“Why does Aunt Linda have a kitchen?” Ben, who was five at the time, askedĀ  his mom. Disappointingly, he was not referring to my just-completed renovation with its beautiful green soapstone counters. Ben is mature for his age, but even now at age seven he has not yet developed an interest in home decor.What’s on Ben’s mind is the 25-year-old Fisher-Price play kitchen my own children played with for years, which I now pull out whenever Ben or any other young child comes to visit. It’s not just the kitchen itself that’s so enticing–even though a sink, refrigerator, stove, microwave and counter, along with some storage bins, a phone and a chalk board are contained in a colorful piece of plastic about 3′x3′x4′. What Ben and other kids love is all the food. During the years that I was accessorizing this standby, I added “frozen peas” that can come out of their pods, a “frozen” pepperoni pizza that fits together like a puzzle, a “Big Mac” (and my kids didn’t even like fast food), taco fixings, corn that comes out of its cob, cupcakes with removable icing, and numerous other goodies. There’s dinnerware for four and a picnic basket.

A mom’s eye can quickly catch that this kitchen isn’t new. To begin with, it’s a little dirty–probably no dirtier than the play kitchen standing in the family room of any preschooler’s home today–but this is age-discoloration: a bit of yellow/brown that won’t wipe off between the fake counter tiles. Secondly, there’s the the chalk board. Today it would be a white board or some other erasable drawing surface more likely to mimic the real one in the real kitchen. (If my great-niececould have his way, it would feature permanent markers. She and every other four- and five-year-old I know has a fixation with Sharpies.) The final giveaway is the orange telephone. So 1985. And until Ben became the primary fan of this kitchen, I hadn’t cut away the VERY DANGEROUS orange cord that connected the phone to the kitchen “wall.”

I must admit that when I was investigating toy kitchens, this wasn’t my flat-out first choice. Need I only say that I worked for Scholastic, a fact that may reinforce why I would have preferred one of those wooden jobs, like they have in preschool classrooms, with wooden food, more real-looking utensils, and so forth. But when I bought the Fisher-Price kitchen, my almost-three son was about to have a baby sibling. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, and he and the new baby would be sharing living space. So I opted for the compact plastic model.

I never had any regrets, I must say, especially since Fisher-Price kept adding food to the line. The kitchen made by Little Tykes (remember, we’re talking mid-to-late 1980′s here) seemed a bit sturdier and perhaps a little cooler, but it lacked all the add-ons. And it was pretty difficult to get wooden food back then. Pre-Internet, remember, stuff was harder to get. A few catalogs that catered to preschools did show up in my mailbox, but in the back of my mind I knew that a wooden banana could make a better weapon than a plastic one.

Play with your food, please

As I was a parenting writer/editor at the time, I knew the importance of pretend play, especially pretend play around food. (Thus I was willing to devote valuable room space to this rather large toy.) Thinking around these areas hasn’t changed at all in the past 20 years. (Look at some of my past–and future–posts for lots of newsflashes about what we got wrong in those days.) Pretend play builds social and emotional skills as children cooperate with others in their games. They work out real life situations by imitating mommy and daddy. In their imagination, they work through possibilities. (For two in-depth discussions see http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=10175 and http://www.toddlerstoday.com/articles/development/once-upon-a-time-2224/. It’s the same thing you read in Parents or Parenting when your kids were little. Don’t worry.)

Food play falls distinctly into the category of working out real life situations. And I don’t meant that giving a kid a toy kitchen will help him learn to cook. But the child will interact with food and with the process of getting food into our stomachs–a necessity for life (but also, unfortunately, something many people overdo). Children experiment with the concept of raw (can toy food be raw?) and cooked, of serving to others, and of pleasing. Unfortunately, child development experts have never demonstrated any link between toy kitchen-play and reduced fussiness about real food.

Toy food from the (toy) food market

Being that the wooden toy thing still sends a thrill up my leg, I love the kitchen–and market–for sale at The Land of Nod (http://www.landofnod.com/spill.aspx?c=3146&pc=2893). These are high quality toys. I have given several of the food items–such as the pizza with its Velcro toppings–as gifts, and the recipients devoured them (figuratively, of course). I can’t count the times I have said, “Num, num, num” or “Yummy in my tummy” when presented with a wooden sandwich or ice cream cone. The items by this manufacturer are, however, pretty pricey. The gorgeous kitchenette is nearly $250, and the refrigerator $200. This stuff is for serious wooden-toy aficionados.



(The Land of Nod wooden kitchen and pizza set. Yummy.)

KidKraft makes two handsome wooden kitchens, one in pink (very girly) and the other in what they call retro-red. Both take up a bit of space and are meant to be placed against a wall and don’t have that every-inch-in-every-direction feel of my Fisher-Price kitchen. A downside might mean that there’s less cooperative play. One child can’t be pretend washing while another pretend cooks. On the other hand, the galley layout might prevent knocks and shoves resulting from little ones getting in each other’s way. The prices on these are a little less than those from The Land of Nod, and there are some accessories, and not all in wood. They are both available at Amazon.com.


