Nature’s kitchen

When my son was two years old, I had grand plans of making him a mud kitchen.

I bought an old bookcase at a garage sale, which then sat at the side of our house for ages, gathering dust. I had big plans for that bookcase – I was going to find a way to install a sink made out of an old tub, create some kind of rack for utensils to hang from, maybe even transform one shelf into an ‘oven’ by attaching a little door. This was going to be a mud kitchen to last the ages, to rival all other Pinterest-worthy mud kitchens.

But I never got around to it.

Instead, I let myself feel mounting guilt about how my son was missing out on the awesome time I knew he would have if I could just get my act together and make him the mud kitchen of my dreams.

Then one day, our electrical kettle broke. Cup-of-tea-less, I knew this was the moment. I wasn’t going to throw away a perfect-for-play kettle!

Instead, I plopped that bookcase in the middle of our yard, filled up a bucket with water, moved a pot of soil next to it, and dumped old kitchen items onto the shelves – kettle included.

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My son played happily for about two hours in his mud kitchen on that first day. And as I sat there and watched him from a distance, it occurred to me that the benefits to him were perhaps all the more greater because I hadn’t tried to turn the bookcase into a sweet ‘play’ kitchen. He was still pouring and stirring, combining elements of dirt and water, showing caring by making ‘cupcakes’ for everyone in our household.

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He had no need for a fancy sink or an oven compartment. He just wanted to measure and mix, and any work surface would have been acceptable to him. Putting his creations to ‘cook’ meant placing them on a certain shelf, which he knew to be the oven. It truly didn’t matter that I hadn’t hinged an oven door onto it.

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The benefits of mud play for children are enormous.

  • It is a great way to connect with nature and the earth (quite literally).
  • It is the ultimate sensory experience, especially important as young children learn through their senses. Think textures, weight, smells, balance.
  • Playing with mud can improve a child’s immunity.
  • There are multiple entry points to mud play – younger children may investigate the mud itself by smearing, scooping; older children may bring in elements of dramatic play.
  • It encourages creative thinking by being open-ended and providing no boundaries – there is no right or wrong way to play with mud, right? (says the mother who gets excited by a dirt-stained son at the end of the day)
  • A mud kitchen is cheap to provide, yet full of rich experiences – fine-motor skills are involved in stirring, pouring; properties of materials are explored when adding water to soil, pebbles to water, leaves to mud; the social interaction and dramatic play of making something with others, for others; rich language is often used by children as they talk through what they are doing.
  • It just is fun and makes you happy!

 

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Over the years, my son’s play with his mud kitchen has come and gone. It now sits at the side of our house again, only this time, with mud stains and a kettle half-filled with sand. I’ve been trying to bring it back out lately, but it seemed to have lost its appeal.

Until last night.

My son and I were in our swimming pool, scooping up small berries that the neighbouring trees drop into it like their own personal spittoon. Having filled my net quite considerably, I picked up an old saucepan from the mud kitchen to tip my collection of berries into. Seeing that saucepan full of soggy berries sit beside the pool made my son ditch his berry-fishing net. He rushed to get a spoon from his old mud kitchen, wanting to make ‘berry stew’. I stood there and realised I had just unwittingly created the perfect invitation to play.

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He then spent an hour mixing and combining, collecting other herbs from our garden to add to his brew. It was pure bliss to watch. All he wanted from me was my acceptance of his berry pie gifts, and my reactions as a taste-tester in his dramatic play. He didn’t need me to set up anything fancy or kitchen-like. He just needed an invitation.

 

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It was the perfect reminder that play is best when adults and their expectations get out of the way.

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Days of Play’s Top Tips for inviting great mud play:

  • If your children have rarely played with dirt before, start by offering a bucket of water, a bucket of dry soil, and a scoop or spade.
  • Children who are not so fond of getting their hands dirty might be inclined to use tools instead. Spoons, jugs, toy excavators, paint brushes, kitchen equipment like spatulas, saucepans and whisks, are good tools to invite children into playing with mud.
  • Accept the dirt. The benefits to their sensory system are greater the more places they end up with mud!
  • Have them change into clothes you really don’t mind getting dirty, if this is an issue for your family. Sand can be more easily washed off, so might also be an option.
  • As I have learnt, mud play changes with the ages. Don’t be disheartened if your child’s interest in mud play wanes – it changes as they develop.
  • Older children may be more interested in making petal potions by combining water and flower petals, leaves, and other natural elements.
  • Adding other natural elements such as herbs, pebbles, sticks, moss is another way to extend interest in muddy play.
  • Read one school’s experience in creating a mud centre
  • Ideas for creating a temporary mud pit in your backyard from Nature Play QLD
  • Read the article from Jan White that first got me excited about mud play
  • Beautiful photographs and tips for setting up mud play in your centre from Muddy Faces UK

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P.S. Here in Singapore, we are discouraged from leaving water lying around due to dengue-spreading mosquitoes. So, we saved some of the berry stew in a jar, and sat admiring it over dinner. Four days later, we were still observing how the berries had turned the water purple. The berries seriously had begun to “stew”, and we opened the jar to be greeted by “berry champagne”!

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Our bottled berry stew
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The fizzing “berry champagne”, four days later
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