Those of us who grew up without computers and mobile phones spent many hours, rain or shine, playing outdoors having endless fun with few resources. We created new “recipes” with mud, leaves and water, and the latest perfume from water and petals. While learning about technology is vital for children, we need a return to the basic outdoor learning that nature provides. Liz Hodgman reports.

What is a mud kitchen?

A mud kitchen is a lot more than just providing children with an area of soil to dig over. It brings together cooking with life-size utensils and role play from the home and outdoor environment into one sensory experience. It can also be used all year round.

How to set one up

Setting up a mud kitchen should not be an expensive project. In fact, with some creativity, it can be done with little or no financial investment.

Ask people to make donations: parents, staff, neighbours and local businesses. Visit jumble sales and second-hand shops to pick up interesting utensils and furniture items cheaply.

A supply of mud needs to be readily available to the children, either from an area of land where they can dig their own or from a supply in large containers. You can purchase topsoil, but avoid buying compost as this does not make good mud! Be sure to include sand as this provides a contrast and introduces a different texture.

A water supply also needs to be available so that children can vary the consistency of the mud; it also makes it easy to wash up the pots and pans!

You will need some child-height work surfaces to make the base for the kitchen. These can be old tables or units, bookcases or dressers. Be creative: old plastic milk crates with a piece of wood secured across the top make great kitchen units.

Use a corner if possible. This creates a more focused area that will feel more like a kitchen. Access must be easy for children and they need to be able to see in and out of the area. Place hooks on the fence for pans, pots and utensils to hang from, giving it a more realistic feel.

Adding shelves will also help to add to the kitchen feel and provide storage space. Involve the children in developing the mud kitchen as this will ensure that things are accessible to them. Ask for donations of old microwaves and cut off the plugs. They provide children with buttons to press, knobs to turn, and a door to open and close.

The importance of sensory and explorative play

Mud kitchens provide lots of opportunities to support children’s learning and development across the seven different areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework. Outdoor learning normally allows you to use larger resources and for the children to have greater freedom to explore and experiment. The outdoor learning environment is often better for boys.

Explorative play is important as there is no wrong or right way. It therefore allows all children to engage with the activity without worrying about whether they are able to achieve the end product. Playing with mud allows a child to be creative with a malleable material, developing his or her fine motor skills as well more physical skills when transporting it in larger containers.

The mud kitchen enables children to role-play at home cooking (or some may feel they are experimenting in a science lab!) It provides lots of opportunities to support language development, such as positional language and adjectives.

The child’s explorations with the natural environment will help him or her to learn some basic science, eg how the earth or soil changes when it is mixed with water. Numeracy skills will be developed as the child learns to measure volume using the different containers in the kitchen, filling them with mud or water.

There will also be opportunities for counting and predicting: how many mud cupcakes can we make from the mixture?

To further develop their learning, add other substances to the mud such as:

  • sand

  • plants, twigs and leaves

  • fairy mud (ivory soap and toilet roll) — this is an ideal alternative for children who are not keen on playing with mud, but still want to engage in the activity.

Providing support to children with sensory issues

For children with sensory issues, a mud kitchen will present a problem. For example, for a child with tactile defensiveness or sensitivity to touch, playing with mud would be very alarming. Practitioners will need to discuss with the child’s parents and the occupational therapist how best to support the child to engage at his or her own level.

A child with sensory issues should never be forced to touch things as this will only add to his or her stress and anxiety levels. Practitioners need to support the child with encouragement and introduce the mud kitchen in a safe and non-threatening way.

Extending the learning

Add in some visual signage with words to support literacy development. There are some free mud kitchen graphics available online to download and laminate to make a display. You could also add a blackboard to the area with a simple recipe on it. Include numbers as well as letters.

Take photographs of the children engaging in the mud kitchen. These can be used to make a display or scrapbook. The children can then use them to explain to you what they were doing, helping them to develop their language and recall skills. They can also be shared with parents to help explain the learning that happens within a mud kitchen.

You can add a twist to the mud kitchen for older children by adding a café area. The children will then be able to role-play being customers and waiters/waitresses and taking orders. These can then be passed on to the “chefs” in the kitchen.

The practitioner’s role

It is important that practitioners understand the mud kitchen’s role in children’s learning so that they can provide appropriate support. They must allow the children to take the lead and experiment without constant interruptions.

The practitioner can provide some support around language development, by using language to describe what is happening and what the different utensils are called. The mud kitchen provides an ideal opportunity for the practitioner to stand back and observe the children.

The role in this case is more of a facilitator than a teacher: the children will be learning through experimental play.

Involving parents

When setting up a mud kitchen for your provision, involve parents in its development. Ask them if they can contribute to resources for the kitchen — old saucepans, frying pans and woks, plastic washing-up bowls and old utensils. Parents could also be asked to contribute outgrown wellington boots or trousers/jackets.

The provision could design a leaflet/information sheet for parents about the mud kitchen, how it supports their child’s development, and the health and safety that is in place to ensure their child’s wellbeing. It would also be worth including a statement about wearing old clothes to avoid good ones being ruined.

Health and safety

Some researchers think that we are actually harming children by keeping them too clean, so playing with mud may help children to build up a healthy immune system. Some research has shown that playing with mud can increase the production of serotonin, the chemical that promotes happiness and can support mental wellbeing.

However, there can be germs within the soil, especially if the area is visited by animals. Daily checks for animal faeces before use should be made. The children need to have a routine of thorough handwashing when they have finished playing in the mud kitchen. A washing area near to the mud kitchen, suitably accessible with pictorial signs to act as visual reminders, will help to ensure that handwashing becomes part of the mud kitchen routine.

You will also need to consider suitable clothing appropriate for the time of year and weather.

Further safety information

See the Play England guidance Managing Risk in Play Provision.

Last reviewed 8 August 2019