(The red KidKraft kitchen is very retro and very cool.)

Little Tykes has several models. Their “Sizzle N Serve Kitchen” suffers from having an “N” in its name. But as it comes from this manufacturer, you can bet it’s nearly indestructible. It apparently comes with some accesories, like some food and pots and pans, plastic ice cubes (from a working ice-maker)–and a gas grill! Retailing for about $150 on sites like Amazon.com, this kitchen features two layouts–straight and l-shaped. The toy takes its name from the sound effects in the grill and stove. The great aunt in me believes that there’s a lot of play value here. I like less their “Play Smarter Cook N Learn Kitchen.” It’s plain ugly. And imagine: recipe games teach kids colors and sizes. There’s a little bit of trying too hard here to make playing “learning,” which, I think, after the initial blush wears off makes playing boring. I will say that this is priced right–less than $100 on Amazon.com.


(Chefs at play with Little Tykes Sizzle N Serve.)

“Lifestyle Grand Walk-in Kitchen” from Step2 is huge and meant for people with big playrooms. Several children could use this kitchen at the same time, and it looks really sturdy and has garnered some good reviews. It falls into the more pricey category–around $250. For that kind of money I would prefer a wooden kitchen (although everything about the design of this one is sensible). This company makes a smaller play kitchen, The Lifestyle Dream Kitchen, which comes with a 37 piece accessory set. It’s good looking–but it seems a mite small, like it’s meant for toddlers. (My kids used the Fisher-Price kitchen until they were eight or so. No kidding.)


(Isn’t life grand with this huge play kitchen from Little Tykes?)

One kitchen I don’t like is by . . . Fisher-Price. Dora the Explorer winks from behind and talks. It would give me nightmares. They also make an Elmo restaurant, which with Oscar and Cookie on the doors of the stove and refrigerator, definitely falls into the creepy department. My niece is raving about their “Grow With Me” kitchen. It starts out at the appropriate height for a toddler, but then can be made higher, and, ta-dah! There’s now a microwave. The kitchen also has lots of sound effects (by way of batteries, not included), like a blender that goes whirr. My niece said it’s really easy to assemble–and she was also excited that Fisher-Price seems to be producing a new line of food. She has already bought the peanut butter and jelly sand51flBrPvqDL._SL160_AA160_wich set. (The Fisher-Price Website says this toy is sold exclusively at Toys R Us, but I’m not sure.) The Fisher-Price”Laugh & Learn 2-in-1 Learning Kitchen” features “sounds and phrases” and is for babies. All of these are reasonably priced, of course, and since they come from Fisher-Price, well made.

(“Help, get me out of this kitchen,” shreiks Dora. Not really.)

They just don’t make them like they used to.

The kitchen I found that is most like the one my kids have is made by Chicco.

(The colorful Star Kitchen from Chicco.)

This manufacturer, whose toys were originally imported from Italy and thus had a certain chachet, uses bright primary colors. It’s cute, it’s under $100, it’s compact and kids can play on both sides. But . . . it’s not as interesting or inventive as my getting-older-every-moment Fischer-Price kitchen. A lot of moms of little kids I spoken with like the Little Tykes products; most yearn for the wooden toys because they look so classy. Some moms I know are excited that Fisher-Price is finally updating the kitchen my great-nephew and other young friends adore. (I mean, that phone is so 1983.) In the plastic kitchen department, though 20-years-old, that kitchen still has much built in play.
A note: one problem we always had was where to put all the “stuff” th317PfX-fUyL._SL160_AA160_at went along with the kitchen. Since we lived in apartment where space was precious, the kids and I would cram everything into the kitchen at night when we cleaned up. But no child wants to cook plastic turkey legs if the toy oven is full of pretend pizza and what not. So the next day’s play inevitably means lots of kitchen odds and ends scattered over the floor. The obvious answer is to get a dedicated receptacle that fits everything. Any Walmart or Bed Bath and Beyond will have many suitable choices. But here is a gap that could be filled by a smart toy manufacturer: some kind of box that is clearly meant to store extra toy food and toy dishes. And what a clean-up incentive that could be as well. But cleaning–now that’s another topic for another day.


“RE-CESS!”I shall forever feel the thrill of those two syllables. The bell would ring, and a class nicely lined up two-by-two would race their way out of the building. At Lee Street School, even in the coldest weather, coats and sweaters piled up under the Ginko tree (whose fan-shaped leaves appeared in window-decorating collages every fall) that somehow grew in the concrete. I think I remember a boys yard and a girls yard, but sex segregation, based on the idea that boys were too rough, I assume, didn’t really hamper the ramped up energy of every kid out there.

