Do your children frequently bring you a cup of tea made from soil and water, perhaps with a couple of spoons of sand as sugar? Do you see them making each other hot chocolate, ice cream or a special birthday cake? Do you remember making mud pies yourself?
Mud kitchens provide something quite different to a soil digging patch, while also being much more easily managed. A mud kitchen or cafe includes elements of both the much-loved domestic corner and baking from indoor play, which are then hugely enriched by being outside.
Children play in this way from two years old onwards, often saying that they are making some kind of food; so the idea of a 'kitchen' works well in pre-school contexts. For older children, this may well become more of a 'laboratory' where the scientific exploration goes further and into more detail about how things work.
Mud kitchens work well all year round, and need to be seen as a core element of continuous provision outside. Responding to young children's deep curiosities through this play is an excellent means of harnessing the power of the natural world as a rich and meaningful learning environment. It is also a potent way for children to build a sense of being part of the world, cultivating the desire to care for it throughout their futures.
HOW CHILDREN PLAY
The mud kitchen context and materials result in young children engaging in an incredible variety of actions, such as: filling, pouring, emptying, transferring, mixing, stirring, whisking, frothing, scooping, ladling, handling, moulding, patting, smoothing, mark-making, throwing, splatting, splashing, sharing out, serving, foraging, selecting, picking, collecting, gathering, garnishing, shredding, crushing, mashing, grinding, measuring, adding, brewing, boiling, sieving, filtering, separating and decanting.
In the same way, the range of potential activities is vast. The perfect stimulus of experiencing and exploring the physical transformations taking place (doing) seems to put the brain into the perfect state for creating mental transformations (imagining) - and the mix easily becomes coffee with sugar, a birthday cake, soups and stews, ice cream in many flavours, lotions and make-up, magical drinks and potions, wizards' spells and perfumes, and many other concoctions and commodities.
This work is filled with emotional and personal value, and offers tremendous provocation for conversation, sharing ideas, discussing, collaborating, negotiating and playing a role, and for learning a delightful range of new and interesting vocabulary and expressions.
Young children are very interested in the elements of the earth: how materials behave and what they do. Making connections through discovering and investigating cause and effect is the stuff of brain development and scientific process. Curiosity, fascination and the pleasure of finding things out are fundamentally important to the human state. An even more powerful level of experience for the explorer is that they are the one making things happen, giving feelings of control. Over time, this builds a child who has a strong inner sense of agency, which itself is key to well-being and mental health.
Making 'concoctions' brings the worlds of science and art completely together through possibility thinking. The growth of imagination and creativity happens by building on concrete cause-and-effect experience to pose and predict 'What if ...?'
Good scientists do this all the time, as do artists and all other innovators. Even better, the experience of making concoctions brings the child into the realms of magic and fantasy - reminding us of the ancient fascinations of alchemy.
HOW CAN ADULTS HELP?
The main role adults need to take is that of facilitator and enabler - making the kitchen available (best constructed by helping children to create it to their own specifications), and supporting play that emerges from the children by being a good 'assistant'.
Good adult support consists of observing (noticing what is really taking place), striving to understand (recognising the significance of this for the children) and responding according to careful consideration as to what would help the child the most, which may in fact be standing back out of the way.
Supplying useful language for equipment, actions and descriptions can be helpful provided it is done in context, where it makes sense (and is not overdone).
TIPS FOR DEVELOPING YOUR MUD KITCHEN
As mud kitchens have taken off in hundreds of outdoor spaces right across the UK, we have been learning a great deal about how to introduce and develop this provision.
- Don't make the mud kitchen for the children. Offer them the idea and then let them make the decisions and do the work, with your guidance and help. The educational potential contained in these processes is enormous.
- Concocting is the main idea, not replicating a real or pretend kitchen. Children do need containers and utensils, but an imagined cooker is of intellectual value. The most important physical part of the kitchen is ample work surfacing, so children have space to concoct and imagine together.
- It is important not to spend much money: mud kitchens with the most character are made from found and donated items. Your mud kitchen should be unique to you, so it is vital to make your own. What it is like and what it becomes to the children is distinctive to each setting: it might be more of a laboratory, a factory, or even a health-spa.
- Engage parents with hands-on workshops, helping them to understand the benefits for their child's health, learning and all-round development.
- Gathering donated items from families has huge value, so long as they are of acceptable quality. As well as aiding parental engagement, cultural relevance and diversity are supported, and, very importantly, children's own home lives are present in their pre-school setting. Important messages about repurposing and upcycling embed sustainable habits of mind, where buying new is no longer expected.
- Make washing-up an integral part of the play as each session draws to a close. This supports children in learning habits of hygiene while extending the play offer.
- Introduce new items gradually. Give children lots of time before offering an additional resource or moving on to a new idea.
- Be experimental. The kitchen is not fixed and you can try changing location, design or contents; involve the children in this process.
- Look closely at the detail of what children are really doing. Spend plenty of time alongside the children as they play - watching, listening, reflecting and in conversation - so that you get into the deeper meaning of what they are doing and thinking.
