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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Top Toddler Toys (Ages 2+): A Play Kitchen and All the Fixings

Cooking at home, almost 4 years old
When I think of the quintessential toddler/preschooler toy, it's hard to come up with anything better than a play kitchen. Play kitchens and food are fixtures in preschools, play places, and play rooms everywhere. Just scanning through photos for this post, I found pictures of Toddler X enjoying play kitchens at Whimsy, Billy Beez, Play!, La Petite Playhouse, the Duck Pond, the Children's Discovery Museum (both play food in the Wonder Cabinet, and the whole kitchen/market area downstairs), Lemon Tree, Tahoe Tot Spot -- and, of course, our playroom and those of several of his friends.

Children's Discovery Museum, almost 3 years old
Why are play kitchens and food so ubiquitous at toddler/preschool hot spots? Because kids love them! Pretend play is the basis of SO much learning in these early years, and much of it is modeled after the real-life activities of adults. Kids have watched their parents shop for and unload groceries, prepare meals, set the table, and sit down to eat at home and at restaurants -- why wouldn't they want to emulate that in their pretend world?

The Duck Pond, 17 months old
Toddler X received his play kitchen shortly before his 2nd birthday, and it has gotten daily use ever since (coming up on two years now!). We've added lots of fun accoutrements over the past two years -- appliances, food sets, a tea set, etc. -- and each one has been a worthwhile investment. Every day, he finds a new way to play with these items, from making breakfast for mom and dad, to running a restaurant, to building a grocery store out of Magna-Tiles or Tegu, to (most recently) feeding dolls. Every day, he enjoys these toys, and every day, he learns.

Tahoe Tot Spot, 3 1/2 years old
Having played with our own play kitchen, as well as those at friends' houses, preschool, and countless toddler/preschooler play places, I've had a chance to experience/observe a lot of different products in action. If you're looking to create a kitchen for your child or add some "fixings" to the one you already have, here are my top recommendations. Enjoy!

A Play Kitchen...

This gets play time every. single. day.
A Kidkraft Kitchen. Almost all of our friends and many indoor play spaces have some form of KidKraft kitchen. Though these are a beast to put together, they are absolutely adorable and very sturdy and well-made. Toddler X got his for Christmas when he was just shy of two years old, and it has seen play time every day since. He'll be turning four in a few months, and I don't see his interest waning at all. It is the centerpiece of our playroom and has brought him so much joy.

In terms of which model to get, you probably can't go wrong with any of them, but the one we have (and see most frequently at play places) is the Vintage (or Retro). They have it in several colors (we chose red), or in a two piece style for more flexibility in placement (see the pink one below -- two of our friends have that version). You should be able to find the Vintage on Amazon for $120 or less -- if you see it higher, wait a bit, as it's frequently on sale. You can often find even lower prices, down to just over $100, if you're flexible as to the color. Here are a few examples of different styles (ours is on the left) -- you can't go wrong, so just choose the one that fits your budget/aesthetic.

      

The only negative about the KidKraft kitchen is that it is a beast to put together -- if you plan to give it to your child on Christmas morning, start working the night before. But once put together, it is solid and secure -- ours hasn't required a single screw tightening in almost two years.

If the KidKraft doesn't appeal to you, our other top pick is the Hape Playfully Delicious Gourmet Kitchen, pictured below. It's adorable, compact, and very well-made. While its standard price point is usually the same as the KidKraft kitchens, I've seen the Hape go on sale for as low as the mid $80s, so keep an eye out if this is the kitchen you want.


And finally, Ikea makes a cute and very inexpensive kitchen that is less substantial but can still provide for plenty of toddler/preschooler fun. 

...And all the "fixings"!

Hape Kitchen Appliances and Cookware. I discovered Hape during Toddler X's infancy because of their beautiful wooden baby toys, and we've fallen even more in love with this brand during the toddler years. When it comes to kitchen accessories, these are definitely our top picks.

A perfect, durable basic set.

When Grandma and Pops gave Toddler X his KidKraft kitchen, they were kind enough to include the Hape Playfully Delicious Kitchen Starter Set to get him off and cookin'. This wonderful, all wood set includes a pot and pan, a ladle and spatula, two place settings, and salt and pepper shakers. The pieces are as solid and well-made as could be -- after two years of hard play, they are in perfect condition (except for some crayon marks, but that's certainly not Hape's fault). This set is a pure winner.

