DIY Forest School – make your own mud kitchen
Kids bored and glued to screens? Get them outside with Muddy's resident Forest School leader. First up, make your own mud kitchen.
We all know getting the kids outside is great but pricey paddling pools (that rot the lawn) and supersized trampolines will only keep them going for so long and are very much weather dependent. But fear not! There’s plenty you can do in your own back garden, with what you already have.
Start with a mud kitchen. It’s a brilliant addition to any outdoor space. It’s cheap as chips, will keep the kids going for hours – days, in fact – and the best news is you probably have everything you need to hand already.
In this new age of relentless hand-washing it might seem counterintuitive to let kids plaster themselves in mud, but in fact earth contains beneficial bacteria and exposure to a little bit (OK a lot) of dirt is good for the immune system. Mud play is a rich sensory experience, that allows for creative, open-ended play and helps children connect with nature.
It’s also a deeply immersive type of play that allows children to experience flow, that delightful state of absorption and concentration in the task at hand. It gets them off screens, out into the fresh air, and it’s creative and educational to boot. What’s not to love? Here’s how to create your own mud kitchen.
Start where you are
Think about the best place for a mud kitchen in the wider context of your garden. If you have a lot of space, do you want the kids where you can supervise them, or are you happy for them to be out of your direct line of vision? Conversely if all you have is a balcony, where can you pop a couple of pots and troughs?
What do you already have that can be easily adapted – I’ve turned a currently unused part of my (ample) veg patch over to the kids for lockdown because unlike the rest of my ‘wildlife friendly’ garden it’s not overgrown with brambles.
What natural features could you adapt? Treestumps, log piles, natural dips and scrubby patches in the corner are all ripe with potential, with a little imagination.
Grab what you have
The best way to stock a mud kitchen is to raid the local charity shop for old pots and pans, cutlery, teapots, sieves, colanders, wooden spoons and oddities – I’ve picked up all sorts of weird and wonderful things over the years.
If there are any backyard sales going on in your local area, do check them out for old bric-a-brac (metal, wood and plastic is best, for obvious reasons, although I’ve always allowed my children to work with sturdy ceramics and crockery). But if you don’t have access to any new jumble, raid the cupboards and let the kids loose with all the old baking trays, cake tins, ancient saucepans that were passed down from Auntie Jean, rusting cutlery and other odds and ends you never use (come on, you know you have some!) Your other source of mud kitchen stock is your humble recycling bin. Jam jars, plastic containers, foil takeaway trays and milk bottles are all ideal for eager young ‘cooks’.
Old wooden crates and boxes make a great ‘oven’ but if you don’t have anything big to hand, don’t worry. Sticks are perfectly acceptable wooden spoon substitutes, plant pots or beach buckets make great mixing bowls. Kids are endlessly creative and your kitchen doesn’t have to be rigorously authentic to provide hours of entertainment and education. Step away from Pinterest and embrace imperfection.
Just add mud!
Now you have your odds and sods assembled, your children will need some raw material to work with. Any soil will do, if you’re really struggling to locate any that’s accessible then chuck them half a bag of compost and away they go. Just add water – if you’re brave, show them how to work the hose, if not, a watering can, bucket or even a few jugs will do the trick.
Mud kitchen activities
A mud kitchen will keep children occupied for a considerable amount of time without any input from you, just the sheer joy of mixing, poking, squidging, squeezing and generally getting completely plastered in filth is deeply immersive and satisfying for big and little kids alike. The possibilities of a mud kitchen are practically endless and children can allow their imaginations to run riot. But if you feel they need a bit of a steer, here’s some fun starters for ten:
Create a mud cafe – what’s on the menu? Older children can write a menu to accompany their gruesome feasts, little ones can draw pictures.
Fancy a salad? Challenge your children to pick five different plants or flowers from your garden and identify them. Let them know what they can pick and what’s out of bounds – dandelions yes, dahlias, errr, maybe not.
Time for tea! Have them whip you up a lovely cuppa of dandelion, lavender or even good old grass tea. If you have any mint in your garden, all the better, knock up a fresh mint tea and drink it together.
Scentsational – let them discover the scent of herbs by picking, crushing, rubbing and tearing leaves, a gorgeous sensory experience.
Flower dyeing – all you need is a piece of white fabric (an old pillowcase or similar), a small hammer, a piece of wood and some wildflowers. Put the flowers on the fabric and get hammering. This is a really lovely introduction to natural dyeing and the results can be used to create bunting or even a flag, to mark out the children’s territory!
Clay modelling – if you have clay soil, let the children squidge it into shapes like natural playdough. Leave it to harden in the sun and see what happens – can you bake mud biscuits?
Minibeast safari – children are fascinated by minibeasts and a mud kitchen is packed with all sorts of wriggling squiggling scuttling things. Scoop a load into a pot or bucket and let the children observe them. Help them identify them and use a field guide or website like the Woodland Trust to discover more about them – where they live, what they eat, what eats them…..
The big cleanup
Keep the muddy mayhem to a minimum by insisting kids wear old clothes and shoes – Crocs or similar are perfect as they’re easy to wash and dry. Have a bucket of water, soap and a towel somewhere between the mud kitchen and the front/back door so all extremities can be washed and dried before traipsing mud all the way through the house.