By Michael Niehoff
Education Content Coordinator, iLEAD Schools
“The best way to learn is by doing. The only way to build a strong work ethic is getting your hands dirty.”
—Alex Spanos, author, billionaire philanthropist
“You have to get your hands dirty if you want to change things.”
—Elena Ferrante, Italian novelist
“We can’t blame children for occupying themselves with technology rather than playing in the mud. Our society doesn’t put a priority on connecting with nature. In fact, too often we tell them it’s dirty and dangerous.”
—David Suzuki, geneticist, broadcaster, environmental activist
Educators, parents and advocates of children know kids need to play to develop skills in deeper learning, leadership, responsibility, creativity and collaboration. One way to help kids grow in all these ways is by providing them with a mud kitchen.
A mud kitchen can come in many different forms: from a simple patch of mulch, dirt or grass to a design using crates, cinderblocks, tables or used kitchen sets. Regardless of the setup, a mud kitchen is all about exposing kids and their friends to different textures and sensations. Much like a sandbox — but dirtier — a mud kitchen can be a place where kids manipulate the earth into shapes, built it into objects, fill containers with it and more. Mud kitchens are fun not just for kids but for kids at heart too.
According to play-based learning experts, when children make-believe in a mud kitchen, they practice “grown-up” jobs like cooking on their own, which helps them feel more control, power, and independence. In addition, they develop early skills in science and art, using their imaginations to test ideas through observing cause and effect.
A mud kitchen can be used differently every time children enter, depending on their moods and interests each day, making it a great value for a low-cost play area that children can use and reuse.
Children love to play, use their imaginations and get dirty. This commonality stirs up plenty of conversation at the mud kitchen, according to Lisa Latimer, a board of directors member at the International Play Association and school director of iLEAD Agua Dulce. Latimer said that mud kitchens are play-based centers that foster language development, academic skills, creativity, role-playing and collaboration, and they also serve as great stress reducers.
“I personally witness something beautiful taking place each time I go out to our mud kitchen. When you just sit, observe and listen to the conversations and see the children interact, it is really amazing,” Latimer said. “It is a reprieve from the hurriedness of the ‘grown-up’ environment, and it helps children make sense of the world around them.”
There are some strong psychological and developmental elements at play with a mud kitchen, according to Angie Nastovska, director of the PlayMakers Institute and director of humanities and innovation at iLEAD Schools.
“Simply, this is about allowing children to live life as-is without restrictions and boundaries. They need to touch, smell, taste,” Nastovska said. “The mud kitchen helps amplify these learning opportunities by stimulating inquiry, experimentation, learning by doing, mess and trial and error.”
Mud kitchens offer a sense of wonder and excitement. Latimer said that there is never a sense of boredom because children rely on their limitless imaginations.
“There should not be a divide between play and learning. They are synonymous. When a child is in the mud kitchen, they are learning much more than we can predict,” Latimer said.
Mud kitchens offer a natural approach to developing fine and gross motor skills, immunity, language, collaboration, literacy, numeracy, cross-disciplinary connections, proprioception, creativity, wonder and an appreciation for aesthetics, according to Nastovska.
“Mud kitchens teach so many skills,” Nastovska said. “If we have learning targets and skills in mind, we just need to add prompts and intentionality.”
A mud kitchen may be one of the most consistent ways to have learners make immediate connections with nature, themselves and others, according to Nicole Huguenin, director of arts integration and play at the Maker Learning Network.
“Whenever I’ve built a mud kitchen and shown it to children, their eyes light up,” Hugeunin said. “They immediately start playing and having fun.”
There are mental health and wellness benefits too. Latimer said that getting one’s hands dirty can increase serotonin levels.
“Additionally, soil contains a specific bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae, which triggers the release of serotonin in the brain according to research,” Latimer said. “Serotonin is a ‘happy chemical’ and a natural antidepressant and strengthens the immune system.”
Aidan Bybee, iLEAD Agua Dulce’s outdoor classroom facilitator, believes that mud kitchens allow learners to shake off societal pressures through repeated experiences.
“They learn that it’s OK to make a mess, as well as be a little different,” Bybee said.
Although mud kitchens can evolve into more complex projects, they really can be a simple thing to start. Bybee recommends gathering some pots from thrift stores, along with some random kitchen utensils (wooden spoons, spatulas, etc.), and then letting the kids just play. Over time, items such as benches and tables can be added to a mud kitchen.
“Your child will do the hard work of creating and using their imagination,” Bybee said. “As an adult, remember that things will get messy and that is OK! Set expectations so kids can thrive in the environment.”
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