How mud kitchen play can help to combat Nature-Deficit Disorder

I was recently told of a city toddler who, growing up in London, had not seen an apple tree before - let alone an orchard. His mum took him to visit an orchard and he saw apples growing on a tree for the first time. He remarked, “Mummy, why did someone stick all those apples in the trees?” This may make us laugh or smile at his innocent naivety, however, it highlights a more serious issue that modern society is being faced with: the disconnect between children and nature. The National Trust acknowledged this concern in their Natural Childhood report, where they noted that, “One in three [children] could not identify a magpie; half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp; yet nine out of ten could recognise a Dalek.”

The term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ was coined by Richard Louv in his controversial book, “Last Child in the Woods”. Despite its name, this is not a medical diagnosis; rather he uses this term as a metaphor to describe the children of this generation who are, quite literally, deprived of nature and the freedom to play outdoors. He suggests that these children are more likely to have physical and emotional illnesses as a direct result of not playing outside or being connected with nature.

Children in the UK are spending more and more time inside and a recent Ofcom Survey found that children aged between 3 and 4 spend an average of 14 hours per week watching television and a further 9 hours per week online. On top of this, the 2016 National Statistics NHS Health survey National Statistics NHS Health survey found that 83% of children aged between 2 and 4 spend less than an hour being physically active in a typical day. With the decline in children playing outside, it is easy to see why Richard Louv is concerned and, in fact, why we all should be.

One way that many settings are combatting Nature-Deficit Disorder is by creating a mud kitchen in their outside area. Mud kitchens are just that – an outdoor kitchen where children can make mud pies or use natural materials like leaves, grass, sticks and stones to engage in sensory role-play relating to cooking and eating. Over the years I have seen many different ways of creating these, from expensive purpose-built outdoor play equipment, to pots and pans ‘cooking’ on a plank resting on bricks. I have even seen mud-free kitchens where settings choose to use sand or just gravel or leaves. Personally, I prefer the muddy variety as there is nothing like a sticky, gooey mud pie sprinkled with freshly cut grass to whet the appetite!

Although there are commercially-produced mud kitchens available on the market, our own mud kitchen is in an old beach tent and includes a low table, pots and pans, and kitchen utensils. I recently added to this a basket with felt flames around the rim as an alternative fire pit for them to cook on. We also have a blackboard on which to write a menu and, of course, the vital ingredient of mud!

In her booklet Making a Mud Kitchen, Jan White suggests that the best mud kitchens are made in collaboration with the children who will be using them. Think about what you are providing and how it will enhance the children’s learning experience. For example, if you provide measuring jugs, this will encourage children to use numbers as labels and for counting. Although there are no rules as to how you design your kitchen, the following ideas might be helpful:

  • Find a suitable space outside to position your mud kitchen, an enclosed space or corner works well and helps to define the area.
  • Provide a worktop space for children to ‘cook’ on and ensure that it is child-height.
  • Collect a variety of kitchen utensils and cookware and think about how you will store these. Any vertical services can be used to hang pots and utensils, or use cupboards and shelves under the worktop.
  • Source pre-loved items for your mud kitchen by asking for donations from parents and carers or your own family and friends. You could also search in local charity shops or even ask at the local recycling centre.
  • Provide mud or sand alongside other natural materials that the children can create with, such as gravel, stones, leaves, moss, sticks and grass.
  • Allow access to a water source or provide a bowl containing water.
  • Remember to conduct a risk-benefit analysis and ensure that children wash their hands carefully after playing with the mud kitchen.
  • Be creative with the space and ensure that your kitchen continually evolves as the children use it.

Within early childhood settings we can help children to become more connected or, indeed, re-connected with nature by presenting our children with a mud kitchen. We must ensure that the children we care for can recognise a bee and do know that apples grow on trees!

Suggested Kit List for a mud kitchen!

  • Cooker - an old microwave or camping stove works really well. Equally some red and black laminated circles make a great electric hob - just stick them onto the table.
  • Pots and pans - the children will need something to cook in. Provide a variety of sizes and types, like a frying pan, milk pan and large saucepan. Remember that aluminium pans are lighter for younger children to use.
  • Jugs and bowls - offer containers for children to mix their concoctions in.
  • Utensils - whisks, spoons, sieves, colanders, ladles – include some unusual ones like an ice cream scoop or garlic crusher.
  • Bakeware - include some cupcake trays or smaller bakeware as the children will love filling them with mud and sand!
  • Small containers and jars - ones with lids attached will reduce the number of pots which lose a lid! These can be used to store potions or special mixtures, and the children will enjoy filling and emptying them.
  • Large washing up bowl - encourage the children to help to wash up as part of the play.
  • Special ingredients - you might want to think about enhancing your mud kitchen with spices, food colouring and essential oils to add a sensory twist to their creations.

Ideas adapted from Jan White and muddyfaces.co.uk

For further reading materials please visit:  bit.ly/tamsin-august

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk


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