Our almost-four-year-old daughter is raising polar bears and panda bears in the bushes in our front yard. And, she feeds them sweet potatoes that she makes from the wood chips surrounding said bushes. She’s been raising these animals for more than a year, so we decided she needed some proper kitchen tools to help her along! Last Christmas, we bought her some stainless steel and aluminum cups, pans, pots, spatulas, and spoons, and last spring, we made the simplest DIY mud kitchen that has ever been made. Why did we go to such lengths to encourage this play? Besides simply being an amazing creative outlet (I mean, think about the imagination required to keep those polar bears alive for so long!), did you know there are many, many other benefits to playing in dirt and mud? Read on for some of those benefits, as well as basic directions to our super simple mud kitchen!
Let’s talk about all the cognitive benefits of playing in dirt and mud, especially in a creative and rehearsal-based manner such as in a mud kitchen! Did you know that pretend play in a mud kitchen can:
- Help children develop social skills if they share a space and tools with others or “cook” recipes to give to caregivers or friends
- Give children opportunities to strengthen both gross motor (containers of mud and dirt can get heavy!) and fine motor (pouring accurately takes practice!) skills
- Develop early math and science skills as kids mimic measuring, combining, pouring, and experimenting with their “recipes!”
- Provide opportunities for language growth when children are engaged in conversation about their play
- Allow for creative thinking and open-ended play
- And apparently, exposure to a bacteria commonly found in dirt (Mycobacterium Vaccae) can not only strengthen immune systems, but also increase cognitive function! See more on this at Community Playthings, and head to the National Association for the Education of Young Children for more research and ideas on all things mud play!
Buying sturdy, durable tools for outdoor digging and play was really easy, but we got fairly overwhelmed when we looked at DIY tutorials for mud kitchens. Many required tools we didn’t own or an understanding of building that neither of us have. Fortunately, my husband is wonderfully resourceful when it comes to figuring out how to make things easier, AND he loves to think outside the box. So, how did we make our mud kitchen?
You should know that ours isn’t exactly a mud kitchen… We live in a very dry area, so mud isn’t readily available most of the year. And, consequently, we live in a very drought-prone area, so using our spigots to make mud isn’t a terrifically environmentally responsible decision. That said, our girls LOVE to dig in the wood chips that surround our landscaping, the dirt from a path next to the grass, and the tiny rocks from the decomposed granite that used to cover fully that path. So, our “mud kitchen” is really a “wood chip and rock” kitchen, but this would apply to whatever natural materials you’d use in your kitchen!
How to Make a Super Simple, Affordable Mud Kitchen
- Select a location with prime access to mud, dirt, sand, wood chips, or whatever your kids might use to create.*
- Make a quick trip to a hardware store. All we needed was two boards (ours are 18″x48″ and 6″x46″ pieces of plywood), six cinderblocks, some screws, and a few hooks!
- Consider a trip to your local dollar store. I bought one dish-drying rack to use as a pretend stove, as well as 2 plastic bins (eventually, we may cut holes in the “counter” and make these into “sinks,” but for now, the girls love to fill them with either wood chips or water, depending what they’re making!). You might also look for various kitchen tools and utensils there, but sand toys you already have will work, too. We had already purchased these, these, and these as Christmas presents, so we did not need to buy any new utensils or containers.
- Make sure your chosen location is fairly level, and stack three cinderblocks on each side, the same distance apart as the length of your longest piece of wood. Place your larger piece of wood across them for a counter surface.
- Screw your hooks into the smaller piece of wood so the kids can hang their utensils if they want.
- Mount the smaller wood over the counter, making sure that your children can reach. We had chosen to place our mud kitchen against a fence, so we simply screwed the wood into the fence as a mount.
- Turn the kiddos loose!
*If you do want a true mud kitchen, be sure to take your water source, as well as ensuing messes, into account when selecting a location. You’re going to want to place your kitchen close to natural puddles or a water spigot, and you’ll likely want to make sure it’s far away from nicer outdoor toys and the entrance to your house.
How do you feel about dirt, mud, and messy play? Do you have a mud kitchen? If not, have I convinced you that they’re really easy, affordable, and beneficial to your children?
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