There are images of some amazing mud kitchens out there on the web, and it's very easy to fall down a rabbit hole of great ideas without actually ever making one for your child. I was certainly guilty of it, until one day my sister stopped by and interrupted my description of the great mud kitchen I was going to make (one day), by pulling together a few things lying around in the garden and making one in about thirty seconds! My kids have been playing with it ever since (we're talking for years now!), and though I still dream and plan of a more beautiful and robust solution, they're out there having fun today - and they really couldn't care less that it's not perfect.
So read on to see what you need to make a mud kitchen right now, and I guarantee that you'll have enough stuff already to get your kids playing today!
Mud, mud, glorious mud! There are a whole, muddy, marvellous heap of reasons why you should encourage your kids to get stuck in and playing with mud. Just google 'the benefits of mud' and you'll come up with a muddy (sorry, I just can"t help it!)) pile of academic studies that have posited any number of positive effects, from helping kids' immune systems to develop, to friendly bacteria in the soil that has been shown to boost serotonin levels in the brain, increasing feelings of calmness, well being, happiness and improve cognitive functions as well.
Playing in the dirt helps create a connection with nature, provides opportunities for all kind of sensory, imaginative and co-operative play, and helps make memories that our children will cherish forever. With all these benefits just waiting for them, don't you want your kids to get started today? So by all means keep pinning those rather smashing mud kitchen images for your future plans, but don't keep the kids waiting either - cobble something together for today's playtime in the meantime!
What is it that every mud kitchen needs? Well, to start with, it helps if you have some mud! Now, our own garden is rather small, and mostly either paved or covered in decking. There are some borders, but they're filled with rather large and vigorous plants so there isn't a good spot for the kids to use for digging up some mud. My solution was just to use a big old flowerpot full of mud for them to dig out mud from. Later on, I found a cheap flower planter that had hooks on for hanging on railings - I hung this on our half-barrel planter and use it for extra mud, or other mixable materials, such as sand.
If you're using garden dirt, be vigilant for animal faeces - kids aren't the only ones who like a fresh bit of dirt; any neighbourhood cats, for example, may also be drawn to it. Some of those scientific studies suggest that part of the immune system boost from mud is down exposure to the inevitable traces of old animal waste in garden soil, so it can defeat the point if we try to make this too sterile an activity. However, contact with faeces does pose a health risk, and, personally, I certainly don't want my kids mixing up any 'fresh cat poo surprise'! If you're really concerned, keep a supply of bought-mud in a coverable container. The best (and - weirdly - cleanest) kind of mud you can buy for a mud kitchen is topsoil - it's the closest to 'garden dirt' and has got the best texture for mixing - it makes extremely satisfying muddy gloop!
Not got any mud for play today? You can pick some up later for another day, but why not have a look in your kitchen cupboards to see what the kids could use right now. Used coffee grinds make an excellent mud substitute (or addition!); or dig out any out-of-date pasta, rice, cereals or flour; old teabags (I always seem to have a ton of old herbal teabags hanging around); or what about that tin of soup that you bought for emergencies but don't know why, 'cos nobody likes that flavour... somewhere you'll have something that the kids will be really excited to use, because it's real. Never mind that you think it's manky...
Finding and foraging (from the garden or local neighbourhood) other things to add to their creations is another important and pleasurable part of mud kitchen play. If your garden is too sparse or precious to provide much for them to pick, just grab a bag and take them out for a walk - even a city park should have some grass, daisies, pebbles and leaves.
This is a good opportunity to to teach them about foraging responsibly: don't damage a plant when harvesting - always leave the roots and make clean cuts/breaks; only take a few of each plant and only where there is an abundance (leave plenty for others and wildlife, and to ensure the plant population can recover); don't trample over other plants to get to what you want; don't ever eat anything unless your adult has told you it's okay. Kids usually respond really well to having clear rules to follow, and will love having a wild harvest to 'cook' with at home!
The next key thing any kitchen needs (mud or otherwise) is workspace. This needs to be set up somewhere with a bit of shade and at a good height for your kids to stand at and work on as they mix and measure and make... This is where the internet gets fancy, but I'm here to tell you that your kids will be fine with an old plank raised up on some bricks or upturned flowerpots (that's what we used). Have a look around your garden and house, or brave the spiders in the shed - and remember that the surface doesn't have to be rectangular. Just ask yourself, can they put a container on it for mixing/cooking in? A large upturned tub or bucket, for instance, would do for now. Finesse it later!
Water is another important factor. Got an outdoor tap or water butt? Teach them how to use it! T-bird has been using ours since she could walk - I keep an eye on her to make sure she turns it off properly, but rarely do I have to intervene. And as a result of using this, she has learnt bucket-loads (ahem) about the volume of different containers, weight, pressure, temperature and how water flows. Just from using the tap! But if you don't have an outside water supply, don't worry. Just fill a bucket for them and put it in the garden. Kids LOVE transporting water to their kitchen to use (just as they like to travel around the garden watering the plants), so don't put it right next to their kitchen. Make 'em work for it! They'll honestly enjoy it all the more.
So you've got a source of mud/mixables and water, and a worksurface? All you really need to add now are some containers and tools. If you've got any old saucepans or pots you can spare, donate them to the garden in the knowledge they'll now be helping to feed your kids' souls. If not, any container that the kids can mix in will be okay - old tupperware, buckets, flowerpots... anything will do for today. Similarly, dig out any sacrificable kitchen tools like large spoons, sieves, colanders or whisks. See if any of their play kitchen or bath toys will do - that toy plastic tea set, for example, will work a treat. Something to mash and pound with is extremely good fun - a pestle and mortar is the ideal, but a potato masher or a smooth, round stone or thick stick will also do the job. Don't forget clean-up - throw in a past-it's-best scrubbing brush, and the kids can wash everything up in some warm, soapy water at the end of play... it may even turn out to be the best bit!
These types of things are often sold for next to nothing in charity shops and car boot sales, so don't worry too much if you've not go much right now - it doesn't take long to build up a fabulous supply of utensils and pots secondhand, and they're often more interesting that the new, generic stuff you'll find in the shops.
And, for today, that's about it! Don't stress the details - this is about getting them out and playing today. There are many more things you can do and add that will increase your children's enjoyment, but what I've described above is more than enough to give your kids a marvellous time. So once you've completed your set up, take the kids outside and play with them a while - if they're new to mud kitchens, they'll need to see you mix up a nice cup of dirt tea (see what I did there?!) or a bowl of mud soup; or maybe sculpt and decorate a sticky mud pudding... Get dirty with them, and they will have the best time!
Got your rough 'n' ready mud kitchen all set up? Check out our fabulous round up of Mud Kitchens on Pinterest for a mud pile (sorry!) of ideas on how to add even more fabulousness to your set-up!
Looking for more play ideas? Have a look at some of these other entries for some fabulous ways to bring nature into playtime!