Earth play: Finding fun (and getting muddy) in nature

Looking for new play ideas for your little one? Building an outdoor kitchen is an ideal way to nurture independence and encourage imaginative play.

Photo: Brenda Simon
Photo: Brenda Simon

If you can tolerate a bit of wilderness in your backyard, you can create a space that is both exciting and soothing for your children. An outdoor kitchen in a leafy corner, partially obscured by a lilac bush or tall grasses, can offer your child an oasis for mud-baking and potion-mixing. Sand, dirt, plant and water play are enriched with a special kind of excitement and intimacy—especially when these activities are furnished with such indoor things as kitchen tools, wooden spoons, muffin trays and cake molds.

Read more: 8 fun and easy summer crafts>

Create a mud kitchen for your child—call it a playhouse open to the sky. Domestic and wild at the same time, it offers boys and girls a place that’s all theirs, with full control over all the arrangements.

Building your outdoor kitchen
It should not be fancy; and parents shouldn’t be invested in its care. Scavenge old shelves for tables and stools, old kitchen utensils, stainless steel mixing bowls (even a gutted microwave). Allow a selection of weeds to grow around it; they can be both edible and harmless—such as dandelion, mint, plantain, sorrel, chives, a scattering of marigolds. Let it be shaded, loose and open-ended.

Given the freedom to really muck about, most children will happily set about the task of remaking the world. They will talk and sing to themselves for hours while arranging, picking, mixing and crushing. Their imaginative blending may take them into a dangerous potion experiment or a quietly self-soothing mud cake batter. As they play, they become familiar with the changing smells, sounds, textures and tastes of the outdoors, developing ease with the slugs and bugs that share the space. Summer rain? Not a problem. They’re wet anyway.

Read more: Lessons learned from my family’s garden>

Learning to be independent
Private time
is in short supply for kids these days, but they need to learn how to be happily alone. If you can trust them with real trowels, let them dig holes, crush flowers, soak their area of the yard. Let them learn this unteachable curriculum and allow themselves to be hosed down before entering the house.

“Mixing soil, water and a range of other natural materials has a foundational role in early childhood which has deep importance and endless possibilities for well-being, development and learning,” writes Jan White, a specialist in early childhood outdoor play and author of Making a Mud Kitchen.

Health benefits
Less well known are the benefits of exposure to healthy organisms in clean soil which strengthen the immune system and help to prevent colds, flu and ear infections. Soil bacteria also participate in the body’s production of serotonin—the good mood hormone.

Earth play, indeed. Nature’s anti-depressant.

Budding creators 
Making concoctions is the raw material of everything humanly created.  It is our creativity and the origins of technology. And it begins with solitary time. Fatigue, boredom and even sadness change in the magically sensuous and tactile space of the mud kitchen—a  “Hogwarts” laboratory for the interplay between their inner and outer worlds, the observation of how things are and how they can be transformed.

Ask your favourite people if they ever liked playing with dirt and you will find enthusiasts of all kinds: gardeners, foodies, artists, carpenters, architects, engineers, entrepreneurs and pharmacists!

And bonus: When they have had enough, children enjoy re-entering the cleanliness and order of the house. Bath, dinner, a bedtime book—the rituals of care provided by their parents serve as a counterpoint of culture to the wilderness kitchen, to their inner wildness. Both places hold imaginative possibilities for growing bodies, active minds.

Together Earth Day Canada and GreenHere’s PLAYbynature Project are working to improve play provision in communities.  If you would like help building a mud kitchen in your yard, your school or local community, contact GreenHere.ca 

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