A Little Help for Your Little Kitchen Helper

   I'm a big believer in letting kids help in the kitchen.Yes, I know that there are a lot of potentially dangerous things there, but I'm coming at it from a slightly different perpsective.  You see, my mother was a triage nurse at the local university while I was growing up.  That meant that diner conversations could get a little, well, graphic.  It was run of the mill for us, but I learned that when inviting friends over for dinner, it was a good idea to watch for the tell-tale draining of blood from their cheeks.  There was one story about a young gentleman with a infected stud.  His situation was no doubt made worse because

  1.      He had put off going to the health center until the situation was severe because it wasn't a part of his anatomy in which you particularly want to admit to having an infection, and ...
  2.      He absolutely refused to have the stud removed.  His girlfriend liked it, and presumably, after experiencing its installation the first time, he wasn't about to consider having to go through it again. 

     Anyway, I was talking about kids in the kitchen, how did I get on that?  Oh yes.  What I learned was that the less spectacular but more common causes of preventable health center visits were accidents with food preparation items.  Bagel related accidents were the most common and most severe.  Think how you would cut one without a cutting board.  When I went off to college, an essential part of my kit was a cutting board and an admonition to "always use it when cutting bagels."  The take home message for me was that there were a lot of freshmen who were not sufficiently familiar with even the most basic kitchen implements.  Well that's not going to happen to our boy.
     Of course, there are plenty of horror stories of what can happen to young children in the kitchen.  There is no shortage of potential dangers, so any way you can place some controls on the situation would help.  My solution was the make a stand for him that at least partially limited his movements. 
     It's a platform that Peter can easily climb into and out of, and puts him at a good height to the kitchen island.  The large end holes let him climb in and out on his own.  Once in, he's at a good height for the table (I've been lowering the floor as he grows).  Shortly after making it for him, it became his favorite place in the house to hang out.  It's a great place to let him play with his favorite Play-Doh set, as well as his trains.  In fact the trains  informed the final design. 

     This turned out to be a great project for the person who's just getting started in DIY.  You don't need to have a pick-up truck to get the needed lumber home.  In fact, you can order it off the net without the shipping getting outrageous, as you'll see from the in the parts list.  You can also find it at your local big box store. 

     The tools that are needed are pretty limited to.  You could probably get by with only a moderately priced jigsaw.  You're also going to want a drill to start the holes.  I won't make a suggestion for that because there is such a hugh selection of perfectly servicable models.  Besides, you probably already have one.  If you also have some driver bits, assembly will also go a lot faster. 

Most of the cutting is to prepare the two end pieces.  I originally drew out careful plans of what the ends would look like, but when faced with the actual boards, I realized that it made just as much sense to just sketch my vision directly on the board in pencil.  The design is largely just a set of arcs that I drew using a piece of string as a compass.  I fiddled with the design until it looked right to me, then stacked the two boards to together and cut them both at the same time.  The waste pieces from those two large holes are still around as lap desks.  In fact one is under my laptop as I type this. Cutting will leave the edges a bit rough.  I used it as a excuse to buy a router, but that was probably overkill.  An hour with a rasp and some sand paper would probably do a more than adequate job.  The lower side panels also had an arc cut out from them for strictly aesthetic reasons.  In retrospect, it was a little silly, since you can't see the sides in its current location. 
     For assembly, I predrilled holes through the end pieces and into the ends of the sides, then used the longer screws to hold them together.  I did the same for the rails.  I put two angle brackes on the inside of each end piece and each side.  The floor was just put on top, and fastened with screws (from underneath, of course).  Screwing into the ends of the plywood like I did is not a very strong joint, but once you've put the floor in and fastened it with the angle brackets, the whole stand becomes quite rigid.  It's a fairly easy job to flip the stand on its side, and move the floor to a new location.  That's fortunately, since as your little one grows, you'll be lowering the floor ever six months or so.
     And here's a pic of the assembled stand.
     The rails were a special case.  When I first put it together, the obvious thing for me was to mount them with the long sides vertical.  After watching Peter play in it, I soon realized there was a better way.  This is the only modification that requires a table saw.  With the blade just above the table, I ripped two dados down the length of each rail.   I made a couple passes to get the width right.  Why?  See for yourself.












I finished it with a couple coats of rub-on polyurethane.  It's a lot easier to do the parts before the final assembly.  I think the design lends itself to some nice stenciling, but I find I like the "bare wood" look.  The poly coating gives it just enough stain and water resistance to stand up to a good scrubbing once in a while.  That's particularly necessary when Play-Doh gets into the train tracks and is allowed to dry. 
     This is by far the most popular of all my projects so far.  Peter has spent endless hours in it.  Because it's custom made, it matches the height and length of the kitchen island it abuts against, giving him a good surface to help us, or just play on.  We sometimes put one of his chairs in it so he can sit and eat while one of us is working in the kitchen.  It also happens to be close enough to the kitchen computer that he can watch videos when he needs some additional entertainment.  Oh yes, and now his trains can play too. 
     It's popular with us as well.  Peter heads straight for it whenever he's in the kitchen, which means that he's well away from any of the more dangerous places on the perimeter of the kitchen.  Since we bring stuff to him, we can control what he has access to.  If he suddenly feels the need to wander, climbing out slows him down enough that we can intercept him if necessary. 
     There are a few things I would do differently if I were to make another one.  Those smaller holes in the bottom are meant to be steps for Peter to use when climbing into it.  In practice I don't think he ever used them.  He would tend to just crawl in and stand up.  The steps might have been more useful to him if they were external to the side rather than recessed.  If I make another, I might try attaching something on the outside to act as a step.  Or I might just not worry about them. 
     The tracks in the railings have been a big hit, but having one continuous loop would be an even bigger hit.  Peter's solution has been to assign to me the role of Cranky (the crane) to lift the engines from one side to another.  Getting dinner ready can be a bit challenging when you have to keep taking breaks for rail transfers.  I haven't quite figured out an easy way you could make it bend around and connect the two railings, but I'd be tempted to try.  I suspect that it would involve the use of these router bits, but maybe I'm just looking for an excuse to buy them.  They only seem expensive until you realize how much (little) track you could buy for the same price. 

Happy Cooking!