Nobody else but the rosebush knows
How nice mud feels
Between the toes.
From the short poem Mud, by Polly Chase Boyden
Mud, mud, glorious mud, goes the old music hall song*, and mud play in mud kitchens has become a standard feature of many early childhood services.
ACECQA’s document for the Early Years Learning Framework sums up the reasons educators and children generally love a bit of mud play:
Outdoor learning spaces are a feature of Australian learning environments. They offer a vast array of possibilities not available indoors. Play spaces in natural environments include plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud, water and other elements from nature. These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education.
Since the introduction of Quality Area 3 – Physical Environment, with its welcome focus on both ‘sustainability’ and outdoor play, many services have escaped the old ‘plastic fantastic’ and ramped up their external environment for children.
Worm farms, raised garden beds, and, of course, a mud kitchen, have become highly desirable assets, with the latter particularly fuelled by the designer-led obsession this century for recycled timber pallet furniture.
The mud kitchens of today are increasingly sophisticated miniatures of the home version, complete with pot racks, metal basins and taps, but adding the element of recycled pallet or decking timbers ticks the sustainability box too – winner-winner, right?
As desirable as the home garden water features of the Noughties, mud kitchens at least serve a specific purpose (and don’t annoy the neighbours with night time burblings). No matter how they are constructed, they provide a platform and prompt for children’s imaginations. A bit of dirt, a bit of water, and voila: you have a bakery, or a restaurant, or a magic brewing cauldron for fairies or witches. Creativity is inspired, imagination is unloosed, and everyone is happy.
Or are they?
Reflecting on the rise and rise of modern mud kitchens – probably after seeing one too many ‘look at our new one’ posts online – I posed an incomplete statement to educators to get as wide a range of views as I could:
The problem with mud kitchens is…
As I expected, the first quick reply was ‘NOTHING!!! They are amazing’, and this was followed by several similar comments with the only variation in the early minutes being the poignant plaint: ‘We don’t have one’. Or, as another educator joked, ‘They often have more bench space than my real kitchen’.
Fair enough. There are always good reasons for things to become popular. But if I know anything about the ECE sector it’s that there’s no such thing as a topic on which everyone agrees with each other all the way.
And so the first dissents rolled in, but not initially from educators’ problems:
‘Parents don’t provide spare clothes.’
‘Parents say I don’t want my child wet and messy.’
‘Parents get cross with muddy clothes sent home.’
Well again, fair enough. Parents have a lot on their plates too and if they aren’t subscribing to the ‘a bit of dirt is good for them’ philosophy it can be difficult – but worthwhile – to demonstrate why that bit of dirt, and extra laundry, is so valuable.
As one other commenter said:
Parents see dirty clothes and mess, whereas educators see fun playing/learning area with observations galore.
But then more replies arrived, and while still balanced by the outpouring of mud kitchen love, some pedagogical concerns chimed in with the word ‘limit’ appearing in several responses. For example:
‘They can limit imaginative uses of the natural environment to kitchen play…’
…limit ideas about mud play to what can be done in … the kitchen so that the mud they are standing on becomes only a floor.
And this contribution from Ruth Harper, an Amplify guest writer:
I think there’s a real tendency for them to become another “thing” that we feel we *need* to have and can, potentially, limit play. We just have dirt. And stuff.
Leading several other educators to share similar views – that the idea of a ‘kitchen’ takes something away from children playing freely outside with dirt, water, leaves, twigs and some old pots and pans. The increasingly similar look of modern mud kitchens with their indoor counterparts was mentioned by another:
… mud kitchens are contrived and commercialised and not that different to a plastic indoor toy kitchen…
And as is the way when you consult a group of thoughtful people, as professional educators are, an ethical question arose:
Can you justify making mud, using up precious water, instead of growing veggies when most of Australia is in drought?
This brought out a well considered exchange of views about use of rainwater tanks, and observations on the greater value that children and adults alike place on a resource once it is rationed.
Let’s never assume that all services operate in the same kind of environment, either, with some educators pointing out that mud kitchens aren’t such a desirable option when they carry real risks in certain locations:
‘High risk factor in the Northern Territory and other tropical climates, places with Meliodosis disease.’
‘We get scorpions hiding in our mud sometimes…’
But by far the biggest problem with mud kitchens, it seems, is the quality of the food:
‘I get too full with all the pies the children create for me.’
‘You get free cookies.’
‘Sadly mud doesn’t taste like chocolate.’
‘Vanilla cakes, strawberry cakes, chocolate cakes, they all kinda taste the same…’
‘The ‘tea’ is never strained properly…’ (and a delightful variation from another educator: ‘too many worms in my tea’.)
What’s your take on mud kitchens? Share your thoughts in the comment box below!
*And if you’ve got the ‘glorious mud’ tune roaming around your head since my introduction, here’s a rendition to help clear it out.
Meet the author
Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.