This is not politically correct to say, but I’ve observed that, boys and girls don’t really play together that much except when so instructed after about first grade. When my own children were little, the boys and girls played similar games–I mean girls played football too, and boys played “store,” but at a certain point the kids divided into boy groups and girl groups. My son’s friends had a continual game of touch football that lasted at least through middle school. I’m not sure if either team actually ever scored. In about fourth grade small side groups began to form, whose members were busy perfecting the art of being mean.

So recess has its downside too, one that people concerned with bullying spend much time studying. As they should. Because even if kids don’t physically hurt each other, bullying can leave scars. (I have written about bullying for McCalls Magazine, Child Magazine, Weekly Reader Current Health, and other magazines. I think it’s an important issue.)

Still, an enormous amount of learning goes on in the schoolyard, and not all of it happens in the large and small muscles which learn to do things like jump and skip. During recess games, kids get their first practice in the fine art of negotiation. They learn spatial relations. Math skills (1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi). They figure out how to fill time and begin to develop body clocks. Then we have the social skills (fine art of negotiation, part 2): if you’re nice, you’ll have lots of friends. Similarly, if you’re mean in a certain way you’ll have lots of friends too. Imaginations get stretched along with hamstrings. And, miraculously, the skills kids need to do well in academically (and on tests) get practiced too. Kids who pay heed to following rules, or just a conversation, are also learning to track words the way they will do when reading. Recess gamesĀ  hone a child’s memory and help deepen the synapses in their developing brains.

The value of play became a hot topic again this past week first with an article in the New York Times, “The Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum” (http://tinyurl.com/4ntupwh) followed by a blog post by Lisa Belkin, “The Mess of Children’s Play,” (http://tinyurl.com/6k372yp). Ms. Belkin quotes the famous words of Captain Kangaroo (Bob Kesham): Play is the work of children. She could have added in Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Spock, Tufts University’s Child and Family Web Guide, Ellen Galinsky, and, no small potatoes here, The Nation Association for the Development of young children (http://www.naeyc.org) which has been fighting for recess for as long as I can remember.

With the spotlight again on the benefits of play for children of all ages, we can hope that more schools will take time to consider the equipment offered on their playgrounds. I hardly see see-saws anymore–and for good reason: child wanders under upper half and gets bopped in the head when that part comes down; child jumps on one end, sending child on other end catpulting into the air. Oh, I’ve seen a lot that isn’t pretty. Also, for good reason all-wood play grounds have fallen out of favor. They rot, provide great nests for rats and other non-classroom animals, and give off big splinters.

With school budgets being cut all over, PTAs in many communities are rising to the challenge and purchasing as much outdoor equipment as they can for as much as they make through bake sales and other fundraising efforts.

So for you playgroung dreamers, here are some great, essential and well-priced pieces I’ve come across lately:



I used to think interlocking rubber mats made a great surface. In fact, I used to think pea gravel was terrific too. Interlocking rubber mats have a few advantages in that they come in colors and can be laid in a pattern formation that not only looks pretty, but can direct play in sometimes necessary ways. The blue room, for instance, can gather on the blue mats. I’ve come to believe pea gravel is dangerous and a last choice since if a kid falls hard and gets an open wound, gravel can be imbedded in the skin and need to be (ouch!) removed with a needed or tweezersTimbers_400

This rubber mulch is non-toxic, environmentally friendly, requires almost no maintenance. You can find it online at http://www.detailedplaypro.com/playground-surfacing.htm.



Even when they’re outside, kids like to pretend they’re inside. Yes, one would think, a strange play pattern. But it’s developmentally right on target for preschoolers through elementary school.

I love this one.


OK. Totally impractical. But here’s the URL for this cape cod at Playhouses.com: http://tinyurl.com/68fyg3f



Try this one instead:


This basic piece comes in four different designs. I’ve seen children use it to play store, fort, and post office (the I’m buying stamps kind, not the kissing version). I’ve also seen it used as a clubhouse–no boys allowed. You can find it at www.gametime.com.

Slides are necessary.

I’ve seen this set in a school yard outside of Boston as well as in New York City. This particular configuration is geared to 2-5 year old set. Especially cool are the numbers that children can spin and play with while waiting their turn. The company that makes this one, BYOplayground.com, has other configurations that work for older children–steeper slides, etc.


As are things to crawl through.

48__RIGHT_TUNNEL_4cb4c1cb28f12_200x180This one is from sitecreationsplayground.com. It’s quite colorful and looks fun. However, I prefer when the sides of the tunnels are clear plastic so teachers and parents can keep an eye on what’s going on inside. In your search, you’ll probably come across some of those.



Finally, don’t forget the jump ropes, balls and parachutes!

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MySimon has good prices: http://tinyurl.com/5vnfxbb

Online you’ll find companies in your area that will build you a nice-looking playground with terrific components. Always speak to the company on the phone before ordering anything beyond a jump rope. Ideally, the company will have local representatives who can look at your site and suggest the best use of space.

One final thought: play equipment is terrific. But if your budget doesn’t allow anything fancy, believe me, a plot of grass will do just fine. The kids might go home with green knees, but that’s just proof of all the work they’ve accomplished that day.