Build a Mud Kitchen – Why Playing with Mud is Good For Children

mud kitchensWith limited toys and great weather,we have been playing  with natural materials and everyday objects. The children and I created a mud kitchen in the garden.

What is a Mud Kitchen?

A mud kitchen is an outdoor play kitchen for children to explore the properties of mud.  In a similar way to my own mud pie and mud drink making as a child, ( I remember filling up small dirt holes with water and tasting the mixture with a stick) the children mixed the mud in a kitchen made of recycled materials.  You could use a ready-made play kitchen but it isn’t necessary.

How to Build a Mud Kitchen

We made ours using various items we found around the house.  We made a shelf using bricks and a piece of wood, an oven from a cardboard box and collected containers from our recycling.  An old cupboard, table or sink would work equally well and I’m sure that when our stuff arrives from the UK we will find things to add.

Collect old kitchen utensils, pans and bowls from charity shops, friends or car boot sales. We put a sign on our fence next to the mud kitchen requesting items – no-one has donated yet but the children check for new additions every day. It is a good idea to place the mud kitchen near a fence or tree where the utensils can be hung – this way the kitchen will be nicely self-contained and easy to tidy.

The Benefits of Playing in the Mud

Children learn in a variety of ways; many children (particularly boys) prefer to play outdoors.  In most pre-schools I have visited in the UK indoor classrooms exist alongside outdoor classrooms.  Children who may not choose imaginative play  indoors may be attracted to the mud kitchen.  The mud kitchen is rich in learning experiences including learning the rules of good hygiene, exploring  the properties of mud, manipulating mud and tools with their fingers, measuring, imaginative play building on the children’s own experiences, finding out about bugs, problem solving and co-operation and sharing. Involve the children in the creation of the mud kitchen, they will come up with many ideas that adults may not have considered.

Health Benefits

To add weight to my argument I read an excellent post this week about the health benefits of playing in mud. The Children of the 90’s project at the University of Bristol recently reported a number of benefits for children who spend time outdoors. One study suggests that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop short- sightedness and they also found that good levels of Vitamin D was linked to better health including mental health.  Another study from Bristol University in 2007 suggests that friendly bacteria contained in soil, activates neurons responsible for producing the brain chemical serotonin.  A lack of serotonin is thought to cause depression; playing with mud is therefore likely to improve children’s mental health.

Our Mud Kitchen

playing in the mudWe built our mud kitchen during August.  In the UK this is often the wettest month of the year but here in Washington State we have had a perfectly dry month.  This was probably not the best time to build a mud kitchen but as the seasons change the play will develop.

We built the kitchen in a patch of garden where there was plenty of soil but soon discovered that the top layer consisted of wood chippings from the surrounding Pine trees.  This was great for sprinkling and pouring but moulding cakes and pies had limited success. child hosing mudI suggested we dig a hole to reach the true soil under the surface, we  used the hose to  wet it.  Filling the hole with water attracted a flying insect that we hadn’t encountered before, the girls were apprehensive but interested in watching the creature.

We are making coffee powder

My 8-year-old who loves the idea of creating experiments or being an inventor, mixed the mud to make coffee.

I suggested she put it into the empty coffee container but she explained that it started wet and took at least a day to drain off before it could be transferred to the coffee container.

mud pies
‘It takes at least a day to drain off’

My 3-year-old preferred to make a cake. She sprinkled grass on the top.

I’m looking forward to the change in the weather and seeing how the play develops as the mud changes.

outdoor play
‘I’m decorating my cake. It’s chocolate.’

Messy Play for Matilda Mae

Do Children Need Toys?

We have been in the US for 6 weeks but our furniture and the majority of the childrens’ toys will not arrive for another month.  During this period we have become experts at finding things to play with from around the house.  We brought a small selection of basic toys – colouring pencils, scissors, a glue stick, paper, a ball and a few books, other than that we have made our own fun.  The other children in the street think it is strange to come to a house with no toys but if I am honest I don’t think there is a great deal that the children have missed.

I have been meaning to write a post about some of the household objects that we have played with for some time, but an article that I read yesterday made me look at it from a different perspective.  Sadaf Shallwani’s article Questioning Play and Child-Centred Approaches discusses her experience of teaching children in Pakistan.  Here, childrens’ learning was not built around pretend play but came from real experiences. Children would not learn to cook in a pretend kitchen but would be taught to use real kitchen utensils in a safe manner.

She also questions Western notions of child-centred education.  Early educators try to see the world through a child’s eyes and provide child-sized furniture and objects.  The value of using real objects is recognised in many highly-acclaimed pre-schools.  The schools of Reggio Emilia use many real-life scenarios as the basis for their projects and a colleague who visited the schools was surprised to find the children climbing onto adult-sized chairs and tables. A key philosophy of the Reggio Schools is the belief that children are capable.  With this in mind the teachers help the children to use real tools and objects. Similarly in the Danish Forest Schools that another colleague visited, young children were taught to use real tools and knives to whittle sticks and were free to roam in the woodlands and on the beach and trusted to return at the sound of a whistle.

