There is something every child with even the tiniest backyard needs, and you’ve probably never heard of it.
A few years ago one of the boys received a play kitchen from their grandparents for a birthday. With a rotating supply of tupperware, empty boxes, spice jars, egg cartons and other food empties, the kitchen always provides some amusement while I’m working in the real kitchen. The boys diligently mix imaginary soups, cook eggs, wash dishes and serve up some pretty interesting dishes. However they are not allowed to play with real food, water or anything else that would create a serious mess.
One day in the backyard they had again dug a giant hole in the turf to make mud patties and I decided they needed a mud kitchen. Well, I didn’t know it was a mud kitchen per se until I searched the internet and found out that’s what it could be called: a station for beating mud eggs, mixing grass soups, flipping wood chip pancakes and baking sand-leaf muffins.
Once I had designed a general plan it was a matter of finding the time to build it. We had a large pallet and some scrap wood that we set aside for the frame, and we dismantled a box that had been used to ship paintings for the top. I scavenged garage sales for spoons, spatulas, an egg beater, a cheese grater, measuring cups and spoons, sieves and brushes. After a trip to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore we were in possession of a sink, and a coworker donated a faucet. Then one weekend we assembled the frame; the pallet provided the back, and we added a few 2x4s to form a rough table-base, screwing scrap wood around the base to stabilize it. The plywood tabletop was affixed last, after cutting a hole for the sink.
The mud kitchen saw some use in the next months, although we were awaiting the grand finale to its construction – a tile counter. Partially for aesthetics, partially to protect the surface from the elements, I wanted a durable and safe work surface. When master-mosaic-layer vecmamma Inga came to visit in August, we put her to work. She strategized with the boys, using chalk to draw the basic designs and then following with tiles and cement. After covering the entire surface she grouted the result, polishing the tiles to get the desired look. Which was wow! and the realization that if we ever move we’ll have to pack the mud kitchen. Not only have the boys’ Latvian folk symbols been incorporated into the surface, but their drawings of people, cars, mountains and circles decorate the table; it’s a work of art!
Roberts paved a small area with bricks and placed the kitchen on top, to help keep it level and to keep the area around the boys’ feet from becoming… well, muddy. With hooks for the various kitchen implements and a milk crate or two to store all their containers, it’s easy to clean up. Every once in a while we pull the hose over to rinse it off, but the boys don’t mind the leaves and pine needles that fall on top; if anything, they get incorporated into that day’s cuisine.
Some friends have suggested adding fittings to the faucet so that we could run the hose directly to the sink, and a downspout under the sink for drainage, but we tend to try and conserve water and I think the boys have enough fun as is. We’ll pour a couple of pitchers for them to incorporate into their sauces and soups, and that will usually last a while. An improvement I do hope to make is to return to ReStore and buy a used cabinet. The shelves would make for better storage, and I would fashion the surface into a “stove” of sorts, complete with burners and knobs. Or maybe two cabinets, so they have an oven as well…
As with any toy the boys will occasionally lose interest, but they always return and spend a surprisingly large amount of time playing in and around their mud kitchen. I don’t mind when the kitchen tools wander over to the sandbox or picnic table, and we often find jugs of mysterious concoctions stored in the playhouse or on the porch. Today Lauris had mixed up mud paint and was busy painting his playhouse with the pastry brush, while Mikus sorted his little treasures into a muffin tin. The kitchen is always a big hit when they have friends over, and when playtime is finished we send them to the pool or rinse them off with the hose. It’s a win/win situation; the boys can get creative with little or no boundaries, and I get to keep the mess out of the house!
This is a project that can be built to suit almost any budget and skill level. Our most expensive additions were the sink ($10 used from ReStore) and the mosaic top, but both of these could be omitted. Most people can find some extra implements in the kitchen they aren’t using and keep a few plastic containers out of the recycle bin to stock the shelves. For a more custom fit you could spend a little more and not used scavenged lumber, but the beauty in this project is that you don’t have to be an architect or in design – instead of building the frame from scratch you could always use an old coffee table or cabinet (check out all the different kitchens people have come up with!). The kids will love it just as much!
Now that the days are cooling down we won’t be hosing off too often after our play in the mud, but we’ll still be spending as much time as possible outside before the cold really kicks in. You’ll find us collecting colorful leaves to use in our next salad, harvesting pine cones for tea and picking weeds to put in our casseroles... Maybe you’ll join us?