That same year, knowing that Toddler X would be getting a play kitchen for Christmas, a friend gave him the Hape Playfully Delicious Toaster, and our love affair with Hape's Playfully Delicious kitchen appliances was born. In the two years since, we've added the Coffee Maker and the Mixer, and all three are incredible toys. Not only are they adorable, but they come with moving parts and accessories that make them so much fun to play with.
I dare you not to try to
flip the toast out onto the plate...
The Toaster Play Set comes with two slices of bread, which it pops up (or flips out) with a lever, as well as a plate, a knife, some sliceable butter and a bottle of honey (all wood, all cute as can be).


The Coffee Maker Play Set emulates a Keurig, with a little coffee pod that you can put in and a start button -- it comes with a mug, cream and sugar (again, all wood and adorable).

And finally, the Mighty Mixer Play Set has a knob that allows you to actually spin the mixing wand, and has a knob to turn up the speed. It comes with a plastic bowl and fabric pouches of brown sugar and flour.

Overall, we've been absolutely delighted with the look, functionality and durability of the Hape Playfully Delicious line -- like I said, Toddler X plays hard and uses these toys every day, and almost two years later, they're still going strong. These appliances generally retail in the mid $20s, but you can occasionally find them on sale for as low as $18 -- if you see that deal, jump on it!

   

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Toddlers love to wheel their possessions from room to room.
A Shopping Cart. It is amazing how much fun kids can have with a simple shopping cart -- and how great shopping carts are for quick cleanup of play food (and everything else)!

Just throw everything in the cart...
Shopping carts are hugely popular at every single indoor play place, and Toddler X loves his at home. This is one item where we went with plastic -- the Little Tikes Shopping Cart -- because I found a great deal on it, but I was very, very torn between that and the Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart in metal, which we've enjoyed at various play places (and which is the the #1 shopping cart sold on Amazon). The Little Tikes one works just great, while the Melissa and Doug one is adorable, but more expensive (and metal, so be careful with walls and shins). You can't go wrong with either.

  

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Solid wood, absolutely adorable.
A Tea Set. We adore our Plan Toys tea set pictured above. It's made of solid wood and is simple, sturdy, and small, but not tiny. The two tea bags are adorable, and Toddler X loves bringing us tea and adding cream and sugar (and honey, from his Hape toaster set). (Note that the sugar cubes are teensy and are definitely something to take away until you're certain your child won't put them in his or her mouth.) If you're looking for a simple, gender-neutral tea set that any child will love, this is a perfect one.

The other big contenders for us were the Hape tea set (which Toddler X has really enjoyed at play places like Whimsy, but which seemed really diminutive in size), and the Green Toys set in primary colors (which is a bit larger, but didn't match the rest of our kitchen wares at all). Both of those are other great options, and the Green Toys set is actually food-safe and dishwasher-safe, which is neat.

   


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New Sprouts food is perfect for toddler hands!
Play Food. What is a kitchen without play food? There are a ton of great play food sets from our favorite toy makers -- Learning Resources (New Sprouts), Hape, Melissa and Doug -- some of which we own, and some of which we've enjoyed tremendously at friends' houses or play places like Whimsy, Lemon Tree, Play! Los Altos and the Tahoe Tot Spot.

Here are my top picks:

Enjoying some of his New Sprouts play food
  • Learning Resources' New Sprouts line: This is the primary set of play food at our house, and we love it dearly. We have three baskets worth of food, representing breakfast, lunch and dinner choices. The pieces are rubber, which is not usually my thing, but the material is perfect for play food -- it's soft and pliable, more fun to hold and pretend eat than wooden food, and seems to sit better (or at least more naturally) on plates and in pans. The pieces are perfectly sized for little hands. We've had our set for almost two years and they've held up great.

    For once, though, I'm going to recommend that you not purchase the three basket set on Amazon. We got ours at Costco at Christmas time two years ago, and purchased all three baskets (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for about $18. Guess how much Amazon sells a similar (though slightly larger) set for? Over $50!


    Amazon is the place to go for many of Learning Resources' New Sprouts specialty sets (the adorable fruit salad, the fruit and veggie bag, and the cookout set are all good deals at around $20), but for the basic food items, try to find the big set at Costco around the holidays. The food items in the sets below are the same size/material as the ones in our set (and many of the pieces overlap between sets), so I feel comfortable recommending these as excellent play food sets.
  
    • Hape Playfully Delicious food playsets: The Hape Playfully Delicious line, which accounts for almost all our cookware and play appliances, also produces some of the cutest play food sets I've ever seen, all of which are very highly rated on Amazon. We've had the opportunity to play with some of them at friends' houses or play places (the sushi set and the salad set are absolutely adorable!) and Toddler X will be receiving the kebab set with the grill he's getting for Christmas. Like with every Hape toy I've encountered, these (and the many other specialty food sets Hape makes) are total winners. (I also included the strawberry pancake set in the links below just because I think it's adorable -- I've never played with it, but I feel confident that it's as good as the reviews say.)
       