I remember as a child using real objects from my kitchen to play shops and tea parties.  Toy versions of everything are so readily available these days that it is easy to be drawn into the need to buy more and more. It is also easy to fall into the trap of believing that children need adapted versions of things for their own safety. If we trust them with real things, spending time explaining the risks and demonstrating how to use them properly, children are more safety-conscious than those who do not understand the danger of the real objects.

Not having toys has been a very useful exercise.  We have used things from around the house and recycled boxes and paper to create an Olympics and a mud kitchen, we have borrowed books from the library and we have played ball games and skipping.

Here are a few other objects we have utilised:-

Pistachio Nut Shells

decorating shellsWe saved the shells from our pistachio nuts and the girls had great fun decorating them.  We coloured them so that we could make flowers and patterns and decorated some to look like ladybirds and other bugs.  My 3-year-old chose some pebbles from the garden to decorate as they weren’t quite so fiddly for her small hands.

cooking with pistachio shellsOn another occasion I gave my 1-year-old the tub of shells along with a pan, spoon and a number of containers.  She enjoyed scooping them and transporting the shells from one container to another. She also liked the sound they made as they fell onto the floor.  As she walked they stuck to her feet so I showed her how to pick them up with her toes which she thought was very funny.

Coffee Filters

I remember doing this activity in science lessons at school.  I gave the girls felt tip pens and coffee filters and asked them to draw patterns on them.

When they had finished they were given a small pot of water and I showed them how to drip it on to the paper creating rainbow colours.


We kept newspapers and magazines with a view to making papier-mache.  The girls would like to enter a local parade on Saturday and I suggested they might be able to make papier-mache masks.

My 3-year-old had other ideas.  She decided to spread the paper across the floor. ‘I’m making a bed’ she said. She had also made other things for her house by sticking boxes together.

I’ve often felt that my house has been taken over by toys that the children hardly ever play with, so I’m not particularly looking forward to them all arriving.  I hope that  being creative with household objects will help us all to think about what we could use instead of buying yet another toy and maybe I can keep most of the toys in their boxes when they arrive.

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Ideas for Staging a Children’s Olympics

staging an Olympic medal ceremonyFollowing the Olympics from the US has been a little strange.  We’ve caught some of it live, some the following morning when we wake up and some just by following headlines, Facebook messages or Twitter feeds.  The children have been watching it with me and were particularly keen to catch Imogen Cairns from their Gymnastics Academy at home.

Being such a distance away we thought it was really important to make an effort to support our home team. Team GB sign Olympics We hung our Union Jack Bunting in the garden and the girls made Olympic rings, copying the colours carefully and a sign supporting our team. We then talked about staging our own neighbourhood Olympics, Team GB competing against Team USA.

My 8 year old made a list of all the events we could include.  I  ordered a pack of blank medals that the girls could colour and decorate and the girls spent a morning completing them.

We made a hobby horse for the equestrian events using a stick from the garden and an empty milk carton. We then set to work marking out a track using masking tape.  A number of low level obstacles were found to act as fences for the show jumping and double up as hurdles.  We also found a straight stick to use as a javelin, a frisbee for discuss and a tape measure and stop watch for accurate results.

Event 1 – Show Jumping

children's olympicsJumping boxes with a hobby horse was quite difficult, my one year old preferred to drag the horse by her side but my 3 year old had a great time.  It didn’t matter to her that she didn’t win gold, she was very excited to stand on the podium (her bathroom stool) and receive her silver medal.  We sang the National Anthem and this has been a really good way for them to learn the words (perhaps I’ll leave the Welsh one until they are a little older).

Event 2 – Hurdles

This was my one year olds favourite event she stepped her way over all the obstacles and loved waiting for the Ready, Steady, Go.

Event 3 – Long Jump.

childrens OlympicsWe marked a place on the lawn where the children would begin their run up and another where they would begin their jump.  I explained that if their foot went over the line then the jump wouldn’t count and they managed to remain accurate every time.  The girls helped me to measure the jumps. My 8 year old fell over every time she jumped so there was a little bit of dispute over where we should measure her landing.

I thought you were meant to fall over, they did on the Olympics

I explained that the Olympic jumpers fall over because they jump such a long way and land in sand. I showed the girls on the tape measure how far an Olympic long jumper would travel and they were amazed.

Event 4 – Javelin

olympic playThe girls found it quite difficult to throw the javelin from their shoulder but managed a few good throws.  I showed them the technique I had been taught at school and my 3 year old who is still deciding whether she is left or right handed needed to work out which was her stronger arm.




