The Dirt

We first built the mud kitchen in early April. It was during a typical warm spell that we see here in Boulder, and so when it snowed later in the month, it presented a rather amusing few days for the mud kitchen. The conditions were perfect for making snowballs, and Nyla and I ended up making dozens of them. Then she proceeded to put them into the mud kitchen’s oven. Later in the day, Silas came out and both children continued to fill the oven up.

Nyla and Silas placing “snow” balls in the newly acquired oven during a spring snow day.

Nyla and Silas placing “snow” balls in the newly acquired oven during a spring snow day.

When the warm temperatures returned, I noticed that she wasn’t doing the same with mud. Initially I couldn’t figure out why, and then I tried myself. The dirt she was using was from the ground, but it was mixed with small quantities of gravel and sand, grasses, weeds, and other organic bits and pieces. It was ideal for making soups and even pancakes, but mud balls? Nope. The mud just kind of fell apart.

Just east of town there is a sand and gravel company named Pioneer. It’s a fun place to visit with the kids because there are giant two-story mounds of all sorts of sand, gravel, dirt, mulch, and rocks. We visited and explained our challenge to the folks in the office. Not surprisingly, they didn’t know exactly what would work, but recommended we check out some fill dirt that had a bit of a clay-like consistency to it. We drove over to the mound and tested it. The dirt was dry, but we were able to pack balls of it that stayed together slightly. We gathered a couple buckets worth and brought it home. Back at the mud kitchen, Nyla proceeded to combine small amounts of the new dirt with water. And presto! We were able to make smooth, beautiful mud. When thick enough, we could easily pack the mud into balls. In the next hour, we filled the oven full of mud balls to let them cook. The next day, the mud balls were dry, almost as hard as rocks.

While the folks over at Happy Hooligans have experimented with using potting soil and sand at a ratio or 2:1 to achieve a usable “mud,” I’ve experimented with a number of different dirt types and found that getting good mud is important.

For those who want to pick up the dirt yourself, you may be able to get it for free from construction or excavation companies or from homeowners or other businesses posting online (on Craigslist, for example). If you purchase from landscaping or sand and gravel companies, the cost of dirt varies greatly by location. These companies will load your truck, trailer, or their own dump truck, and they sell by cubic yard or ton. So, when we fill up a five-gallon bucket of dirt, we get some pretty funny looks and the bill usually comes to around $10 or less. Once they even told us to take the dirt for free! If you buy in bags from home improvement stores (like HomeDepot), the cost will sometimes be higher, but not always.

How to Find the Good Mud

  • It should be fine grained (without much debris in it) and feel good in your hands when dry, with a clay-like texture to it.
  • When combined with water, it makes a smooth blend like what you might find at a mud spa.
  • As it thickens, you should be able to press it together to make balls that can be set out to dry.

Higher quality mud leads to an expanded set of play opportunities.

Mix

Having completely dry dirt offers children the chance to experiment with mixing dirt and water to make mud at a varying degree of thicknesses. If you’ve ever allowed your children to help “cook” in the home kitchen, it is amazing how engaged they can be creating a soup or potion from scratch. With dry dirt, a water source, and a yard to pick things from, the mud kitchen can be an experimental lab that vigorously captures their attention. It’s useful to have a variety of pots, pans, pitchers, ladles, and other scooping, pouring, and mixing devices to help aid in this process. When the dry dirt source runs out, I’ve noticed the play changes quite a bit, so having an ongoing supply of dry dirt can be helpful.

Reconstitute

After a mud ball, soup, or pancake dries, it starts to lose its utility. They really can dry as hard as a rock and then can’t be played with in quite the same way. However, you can put these dried out pieces of mud into a bucket with other mud or water and start the process over again. As a play-worker, you can assist in this process if you notice pieces of mud or surfaces covered in thick mud that are not being used. Just scrape or pick the mud up and put it into liquid, giving the children the source material again.

Make Dirt

Another option for dried-up mud is to crush it back into fine dirt. Almost any surface and set of tools can work. This is another activity that can be expanded on in so many ways. For example, you can find a variety of stones and sticks and hammer-like rods and other tools to assist in the process. Strainers and sifting cookware can help the children focus on producing the finest of dirt grains. This is hard, important work, and the newly created dirt can be collected in special containers and reserved for toppings of mud pies or as the special ingredient for a soup being made for a yard festival.

Even Simpler

Make a mobile mud kitchen! Use a wheelbarrow or other garden cart and have a mud kitchen that can be moved about versus being installed permanently. Visit this blog post for some sweet inspiration.

Silas removing handfuls of mud, which has returned to dry fill dirt.

Silas removing handfuls of mud, which has returned to dry fill dirt.

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