A few years ago I first saw an article about constructing an outdoor mud kitchen for kids, and I thought it was a great way to foster unstructured outdoor play in the dirt - all those things which the aforementioned studies and my intuition favor. Plus, it just sounded fun! I've wanted to build a mud kitchen for my children ever since, and my husband and I finally did so this summer. As a result of installing a brick patio last summer, we had a big pile of dirt sitting in our back yard, and we spent several months contemplating what to do with it. The kids had such a great time playing on the dirt pile - they even used it as a mini sledding hill during the winter - that we decided to keep the pile of dirt; it was inexpensive play with which the kids could get a lot of playtime mileage. I figured this was a great time to put a mud kitchen in next to the dirt pile. I started with an online search to view images of other mud kitchens as an inspiration point, then looked around at what we had on hand, went to a Habitat ReStore to see what items we could get for minimal cost, and went from there. We decided to use our past-its-prime diaper changing table (itself a previous consignment sale find) and a homemade wooden stereo stand, both of which were being stored in our basement. I found some shutters and a small sink at the ReStore. Though I forgot to measure the width of of the stereo stand before I went to the ReStore, by some stroke of luck the width of the shutters which I purchased were a perfect fit. The shutters seemed like such a versatile item, that I figured even if they didn't fit the stand, I'd find another use for them in a future project. The changing table became a sink stand/counter, using an old piece of laminate countertop we had on hand, and the stereo stand became a refrigerator/oven. My in-laws were replacing their deck steps and gave us the old wood, which was still in fairly good condition; my husband used it to build a table for the mud kitchen. The entire project became a fun creative exercise - we enjoyed taking what items we had available, coming up with our own mud kitchen design and figuring out how to make it work. The kids picked out the paint colors for the kitchen, although I managed to convince them to use a darker shade of their preferred color on at least part of the kitchen to help make the inevitable dirt stand out a little bit less. My last minute inspiration was to create a menu board by taking some of the scrap plywood left from cutting out backings for the sink stand and refrigerator/oven, spray painting the wood with some chalkboard paint we already had, and attaching a couple old, dated drawer pulls from a previous dresser refinishing project. Once the pulls were spray painted, they had a much improved look. In all honesty, I still haven't gotten around to hanging the menu board outside, so I don't really know how well it will stand up to the weather...but I still like the idea of it. The last step was to stock the kitchen with used pots and pans and utensils, many of which we purchased very inexpensively at a Salvation Army thrift store. We use a plastic lidded tub for storing all of the kitchen "supplies" outside with the kitchen.
One nice thing about this project was that we weren't concerned about the kitchen looking perfect and professional. After all, this is a mud kitchen - it is meant to be played with outside, it is meant to get very dirty and be abused by the weather and by kids. So flaws are not a problem. We are far from being experts, and we have some doubts on how well all of this will hold up to the elements, but it should be fun while it lasts. The laminate countertop has particle board underneath, and we were doubtful of how weather-hardy it would be, despite painting the exposed particle board with exterior paint. Our doubts have been shown to have merit, as the countertop is already warped; however, we can easily just unscrew it and replace it with a different material when we're ready. My husband and I are very happy with how the mud kitchen turned out, but more importantly, the kids really like it and actually play with it. It's not always used as a kitchen, but more often as an outdoor lab or general play area where the kids can pretend they are on a ship, pour rainwater down the sink drain or bring the worms, toads and other critters they capture for inspection. The kids have befriended the toads in the back yard, and Hopper 1 has a favorite toad that he has named Boderi. I am happy that the kids are spending so much time outside and have a new play area that fosters more exploring and imagining. (And I have to admit that I have an additional, more selfish reason that I like the kids to play outside regularly and for a good amount of time: it gives me a break.) Encouraging outdoor play certainly means more dirt being trudged all over the patio and then dragged into the house. Although the kids have well-worn jeans and shirts designated as their "dirt" clothes, and I keep a wire basket by the back door for the "dirt" clothes and galoshes to go into as soon as the kids come inside, there is still plenty of opportunity for sweeping the floor multiple times each day (this doesn't mean it always is swept that often, but the opportunity is there). The mess might be a deal breaker for some people, but we don't live in a meticulously kept house to begin with, and for me the benefits of my kids being outside playing in the dirt far outweigh the costs. I hope that when my kids are grown they have as many good memories of playing outside in childhood as I have.
Benefits for Children of Play in Nature by White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group
Let Your Kids Get Dirty by The Art of Simple
The Mud Center: Recapturing Childhood by Community Playthings
Why Playing in the Mud is More Than Just Fun by Nature Play QLD
The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Makes for Healthy Kids by The Stay at Home Educator
Scientists Say Child's Play Helps Build a Better Brain by NPR
Why Free Play is the Best Summer School by The Atlantic
The Value of Unstructured Play Time for Kids by Pacific Standard