I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains give way to the Great Plains and the sun shines most days. The memories of my childhood are filled with outdoor adventures: rafting, hiking, camping, skiing, surfing, and scuba diving. After spending a couple decades traveling and living around the world, I returned to Boulder with my wife, Michele, to raise our adventurous five-year-old daughter Nyla and our sweet, tentative one-year-old son Silas.
Back on my home turf in Colorado, I was eager to expose my children to the natural wonders that I remembered exploring as a kid. I began taking my children to the woods, lakes, and mountains of the beautiful state. But something wasn’t right. I grew increasingly aware that their needs did not align with my adventurous goals. For example, they didn’t particularly care if we made it to the summit of a mountain. They preferred to play in the muddy stream banks along the trail. They didn’t care if we paddled to a cascading, gurgling tributary. They wanted to make boats from nearby leaves and twigs and sail them off to an imaginary world. They didn’t care about mastering the alpine slopes on a pair of skis. They were content to jump off a snow bank in the parking lot.
One early morning, Nyla and I crossed a mountain stream as we hiked up a canyon. When we reached the far side, she stopped and crouched down to pick at the stream bank. I enjoyed watching her pluck at the water’s edge, fiddle with sticks, and push pebbles around. Her hands were dirty, and her sneakers gooey with mud and chilly water. After a minute or so, I urged her to get moving. She responded that she didn’t want to hike. She wanted to play. With all the work of getting up early, packing backpacks full of supplies, researching and planning, and then driving to the trailhead, it was really disappointing to hear her say she didn’t want to hike. She wanted to play. She did not share my dreams. But as I let the waves of dismay pass, I saw how she blossomed with joy and creativity, and remained thoroughly engaged for the next hour.
At that point, I realized I needed to temper my ambitions of introducing my children to goal-oriented and skill-based outdoor adventures. I decided to observe what activities seemed to be the most rewarding for them and then support those activities. Some things are obvious: Sitting in a car seat is no fun for a kid. Mastering an athletic skill or following rules can be rather dull for small children.
It began to dawn on me…why not let the children enjoy unstructured play? Why not just stay home in the backyard?
Today, unstructured play, outdoor experiences, and spaces have been transformed significantly from previous decades. The seemingly unlimited free time children once knew as “childhood” has become dominated by school, extracurricular activities, less spacious lands for wandering freely, and a growing sense of fear in letting children follow their own agenda. Overall, there is simply far less time and freedom for children today to just play. Much free time is oriented to screen-based activities versus free-play outside. Add to this reality the fact that many backyards are manicured and designed for adult enjoyment rather than children’s use.
My parents and friends all remember childhoods filled with interactions with the natural world, and that’s how I hope my children will remember their early years.
Mud kitchens are not obvious. Until recently, I had never heard of one. They aren’t commonly sold in stores or marketed in advertisements. You can make one yourself simply, and for little cost. It doesn’t matter the size or condition of a backyard, a mud kitchen can still be made.
A backyard mud kitchen provides a gateway experience that supports children’s natural inquisitiveness. It supports their need to develop cognitive, gross, and fine motor skills, and foster their relationship with the outdoors and organic materials—all while giving them a feeling of independence and emotional well-being.
While there is no shortage of information and inspiration about mud kitchens online, I am consistently surprised by how few parents have heard of them. In addition, it is easy to get overwhelmed and reach a state of analysis paralysis, where you make no progress in getting a mud kitchen going for days or months.
My hope with this book is to share my family’s mud kitchen creation experience, so that you have the ability to quickly go outside and build your own mud kitchen.
How to Use This Book
This book is organized into three main sections. The first section shares the story of how we created a mud kitchen quickly by adjusting our expectations and design strategy. You will be able to complete this section in the next few minutes and should be equipped at that point to build your mud kitchen. The second and third sections share how you can expand and go beyond your initial mud kitchen creation. Lastly, resources are available for those who want to research more extensively.