As the ever-ongoing effort to keep kids occupied at home continues, you might find mud kitchens popping up more and more on your social media feeds. And with good reason: Kids need to get their hands dirty; you need to keep your house clean. It's no wonder mud kitchens are the new bouncy house. They’re excellent for creative play and if you go the DIY route, they’re fairly inexpensive, and can keep your kid occupied for hours… which is always a good thing.
Fatherly called mud kitchens "the must-have backyard toy for kids;" Real Homes said mud kitchens are "the perfect way to encourage your kids to spend time in the garden this summer" ("in the garden" = out of the house). To date, there are over 56,000 posts on Instagram with the hashtag #mudkitchen. And while some (ahem) don’t look like they’ve ever seen any dirt a day in their life, many of the mud kitchens pictured live up to their name. "Never in a million years did I think I would ever let my child play with mud," wrote one mom in a caption for a photo of her toddler son with his hands in a sink full of dirt. "Cooking up something disgusting 😂😂 #bestfriends#toddlerlife#mudkitchen," another mom captioned a pic of two little ones making a muddy meal.
Just like bouncy houses were all the rage when the pandemic first started and parents were so desperate to keep their quarantined kids from bouncing off the (actual) walls that they were inflating giant castles and ball pits in their living rooms. But time has passed and the weather has gotten warmer, and mud kitchens have emerged as the next trend in entertaining bored children. Before you think about dirty handprints on the door, consider the fact that mud kitchens are considerably cheaper than bouncy houses: At the time of this writing, inflatable entertainment centers for kids on Amazon ranged from $270 to $760; mud kitchens range anywhere from $0 (the kind you DIY with stuff you have around the house) to around $100 or so on Etsy (you can spend more, obviously, if you really want to drop $450 on a mud kitchen).
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Now, it might seem counterintuitive to actually encourage your kiddo to make a big muddy mess they'll inevitably traipse through the house. But the benefits outweigh the... annoyances. “Mud kitchens and mud pits are a wonderful opportunity for kids to explore their world,” board-certified family physician Dr. Robin Dickinson, M.D., tells Romper. “Kids can enjoy their favorite sensory experiences or stretch themselves with new ones.”
Kids who enjoy sensory-based activities (and sloppy good fun) can really benefit from a mud kitchen, Matthew Breen OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist, tells Romper. “A mud kitchen is the perfect way to offer children a safe-space environment, where they feel in control, which is really the key when it comes to encouraging a child to willingly get their hands and face dirty," he says.
The cool thing about mud kitchens is that it doesn’t really take a whole lot to make one. Of course, if you go on Instagram or Pinterest, you’ll find a plethora of perfectly styled mud kitchens that might look as good (or even better) than your own kitchen at home. But honestly, the only part your kid really cares about is the mud. If you have a leftover kitchen set that your kid isn’t interested in anymore, you can use it as the starting point for the set; if you don't, all you really need is a table, a hose, and some dirt, and you’re good to go. “If there aren't any food sensitivities and you don't mind a mess, it can be fun to mix in cornstarch to create a material that's halfway between mud and oobleck,” suggests Dr. Robinson. You can add in extra water, mix in pebbles or twigs to allow kids to come up with crazy concoctions, and then let your child guide you as to how they want to play with their mud kitchen.
What makes mud kitchens an ideal summertime activity is that they require a minimum of parental effort (yay!). Plus, your kid can wear shorts and a tee (or if you have a toddler, just a diaper), and you can clean them up before heading back into the house. But since mud can be slippery, Dr. Robinson advises kids to wear non-slip shoes for safety purposes. And set some basic safety rules: “It's important to teach some rules about the mud,” advises Dr. Robinson. “No hiding sharp things in the mud, and help younger children to understand not to eat any pretend food.”
So if you’re thinking of something fun for your child to do during the summertime, there’s no better time to create a mud kitchen than now, since International Mud Day is June 29. Your kiddo can become a top chef and make delicious mud pies, and other culinary concoctions in their outdoor mud kitchen. Just be sure to hose your kid off after creating his muddy masterpieces.
Dr. Robin Dickinson, MD, a board certified family physician
Matthew Breen, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist