15 April 2007

The Learning Tower: Helping Toddlers and Young Children Participate In The Family Kitchen

We are very pleased to host this guest post written by Jeremiah McNichols of Z Recommends, one of our favorite parenting blogs. Thank you Jeremiah!

One of the best big purchases for our toddler daughter has been her Learning Tower. She has used it virtually every day, two or three times a day, since she was about 14 months old. Since she will probably use her Learning Tower on a daily basis until she is four or even five years old, even at about $170 (they are selling at a discount on Amazon at the moment for $153) that turns out to be a pretty good deal. We enjoy cooking, so much of our shared family life centers on our kitchen; thanks to the Learning Tower, our daughter is already learning those same priorities.

The Learning Tower is a sturdy wooden platform your toddler can use to interact with adults at their level, primarily in the kitchen, where most of the "action" is happening on 32-to-36" countertops. Unlike a chair or stool, the Learning Tower features a large platform for standing on (approximately 18 inches square), the platform can be set at any of four different heights (around 11" to about 19" off the ground), and a railing runs around the perimeter at your toddler's waist height. This makes it a very safe place for your toddler to participate in highly engaging activities without either of you worrying about him falling down.

The Learning Tower is solidly built, has splayed feet to prevent tipovers, and is easy for toddlers to get up on and down from. It ships flat in a box and is very easy to put together with the provided allen key.

Our daughter uses her Learning Tower for all of the following:

  • Eating breakfast at the counter while Mom and Dad get ready for work
  • Helping cook at the stove, under careful supervision (she likes to stir things gently frying in a pan, put things in water, check done-ness, taste as we cook, and taste or smell and talk about seasonings, spices, and ingredients)
  • Helping prep foods at the counter for cooking or baking (no knives yet, but she can sort beans, knead dough, top pizza, cut out cookies, and so on)
  • Engaging in messy play activities (like water play) which are easier to clean up and supervise at a counter, while Mom and Dad cook in or clean the kitchen
  • Helping Mom or Dad at our kitchen's double sink, washing dishes, veggies, or hands
Over the last year and a half our daughter has come to rely on her Learning Tower to give her access to all kinds of things. Now, at two years and eight months old, she has suddenly decided that she can (and must) drag it around herself to place it where she needs it (we have tile floors, so this is both relatively easy and not an issue).

If you are considering buying a Learning Tower, there are a few words of warning to help you determine if a Learning Tower is right for your family:
  • The Learning Tower is big. The platform and sides are about 19x19", but with the feet at the base its actual footprint is more like 19x25", and it is about 38" tall at its highest point, the arcing side rails. If you can't find a spot to conveniently store it when it isn't in use, or if you have a very narrow kitchen, you may find it getting in the way. (A tip for Little Partners, the company behind the Learning Tower: A model with a railing that could be detached, or even better, folded into the platform's base, would make for a much more easily stored Learning Tower, which could double as a toddler table/workspace.)
  • The Learning Tower is designed for counters, not tables. If your primary need is for something to support activities at a kitchen or dining room table, the Learning Tower is too tall. The top of its front railing is about 36" off the ground and is not adjustable, so high chairs are much more better suited for at-the-table use.
  • If you don't cook, forget it. Some people just don't cook. If that sounds like you, there probably aren't enough additional uses for the Learning Tower to justify the expense.
  • The Learning Tower gives full and unimpeded access to counter-height surfaces. Once your toddler is old enough to drag the thing around on her own, an unsupervised moment in the kitchen could mean danger if she has a hard time playing within established boundaries. It does take a moment to move and is quite loud, and our daughter is fairly well-behaved, so this hasn't been a problem for us. But depending on the child, having a Learning Tower might require a little more child-proofing or a little closer supervision than you would need without it.
  • The Learning Tower's "extras" are worthless. I really don't know why they promote the Learning Tower's use as a puppet theater or provide the materials they do. Almost anything you could buy or even make yourself would work better than the Learning Tower because it is a very small box for a child to stand or sit in while they are trying to put on a puppet show. A "stage" with an open back makes so much more sense this is really a red herring. So please don't think you're getting a worthwhile puppet theater along with your extremely useful and safe child's stool - it's just not true. Even our two-year-old recognized this as soon as we set it up; she just doesn't like to use it in that manner, and I don't blame her. As for using it as a fort, I suppose it can be, but only within a much narrower size range than your child's use of the product, and it makes no better fort than a good box, or two chairs with a sheet.
If none of those drawbacks sound like deal-breakers to you, then take a look at the Learning Tower specs yourself. We believe it is probably the single greatest enhancement we have made to our daughter's toddler-sized world, allowing her access to all of the activity that occurs in our kitchen. It's a high-quality piece of furniture that looks nice in our house and which we'll pass on to someone else when we're done with it; I would not be surprised if it lasted multiple generations. There is probably no other item in this price range that you could buy for a toddler that would get this much use and be this much of a benefit to them!

You can learn more about the Learning Tower on Amazon.com.

"Play is the highest form of research." -Albert Einstein