Mud makes an exciting addition to the outdoor role-play area or home corner. Not only do children like the scientific element of combining water and soil to make different concoctions, they also enjoy handling, moulding, patting and mixing mud, watching it dry in the sun, and serving it. Setting up a mud kitchen in your outdoor area will provide endless opportunities for role play and will enrich children's well-being, development and learning.
Jan White, an independent early childhood consultant specialising in outdoor play, is author of Making a Mud Kitchen, which is part of the 2014 Mud Pack launched this week by www.muddyfaces.co.uk in the run-up to International Mud Day on 29 June.
She says, 'I'm excited about bringing back this type of play into children's lives. Mixing soil, water and a range of other natural materials has a foundational role in early childhood.
'A mud kitchen offers elements that are provided in the indoor home corner, but it is also offers so much more. It's a laboratory where children can explore and experiment with the physical transformations of mud. It incorporates the scientific and the magical as the mixture becomes a birthday cake, soup, ice cream, magical potion or perfume.'
A mud kitchen should be a core element of outdoor continuous provision, according to Ms White. She has been working in collaboration with Liz Knowles from Muddy Faces to set up an initiative that aims to deepen the understanding, importance, value and range of experiences from mud play. The Mud Pack 2014 includes tips on how to support practitioners to achieve this.
Ms White says, 'The best mud kitchens, and those that have the most atmosphere and character, are made from found, gathered and donated items - especially when these come from the children's own families.'
Here are some useful pointers when setting up a mud kitchen play area outdoors:
- Consider locating the mud kitchen near a fence or in a corner so that you can put up shelves and hang hooks for saucepans and utensils. Include cupboards that open and shut to add to the play experience. Provide something that will act as a cooker. This can be anything from one of the range of bought mud kitchens (see below) to an old microwave or oven - or even a plank of wood with hob marks engraved on the top.
- Ensure that kitchen working surfaces are at the right height for the children and that they provide enough space for children to work.
- Provide easy access to mud and sand. If the kitchen is not located near the mud patch or the sand pit, provide large containers of the basic materials at floor level.
- Access to a water supply is essential, but it can be anywhere in the garden because children will enjoy transporting the water in containers.
- Make mud from loam topsoil, available at garden centres, rather than from gardens or uncovered plant borders due to the risk of harmful pathogens or contamination from cat and dog faeces.
- Gravel, pebbles and other natural materials are good for making concoctions and for representing spices and condiments. Keep them in jars if there is not easy access to them in your outdoor space. Plant materials are also important ingredients for mud pies and potions. Tell children which plants or flowers can be picked.
- Provide a good selection of pots and pans, jugs and funnels, kitchen utensils, bakeware, bowls and containers together with a few unusual and intriguing vessels, such as an ice cream scoop, a jelly mould or an ice cube tray. A large washing-up bowl, especially one sunk into the worktop, is useful for washing up afterwards. Alternatively, use an old sink if you can salvage one.
- Children are likely to get wet and messy, so provide waterproof dungarees with wellies or old shorts and a t-shirt in hot weather.
Aside from the obvious physical health benefits of playing outdoors, research suggests that contact with soil is beneficial because the bacteria in it helps to build healthily functioning immune systems in young children (see Why Dirt is Good in More information below).
Ms White explains, 'Research also suggests that this contact produces serotonin in the body, which makes us feel happy. The medically supported hygiene hypothesis suggests that contact with the beneficial germs that we have evolved with is vital, and that harm is done by over-sanitising children as we currently do.'
Another key benefit is that outside role play is a great way of engaging boys. Ms Knowles of Muddy Faces explains, 'One particular set-up that sticks in my mind is the Monster Mud Cafe. The children collected natural resources in egg boxes, separating the different types. They then added the ingredients to the mud pies and made monster menus.'
Here is a list of core 'mud kitchen' resources available.
- The Muddy Faces Mud Pie Kitchen Range consists of four sets, each costing £99.99. The Toddler and Twos set is designed to capture children's core passions in gathering, filling, pouring, emptying, stirring, mixing and transforming. The Perfumes and Lotions Set includes resources that focus on transferring and filling, mixing and stirring, transforming and creating, pouring, dropping, sloping, rolling, garnishing and decorating. The Spells and Potions set of open-ended resources stimulates themes and actions within children's play and encouraging large and dramatic movements. And the Ice Creams and Desserts set (above) contains more intricate resources, promoting fine motor skills and attention to detail. A Camp Fire Set (£23.99) is also available. Visit www.muddyfaces.co.uk/mud-kitchen-mud-kitchen-kits-c-4_251_256.html
Create mud pie kitchens, outside home corners, pretend campsites and cooking with sand and other natural materials with the Cosy Direct range (01332 370152). Try the Creative Counter (£12.95), a rustic plank with hob rings; the Large Mud Pie Kitchen (£199); the Cheap as Chips Mudpie Kitchen and Sink, (£17.99); or the Mobile Mud Kitchen in a Crate (£50). For younger children, the Toddler Mud Pie Kitchen (£135.99) is the perfect height. The Higgledy Piggledy Shelves (£64.99) will be an eccentric addition to your area. The Plastic Black Cauldron (£4.29) and the Pretend Camp Fire Tripod (£29.95) are great for making potions, and the Giant Whisk (£9.99, pictured above) and Giant Natural Beechwood Spoon (£7.99) are great mud pie implements.