      • Melissa and Doug playsets: Not surprisingly, Melissa and Doug sells a bunch of extremely popular, very cute wooden food playsets. (They actually have some nice felt ones as well -- we've played with the sandwich one, and it was lots of fun and definitely high quality). There's one for every toddler interest, so take a look at the whole array -- two that Toddler X loves are the Pizza Party Set (so much fun to create pizzas with all the toppings, bake them in his oven, and "slice" the pieces with the roller) and the Slice and Bake Cookie Set (which comes with an oven mitt and baking pan, which he loves). I'm including a link to the sushi set too because I think it's so darn cute -- I have no personal experience with it, but the reviews are great, so I'm comfortable including it.
         
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        A Cash Register. A cash register brings a whole new level of pretend fun to a kitchen, as you get to play grocery store or cafe (not to mention all the non-kitchen-related pretend play fun you can have -- we love to do a pet store with Toddler X's stuffed animals). Grandma X got Toddler X the Learning Resources Pretend & Play Calculator Cash Register, and it's absolutely perfect. The drawer opens with a delightful chime, the credit card swiper beeps (a plastic credit card is included), and the calculator actually works, making it a great learning tool. We took the plastic coins away because Toddler X was just shy of 2 when he received this, and we only gave him about ten of the paper money pieces (you get a whole stack), but we augment his stash with all the store loyalty program cards we have lying around, and he's happy as a clam. I think this is a great educational toy that has tons of different uses.


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        A Chef Costume. The Melissa and Doug Chef Role Play Costume Set is a great gift for a little chef who already has lots of kitchen features, or an add-on to the gift of a new play kitchen. Toddler X doesn't actually have this set at home, but he loves it whenever he finds it at a play place (and judging from the kids running around in these at Billy Beez, other toddlers love it too). The hat, the oven mitt and the little kitchen tools round out a very cute set. This is sized for kids 3 and up.



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        The Hape Playfully Delicious Gourmet Grill. This will be Toddler X's Christmas present this year -- he has absolutely loved playing with it at both Whimsy and Lemon Tree, and when I saw a great deal on Amazon, I couldn't resist. This little set is adorable -- in addition to the grill, the set includes wooden shish kebabs and fixings, all on little skewers. Toddler X's favorite part seems to be opening the grill hood and trying to see how much food he can pile inside -- not the best cooking technique, but hey, he's three.


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        Selling ice cream at Tahoe Tot Spot
        The Melissa and Doug Grocery Store/Lemonade Stand. If we had extra room in our playroom, this would definitely be at the top of my "big gifts" list for Toddler X. This little two-sided stand -- one set up for selling groceries, the other for lemonade -- is absolutely adorable, and Toddler X has loved playing with it at various play places over the past few years. It's a great way to extend the kitchen pretend play element into the outside world, with kids buying/selling items (great for working on number and money concepts), loading shopping carts, and taking their "purchases" home to place in the kitchen. The bins are also great for sorting fun -- you can sort by color, by food type, whatever. If your child already has a kitchen and you're looking for a related gift (oh, and you have a large playroom), this is a winner.



        So, that's it! If you're starting from scratch, my first recommendations would be:
        1. A kitchen (obviously). The KidKraft ones are my top picks.
        2. A basic set of play food (ideally the New Sprouts baskets from Costco, but you can't go wrong with any of the New Sprouts, Hape or Melissa and Doug sets). 
        3. The Hape Playfully Delicious Kitchen Starter Set, which has a pot, a pan, plates, utensils and salt and pepper shakers. 
        After that, I'd probably invest in the shopping cart -- not only does it allow for grocery store play, but it's a great way to clean up play food and accessories!

        If your child already has those basics, I highly recommend the Hape Playfully Delicious accessories, like the coffee maker, toaster and mixer, as a next step -- at just under $20 (when on sale), they're great deals for the quality.

        The specialty food sets by Melissa and Doug, Hape and New Sprouts are also reasonably-priced add-ons to a kitchen set, and it's fun to pick sets based on your child's interests (we love pizza, so the Melissa and Doug pizza set was a no-brainer -- others might gravitate toward the pasta set or the sushi).

        If your toddler already has a well-established play kitchen, and you're looking for a big gift, the Hape grill and the Melissa and Doug grocery store/lemonade stand are both adorable.

        Hopefully you find this useful as you think about setting up a play kitchen for your toddler! Toddler X's kitchen has brought him (and us) so much joy over the past two years, and I'm so glad that I get to share some of my favorite elements with you.

        Happy cooking!

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