Event 5 – Discus

To add a bit of variety I showed them how to spin around and then throw the frisbee.  It took quite a lot of practice as it kept landing at their feet or travelling in the wrong direction, which my 3 year old found hilarious.  Eventually both girls managed good throws, longer than the tape measure, so my 8 year old had to employ her adding skills.  My 3 year old was very proud to win Gold beating her sister by 1 inch.

Events 6 and 7 – Sprint and Long Distance Run.

To make it fair we gave my 3 year old a head start and during the long distance run my 8 year old ran an extra lap.  After winning comfortably she asked if she could race me – I finally won my own Gold Medal.

Our Track and Field Day is over.  Other events the girls want to stage over the next few days are football, tennis, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, gymnastics, boxing, and cycling. We completed our rowing and swimming at the weekend at the lake but the younger ones might enjoy making a cardboard box boat to row. We’ve had great fun and hopefully some of the neighbours will be able to join us tomorrow to get some real competition going.

  • Thanks to Vicki for the show jumping idea.




Butlins – A Great British Family Holiday

A few weeks before leaving the UK I had a very special farewell holiday with my family at Butlins Minehead Resort courtesy of Butlins Ambassador Programme. It didn’t quite begin as planned but once we arrived and the sun came out we had a great time.

Our party included myself and my 3 children (aged 8, 3 and 1), my brother, his partner and their twins (aged 1) and my dad, stepmum and one of her grandchildren (aged 7).

Our gold apartments were almost identical to the one we stayed in during our Christmas break , so I won’t repeat myself.  I would however highlight a few things if you are taking toddlers.  Firstly the doors are very heavy and sprung , my youngest children managed to avoid trapping limbs but I didn’t feel very relaxed.  My crawling nephew who is into everything managed to pull a heater off the wall, knock the television over and get into every cupboard in the kitchen, so needless to say they didn’t spend a lot of time in the apartment. That said, with the true Butlin’s spirit at heart,  you will get the most out of your break by getting out and out enjoying what it has to offer. My dad stayed in a silver apartment and was more than satisfied with the size and comfort.

The whole party were very impressed with the quality and choice of food, a difficult task to provide something to suit everyone in such a large party.


We were so lucky to have a day of glorious sunshine that we could spend in the outdoor pool, this was suitable for all ages and they all had a great time. The indoor pool was even more fun for the older children, though I didn’t get  a chance to go on the slides this time as I had to stay in the shallow pool with the little ones.  Getting 4 under 5’s ready for a swim was a bit of a military operation but they loved every minute.

Fairground Rides

bob the builders yardThe outdoor fairground was perfect for the 2 older children and the indoor playground in Bob the Builder’s yard was enjoyed as much by the younger ones.  The twins were a little young so went for a walk instead but my 1 year old had a wonderful time . We spent a good few hours there, there were hardly any queues and as it was undercover it would have been fun in any weather.


Primarily the shows that we watched were in the Skyline Pavilion . This was an easy place to head to each evening. The children were happy watching shows, running around on the amusements or playing in the softplay and we could get a drink from the bar.  My 3 year old was so excited when she met characters from the Skyline Gang. My youngest 2 avoided getting lost by wearing a wristband with my phone number on it provided by the red coats,  a great idea for peace of mind in a busy venue. Our favourite show was ‘I Can Cook’.  Katie was brilliant with the children and really energetic and engaging.  There was lots of audience participation (arrive early for a good seat if your children would like to get up on stage) and we all got to taste the produce at the end.  My 3 year old was excited to meet Katie and wanted to ask her if she could come to our house to cook with her.


In some ways it is difficult in a mixed aged party to get too involved in activities.  Many would have been suitable for the under 5’s or for the older ones but not all together.  The idea of this holiday was a final farewell before we head off to the states so we didn’t really want to split up.

There were quite a lot of paid activities, we chose a few , the children had donkey rides, my eldest climbed the climbing wall and the older girls went to the cinema with their nanny.  We felt the cinema was a little expensive, costing around the £20 mark for 3 children and an adult. The cinema was almost empty and may have been busier if it had cost a few pounds each.

Billy Bear

butlinsThe highlight of the holiday for the littlest ones was meeting Billy Bear everyday at mealtimes. My one year old now calls all teddy bears Billy Bear.

With 4 children under 5 it wasn’t always the most relaxing holiday in the world, but the perfect way to involve all the family and say goodbye to the UK.

Thank you so much to everyone who made our year as a Butlin’s ambassador a wonderful experience and all the best to the current group of ambassadors.  Perhaps we could bring Butlins to the US?  Somehow I don’t think the Americans would get it.

This review is based on a term time 4 night break during June in a gold apartment with premium dining.