- The amount and quality of social play and use of communication and language in this play is fabulous.
- In a thoughtfully designed and well-stocked mud kitchen, many children can play comfortably together and conflict is noticeably rare. We are finding that mud kitchens have a therapeutic role for children who struggle with interaction and behaviour.
- Mud kitchen play is proving to be a great vehicle for developing teacher understanding of what outdoor play should really be like; and a portal to accessing the real value of the natural world for children's well-being and learning.
There is little more important in our physical world than soil and water and they are truly intriguing things, especially when they interact. Playing with the elements of the earth seems to be universal in childhood, all over the world, crossing generations, and creating special memories, so it must be a significant kind of play. So shouldn't this be something we are now offering to all children in early childhood education settings?
CASE STUDY: A LEARNING JOURNEY
Owner of Quackers pre-school, York, Menna Godfrey describes how her setting developed a mud kitchen.
Children who attend my setting have always had access to opportunities to mix mud with other ingredients. Staff are frequently offered 'food' that has been concocted from the available resources. On one occasion I was treated to 'slug soup with worms and germs'. Children used containers that they had found in the garden and added water from our water butt (spigot).
In 2012, a colleague suggested we should provide a mud kitchen. We began with some old cupboards, a few containers, utensils, and access to soil, sand and water. An old pallet provided a base and defined the 'kitchen space'.
Our mud kitchen began as a 'good idea': we recognised that it would support our children's drive to explore their world. We were amazed at the speed at which both boys and girls began to explore the resources, the number of children who chose to play alongside each other at the same time, and the inclusive nature of the play.
Staff noticed the depth of involvement that children demonstrated while at play; they truly entered a state of flow. We quickly realised that the mud kitchen should be available to children every day as part of our 'continuous provision'. We began to consider how the children used the kitchen and realised that the permissions of the adults, both implicit and explicit, opened or closed the possibilities of the space.
The fascination of a funnel
On her first day in the setting, two-year-old Jo followed two of the older children to the mud kitchen. She watched as they poured water from a container through a funnel into a bowl of mud. Emulating the older children, Jo collected some mud in a bowl and found a funnel. Leaving the mud-filled bowl, Jo took the funnel to the water butt and turned on the tap; she waited for the funnel to fill with water. Realising it had not, she looked quizzically into the funnel: where was the water?
Jo looked back at the other children who were alternately mixing the mud and using the funnel as a conduit for more water. As though she felt she had a defective funnel, Jo chose a different one and repeated her attempt to fill it. I watched, wondering whether I should explain 'funnels' to Jo, but decided to refrain. Over the next 20 minutes Jo observed the others carefully, before finally returning to the funnel, this time placing the bowl of mud beneath the funnel spout. She ran the tap and added water to the soil. She had solved her puzzle, by observation and experimentation, and was proud of her new knowledge. Would she have had the same sense of achievement, I wondered, had I been the one to tell her how to use it?
There are many delightful books to go with children's play in the mud kitchen, cafe, laboratory or factory. The best use of books is in response to what the children are currently doing or talking about while they play, but interesting books can also be used to plant new ideas for play or spark further interests.
Non-fiction books that pick up on what children say they are making work very well here, especially recipe books on soups, pies, ice cream and sundaes, cocktails or even chocolate. Books can be shared indoors or outdoors, but keep them away from direct involvement in the kitchen itself.
Some of our favourites:
- The Essential Soup Cookbook by Mary Coleman (ed) (The Australian Women's Weekly Home Library, 2000)
- Mud by Mary Lyn Ray and Lauren Stringer (Voyager Books, 1996)
- Mud Pie Annie by Sue Buchanan and Dana Shafer (Zonder Kids, 2001)
- Mud Pies and Other Recipes by Marjorie Winslow (The New York Review of Books, 1998)
- Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper (Picture Corgi Books, 1999)
- Stone Soup by Jess Stockham (Child's Play, 2006)
- Spells by Emily Gravett (Macmillan Children's Books, 2008)
- What's in the Witch's Kitchen? by Nick Sharratt (Walker Books, 2012)
- Access Muddy Faces' Mud Pack to support International Mud Day in the UK at www.muddyfaces.co.uk/mudkitchens
- For more advice on making your own mud kitchen, download a free copy of Making a Mud Kitchen by Jan White (2012, Muddy Faces)
- International Mud Day, www.worldforumfoundation.org/ working-groups/nature/international-mud-day
- If you would like to submit a case study for the forthcoming book Making the Most of your Mud Kitchen, please contact janwhite56 @hotmail.co.uk. If you would be interested in contributing to Menna's research please contact her at mennas email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Exchange (www.childcareexchange.com)
Jan White is author of Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high-quality experiences in outdoor environments. She blogs at janwhitenaturalplay.wordpress.com. Menna Godfrey owns Quackers pre-school, York, and is a trainer and researcher. She is doing a PhD studying children's play in the mud kitchen