the chicken in the barn upstairs if you can have a few (imaginary) eggs for the pancakes. And when they hand you a broccoli kiwi and pepperoni soup, ask them to describe it for you. Maybe see if they have a fun name for this crazy concoction. Asking questions is great skill building for your child, but it can also bring up some very hilarious quotable moments for their baby book (I should get one of those.)
3. Yelp reviews
Because if you are going to be forced to eat the food, you might as well make yourself laugh in the process. This is not my original idea, as I first read this idea here, and it was in fact the inspiration for this post in the first place. Encourage your child to set up a restaurant and give it a name. Create a menu together. I did this with Caroline and her answers were a hilarious look into her perspective of restaurants. Writing skills and math skills are practiced in the menu creation. Then when you “visit” the restaurant, come up with your own reviews. Share these out loud as your tiny chef likely does not have access to internet to read these Yelp reviews herself. She may even gather some skills on proper service and food preparation as well as acceptance of critical reviews. Or not. She may just tell you to be the server next.
4. Open up a Coffee shop or Café
What if you just actually need to get work done. Maybe you need to check your email, finish up a blog post (she raises her hand), text with your friend about something important, or nothing at all. Maybe you need to get dinner on the table or clean up the dishes. This is when you open up a coffee shop/café. In coffee shop, your child is the barista. Shout out your most complicated order and see what he comes up with. Ask him to keep refueling your coffee cup, maybe bake you a scone. But remind him, you are there to get some work done. So could he please try to be quiet for a few minutes and maybe ask the stuffed animals to put their headphones on when watching that Youtube video? Ok thanks. Café is actually a little more interactive. Invite him to be your soux chef for the evening. Mixing up a soup? Maybe he can make a loaf of bread to go with it. Stir fry? How about “chopping” up some vegetables. They are interested in what you are doing but it is okay to show them you have work to do and not feel guilty about that, especially if you are making ways to let them work side by side. This is a great way to model vocation while still showing you care. Plus, those barista skills may pay off one day when they can actually make you a real latte!
With these few ideas, I think it is fair to say I am not making a pretend play lover out of you. There will still be days when you just want them to play ALONE. This is in fact a very important skill. But the little ones, they still want your attention. They will push and pull and nag and bug until you give in. So why not find a way to have fun. All the while realizing they are developing some fantastic skills. Good job, you!
So, what are you cooking up in the pretend kitchen tonight?
This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you purchase through them, I make a small commission. That being said, these are my honest opinions and I was not paid to talk about any of the products mentioned. I just think they are pretty great! Happy Shopping!