Encouraging autonomy in toddlers through kitchen play

I love Maria Montessori for her philosophy on play.

Montessori says that all children learn through play or work. All children learn through active participation, by being involved in a practical way and by attempting to do something themselves, especially by using their hands.

Montessori turned on a light in my head with her conviction that children will make mistakes, but they go on making mistakes considerably longer if adults never give them the opportunity to attempt and perfect their skills.

I am not a child development expert but have witnessed the truth of Montessori’s wisdom over the past few years, simply by observing our children. Kids (including toddlers!) can and are willing to work. For them, work is virtually indistinguishable from play and vice versa.

As a new mom and complete novice in any area with regards to children (take this from someone who allowed her 6 month old to wallop 3 tablespoons of Japanese sweet potato just because he seemed to like it and vomit violently for a few days thereafter), I embraced Montessori’s challenge to let my children go and try as often as possible throughout the day to perfect fundamental skills.

I did this with Puppy and Lamb and after not only some premature white hair but also hair loss, I’m going through the whole rigmarole again with Piglet, the Terrific Two boy-baby that he is.

When Piglet wants some special Mama-Piglet time, he wants to do what I’m doing. He wants to see if he’s capable of doing something else other than his favourite jigsaw puzzle.

Most of the time, the kitchen presents tremendous opportunities – washing vegetables, watching me prepare them (loving that he can guzzle some raw tomatoes along the way), massaging marinades into raw meat and baking, just to name a few.

After lots of living room play and seatwork activities on any given day, I hustle my 14 week pregnant body to the kitchen and holler, “Who wants to help me wash rice?”

Little eyes light up. Feet come pattering. Piglet is delighted, he is all smiles.

I show him how to avoid spilling rice outside the bowl and he is all ready to go. With a toddler’s hands on deck, I have to spend double the time I’d usually take washing rice, so I keep my peripheral view on Piglet and his rice while picking up another task alongside, like slicing carrots.

Do I use this brush to clean veggies? Piglet, 1 year 10 months
Do I use this brush to clean veggies? Piglet, 1 year 10 months
Gingerbread dough. Better than play dough. Work/play ... eat!
Gingerbread dough. Better than play dough. Work/play … eat!

Piglet thrives on such activities. Over time, I have learned that play like this fosters independence, encourages a healthy sense of curiousity and generates how-to conversations that I wish I could record and recount for always.

As we work together, my memory wanders to days when I could engulf both of his tiny hands in my one big one.

I watch him take in every texture and smell.

I breathe in the wonder of his blossoming vocabulary even though he drives me almost insane at times with a million repetitions.

I laugh because this little human being is discovering how awesomely red a capsicum is.

I am glad because my Boy-Not-A-Baby-Anymore is growing in autonomy and self-respect.

I see these things – autonomy and self-respect – developing at other times when he asks to be excused from the table after meals, when he puts his tin cup in the sink after use, when he tidies his toys after playing.

And I see Piglet in a few years time. He’ll follow in the steps of his older siblings. He’ll fry eggs. Slice vegetables using a proper knife. Assemble his own sandwiches and cereals when I nap. Take his own dishes to the sink and (on a golden day) wash them sometimes.


He’ll create a fair bit of mess.


And have his own chore chart one day...

IMG_3659 Piglet’s growing up. It’s been nothing short of amazing to see how much a small person can progress in just two and a half years from the confines of the cradle.

I try not to mind my newly washed kitchen mat. The adult in me occasionally ponders boring issues like striving for personal responsibility, establishing healthy habits and cultivating a sense of accountability to other family members, eventually to society at large.

On the usual run-of-the-mill day though, these are far from my thoughts. I want rise above the discomforts of a new pregnancy.

I want to continue breathing in the excitement of a toddler’s exploration.

The delight of a world with endless possibilities.

And the glory of learning to stand up properly on one’s own feet.


You might also like: Teaching children to serve.

Upcoming: Our chore chart and how we make it work (and not).



  • mummyshymz
    June 13, 2013 8:05 am

    Love the way that you allow your children to explore. Just yesterday I read about how children are taught to take risks in some European countries – simply by letting them try, and letting them make mistakes. 🙂 Piglet and G are about the same age, so I’m seeing the same type of behaviors 😉

  • Mama J
    June 13, 2013 10:03 am

    I am so inspired by Finland’s education system particularly. Check it out if you can. Wish we could have that here.

  • Ing
    June 13, 2013 11:13 am

    The chore chart is such a great idea, love it! I should start one with my kids too. It’s great that you allow your toddler to help out despite his age. Many parents don’t do that and think they’re still too small to do such things. But it’s a wonderful way to foster independence and responsibility.

  • Mama J
    June 13, 2013 12:55 pm

    It’s a lot of work for mom to train but completely worth the effort 🙂

  • mummyshymz
    June 13, 2013 2:25 pm

    Yes. I’ve read about it. I love their mentality towards education. We have a lot to learn from them.

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