Getting Started

When we first considered making a mud kitchen, we turned to Google and quickly became overwhelmed by how much effort it would take to set one up. There are some really beautiful mud kitchens out there, the kind built with master carpentry skills and craftsmanship—even artistry. My Pinterest board has hundreds of examples of mud kitchens, from simple makeshift kitchens to elaborate brilliant works of craftsmanship and imagination. You can find it here: https://www.pinterest.com/jasonsperling/mud-kitchens/

There are SuperDads—and more likely SuperMoms—out there building mud kitchens that are rustic, iconic, coordinated, and even breathtaking. Their designs are stunning. My favorite ones consist of beautiful wooden counters and shelving, stainless steel fixtures, chalkboards with handwritten menus, baskets of ingredients, farmhouse style buckets, antique cookware, and Hobbit-like furniture featuring aged stumps and twisted tree parts. We wanted that for our children, of course. But there was a hitch: I’m not particularly handy. And, more often that not, I feel pretty crunched for time.

Overwhelmed, my wife and I spent months not starting.

One day, frustrated by how little “digging in the dirt” my children were doing, I rethought my approach. It was a sunny day, and my kids were drifting around the sandbox and lawn. I thought, rather than spending time designing the perfect mud kitchen, what could I get done this morning? How could I involve the kids so they could play right away? Forget SuperDad, I thought. Let’s just get something started so they can play now.

I looked around and discovered an old board that we had yet to throw out. It was a bit warped, cracked, and dirty. But it could be sanded. Hmmm…could this be the mud kitchen counter?

Next to the board sat a dilapidated wooden lattice panel. Perhaps it could be the backsplash behind the counter? I walked into the garage. There, I found an old IKEA spice rack with a few hooks for pots and pans, some scrap 2x4s, and a few screws. I called my kids into the garage and we started sanding and assembling rickety, wobbly spare parts to a kid-height counter with a backsplash and hangers to hold buckets. After a few minutes, we were finished.

Both kids helped me carry our creation out to the backyard. We stuck the counter under the deck, a place that would remain cool on hot days, where a patch of dirt had yet to be covered by grass or rock. The counter was pretty unstable, so we piled some rocks and dirt by the legs to help it stand on its own. It still wasn’t very stable, so we tied it to one of the deck legs. Then we went to the sandbox and gathered a few buckets that we filled with water from a nearby garden spigot.

This was where things really took off. Returning to the counter, I sat down and nonchalantly showed my kids how to make a mud pie. It had been less than an hour, and we had a fully functioning mud kitchen! I felt like I had cracked open the secret to the universe…or at least the secret to keeping my kids entertained outside. The kids played for hours that day, and we all left feeling proud and excited about our new creation.

Nyla and Silas playing on the counter in the mud kitchen, constructed from spare 2x4s, unused board, lattice, and IKEA kitchen hanger.

Nyla and Silas playing on the counter in the mud kitchen, constructed from spare 2x4s, unused board, lattice, and IKEA kitchen hanger.

If you don’t have spare parts hanging around your house, you can still get started right away. Children’s imaginations are vast. The ingredients for a mud kitchen are really minimal:

  1. Dirt
  2. Water
  3. Something to “cook” in

If you have a very manicured lawn, dig a hole in the corner of the yard, removing a patch of grass to access the dirt beneath. You can mix sand with potting soil. You can pick up buckets of fill dirt, potting soil, and sand from local landscaping companies or hardware shops like Home Depot. If you don’t have outdoor spigots, you can supply water from your house. You also might not have play buckets handy, in which case you can use Tupperware or any pots and pans from your indoor kitchen. Mud isn’t going to ruin them.

With those three ingredients you can build a mud kitchen and provide endless hours of entertainment. Tell the children what you’re building so they can start to create their own mental model. They’ll quickly begin to add things to the mud kitchen using their imagination, and gathering things from the yard. If they don’t immediately begin this process, your job as a play-worker (more on that later) is to model for them.

Here are some easy ways to get the children playing:

Unpack the Kitchen

A kitchen needs all sorts of utensils and bake ware. Help your child think about what he or she will need in the kitchen. For example, you may say, “Hmmm…I need a spoon” as you walk around the yard searching for a stick. Find a forked stick? A perfect blender! Create a stove by gathering a few stones or bricks and arranging them in such a way that you can set your pot upon them. Want a four-burner top? Get more rocks. Big leaves are great for napkins or pot holders. Just think through what is in your real kitchen, and go hunting for it in the yard. Get creative! If you can’t find it, don’t worry—just move on. Soon the children will be following your lead, and you can go back to the cooking.

Make Different Foods

Every dish has a unique recipe that requires all sorts of food, but also spices. Yards make great places for gathering spices in the form of flower petals, grass clippings, weeds, seedpods, bark, and sand and soil of different colors and textures. My children had a blast gathering these items and creating a collection in different containers. If your yard doesn’t have a wealth of organic materials, you can make a special trip to a nearby park, open space, or friend’s yard to collect a few handfuls.

Decorate the Dining Room

After the kitchen is done, the dining room needs work. Think about how you might set the table for a grand dinner party. Things like candles, flowers, place settings, centerpieces, coasters, cups, and bowls are all exciting to search for in the yard. Some items from inside the house can also be dedicated to the mud kitchen. Keep it simple but fun.

Measuring the Ingredients

Pouring sand and water (or anything, really) is a surprisingly engaging task for young children. With just a few different sized containers, kids can start measuring and counting. No one is watching to see if they follow the recipe, so encourage them to vary their quantities and use measuring cups or spoons frequently. If you happen to lose count, start all over. Keep in mind that repetitive play is how children build and master skills.

Get Muddy!

With how safe and sterile play has become in the recent decades, it may be that your child hasn’t experienced the joy of getting muddy. If they don’t spontaneously start getting all muddy—and I mean from head to toe—then you can encourage this behavior by painting mud on your arm or your face, saying, “Cooking sure is messy!” My wife wasn’t so sure she wanted Mud Monsters for children, but the fastest way to ruin the fun would be requiring children to keep clean in the mud kitchen. I quickly hose them down when they are done and strip them out of their muddy clothes or swimsuits, and my wife is a happy camper. Happy kids. Happy wife.

I have heard of some folks who have children wear aprons. If you’d like to do that, you can find some pleasant ones at CommunityPlaythings.com.

What Age Is Right?

Now you might be wondering what age is appropriate for mud kitchen play. As with so many things, it depends. By the time we started the mud kitchen, our children were no longer putting everything in their mouths, so eating the mud wasn’t an issue. Besides eating mud, if children throw or wipe mud on themselves, it can get into their eyes, ears, nose, etc. I kept close tabs on my children in the beginning to make sure the mud kitchen did not present any risk. Silas began playing in the mud kitchen when we was around 20 months and we never experienced any issues.

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