When my son was 4-years-old there was one thing he cherished more than anything in this world—getting messy! Seeing the joy on his face when he created “mud cakes” from the dirt, leaves and water in the backyard inspired me to build a messy kitchen outside. I made the outdoor kitchen by using recyclable materials from around the house. Old milk crates became kitchen cabinets. A large plastic bin served multiple purposes in my son’s kitchen. Sometimes it was a kitchen counter, other times a table, and many times a stove and oven. We had fun sorting through the recycle bin for looking for materials for the kitchen. We found empty milk jugs, spice containers and squeezy juice bottles. I collected unwanted kitchen utensils, plastic bowels and dishes from family and friends. Then we had even more fun filling up the containers with water, water with food coloring, bubbles, and several different types of leaves, pine cones, flowers, sticks and of course—dirt!
My little guy adored his messy kitchen. He spent hours outside creating pies, cakes and soups. It wasn’t always about food, sometimes the messy kitchen was used to make mud mountains for his cars to race down or leaf habitats for his animals to hide in. Sure my outdoor patio looked like a junk yard and my son was covered head to toe in dirt. But that mess scattered over the yard was evidence of my child’s amazing imagination and when I wiped away some of the dirt that covered him head to toe I always found a huge smile on his face.
Messy play is important play for so many reasons. It engages all of the senses. It builds language skills as children discuss and ask questions about what they are making and what materials they are using. Through this they learn new words such as smooth, sticky, cloudy and stretchy.
Math and science skills are involved in several ways—measuring, observing, making predictions, patterns, counting, sorting and problem solving. Fine motor skills are exercised. Social/emotional development is enhanced. There is no right way to make mud soup. Messy play materials are open-ended, allowing the child to build confidence in their choices.
If you aren’t a fan of messy play, I understand. As parents we have enough to clean up, so why would we willingly create more? Setting boundaries will help save your sanity while your child is elbow deep in dirt. If your child’s messy play is set up outside make sure he or she knows that they need to be cleaned off before coming in the house. If you can’t get outside, the bathtub is a great place to let your little ones’ imagination soar with shaving cream, washable paint, play dough, popsicles, etc. Another helpful hint is to set a time limit. I only let my children have messy kitchen for a month or two in the summer. When I’ve reached my breaking point, I put it away until next year.
If you are still having doubts, well you will just have to trust me on this and give it a try. After all, childhood doesn’t last long. I say, let them make mud cakes!