Creating Play Spaces

With the self-serve water in place, the rhythm of the mud kitchen expanded as the children moved between the counter, oven, dirt sources, and spigot. Buckets of water were filled, retrieved, and carried over to the workstations. On one particular sunny day, Nyla ventured far across the lawn, past the orchard to an untended area of the yard with long growing grasses, weeds, and tree offshoots. She found a rock exposed above the grasses and piled some mud balls on it. Silas naturally followed, but the ground was irregular and difficult for him to move through. I searched the yard and found some flagstone to make a temporary path into the grasses for an easier entrance. As the mud balls piled up, I decided to stack a few flagstones on top of each other in a half circle, making another surface for the children to place mud upon.

As the mud dried and more mud came, this new area became part of the regular rhythm. The children were using the surface as a drying rack and for processing the dried mud balls back into fine dirt. When they needed more dirt supplies for the mud kitchen, they would journey across the lawn and past the orchard to the drying rack, then return to the mud kitchen and head to the spigot to fill their buckets with water. While we still had to replenish our dirt supplies every now and then, this made for a sort of sustainable ecosystem where the children could facilitate and experience the different states and activities of the mud and yard. Near the drying rack they would also collect dried grasses, weeds, and leaves. Where before they might spend the bulk of a playtime in one area of the yard, now more and more of the yard earned their attention.

Temporary path to the drying rack.

Temporary path to the drying rack.

Top view of the drying rack—several pieces of flagstone stacked and placed in a sunny spot in the yard.

Top view of the drying rack—several pieces of flagstone stacked and placed in a sunny spot in the yard.


Creating different play spaces is valuable. Here’s what to consider:

  • Having the mud kitchen in an area with partial cover helps encourage long play times without being exposed to direct sun for too long.
  • Locating the water source some distance away encourages physical challenges and the experience of transporting heavy materials.
  • Finding other areas in the yard that can provide drying areas and other sources of organic material increases the range of physical movement and interest in the yard.

Once you have different areas established, you can help children by modeling different behaviors.

Assigning Importance

The care you take in creating play spaces will help signal to children the importance of a play space. While establishing self-serve water, drying racks, or an organic sourcing area, you can take a little extra time to build the space. You can cut away bushes, vines, grasses, etc. to make a clear path and area for the space. Adding some rocks (such as a pile of flagstone or river rock) to outline and accentuate the space creates a visual queue that this is a designated play space. Encouraging the children to create makeshift signage is fun, imbues children with a sense of ownership, and designates the space as part of the home that is valued by the whole family. Nyla helped “paint” and decide on the location for the mud kitchen sign. While it is barely legible to adults, her mental model of the space is greatly increased.

Modeling Play Behavior

Once the play spaces are created, you can demonstrate examples of how to interact in the new space. You can take a break from the mud kitchen, exclaim to the children that “you need more water” or “need to put this mud pie into the drying rack,” and then proceed to do so. They may not follow instantly, but with a few examples they’ll begin to copy your behavior and soon discover their own approaches.

Introduction Reminders

It is helpful to remind the children of their available play spaces and options at various points throughout the summer. You can prompt them with questions like, “Do you need to dry that now?” or “It looks like you might need more fresh dirt,” and remind them where to go to get that. Simple cues like this can help them build their courage or just simply remind them of what they’ve done in the past. Early in the mornings after breakfast, if I am looking for a way to get them excited to go outside, I’ll say something like, “I need to go check on my mud to see if it is dry,” or “I think I better get some more water ready for the mud kitchen.” Sharing your intentions this way will remind them of how much fun they’ve had previously, and get them out there.

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