- Children can make pies, become wizards and conduct their own science experiments with TTS Group's range of outdoor home corner resources (www.tts-group.co.uk). The Creative Concoctions Corner includes the Super Outdoor Tray Table (£199.95), the Creative Concoctions Dresser (£299.95) and the Messy Station (£699.95). Use the Wooden Bowls (£39.95) to mix potions, and let the children hang saucepans and utensils from the Toddler Fence Panels (£174.95) with the Outdoor Hooks (£21.95).
- Let your children have a week of freedom to get as dirty as they like, shaping their own learning. Why not coincide your mud play day with International Mud Week on 29 June? The Mud Pie Kitchen Resource Box (£50) from www.playgardens.co.uk, includes a big plastic spoon, a colander, three wooden spoons, a whisk, a masher, a loaf tin, two mud moulds, four mixing bowls and three jugs.
- Create a work surface with a piece of wood on milk crates or bricks, then provide utensils, old saucepans and a bowl for concoctions and role play. Use Play to Z's foldable, watertight double Activity Bowl (£18) and the Wooden Top Up Set, (£43.20) for exploration (www.playtoz.co.uk).
- Early Excellence (www.earlyexcellence.com) camping equipment is good for transporting water and mixing it with soil. Try the Billy Can Set (£12.50) and the Kettle Set (£18.50). Or try the Big Buckets with Spout (£16.99) or the Bargain Buckets Set of 8 (£9.99), or children might enjoy squeezing mud through the Shape It! Castle Tool Set (£5.99), all from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk.
CASE STUDY: MORELAND PRIMARY SCHOOL AND CHILDREN'S CENTRE
Children at Moreland Primary School and Children's Centre in Islington,north London, have access to a large outside space that is used by both the nursery and Reception children. Knowing how much the children enjoy home-corner play, the school has recently developed a dedicated mud pie kitchen next to the digging area in the garden.
Early years co-ordinator Catherine Lawrence says, 'We provide loose parts such as crates, planks and logs, as well as more defined outdoor kitchen resources such as enamel kitchenware, washing-up bowls, saucepans, frying pans and wooden spoons.
'I initially thought that I would need to scaffold the play to begin with, but I was really pleased to see how the children quickly engaged with this new provision. They were so excited by the opportunity to play with the mud and loved the sensory explorations it provided.
The children quickly worked out they needed to add water and really enjoyed the heavy work of collecting water and digging the patch to create some gloriously sticky mud.
'I provided lots of kitchenware that was easily accessible alongside the kitchen area and the children changed the direction of the play after a while to more role-playorientated play, "cooking" with the mud and collecting other natural objects such as sticks, herbs and leaves to add to dishes.
'There is a picnic bench located nearby and the children spontaneously extended their cooking into creating a mud pie cafe. Following this, we placed blackboards and chalk in the area so that children could record their recipes and menus. They were very independent in their play, even when clearing up afterwards.
'You can't beat a mud pie kitchen for encouraging high-quality interactions and conversations between children and deep and sustained levels of engagement. The group of children I was playing with stayed at the activity for the entire morning.
'The one important role of the adult is to remind children to change their shoes before they begin playing with mud. We have wellies available -and I think this is a key thing for getting parents on-side.
'In the future, I am planning on getting some all-in-one waterproofs so that children can feel totally unconstrained in their play and to hold a session for the parents on the value of this kind of mud play.
'We also have an outside kitchen that we put next to or in the sandpit along with a big tub of cooking resources.
'Something the children have really loved is the Creative Counter from Cosy. This is a really simple product and so cheap so we bought a few of them. They use them in the sand, the mud pie kitchen and propped between two A-frames in the construction area as "pop-up" kitchen spaces. They work well in shop and cafe role play too.
'We also provide a more traditional home corner in our playhouse. Although we may dress the playhouse to support topics or interests, it still retains the basic features of a home corner and children will often revert to domestic play.
'We find the children choose to access these outside home corners more than our inside one now. Outdoors, there is a much greater focus on children using natural materials.
'My key message would be to think beyond the traditional home corner and provide resources they can use anywhere. Whatever children's interests, role play can easily be incorporated and will occur spontaneously in play.'
Children's books that feature mud include:
- 'Mudlarks' in Out and About by Shirley Hughes
- Joe's Cafe by Rose Impey and Sue Porter
- The Mud Family by Betsy James and Paul Morin
- International Mud Day - to find out what's happening in the UK, go to www.muddyfaces.co.uk; for an international focus, www.worldforumfoundation.org
- Mud Pack 2014 can be downloaded free from www.muddyfaces.co.uk. Hard copies are available for £2.99. Also available on the website is Making a Mud Kitchen by Jan White.
- Outdoor Learning Cards Portable Ideas - Mud (£12), www.mindstretchers.co.uk/product.cfm/product_ID/1157/title/ Outdoor-Learning-Cards-Portable-ideas--Mud
- Playing and Learning Outdoors by Jan White, second edition
- 'The mud centre - recapturing childhood', www.community playthings.co.uk/learning-library/articles/ the-mud-centre
- Why Dirt is Good: 5 ways to make germs your friends by Mary Ruebush, PhD, news report at www.cbsnews.com/2100-500165_162-4766105.html.