The Importance of Messy Play in Early Childood

The excitement hasn’t stopped on the Dotson Back 40 since we opened the Mud Kitchen (and even celebrated International Mud Day!) and encouraged kids of all ages to get messy. Parents can feel at ease when we let our kids explore and get mucky and grubby at the Museum instead of at home. Don’t worry, we supply mud shirts if desired, and the sinks for washing up are nearby. 

The Importance of Messy Play for Toddler Development

What’s a Mud Kitchen?

Playing in a mud kitchen is so much more than just playing with wet dirt. A mud kitchen is specifically designed and equipped to feel like a mini version of a real kitchen, allowing kids to engage in imaginative role-play with tools they know and recognize.  

A mud kitchen minimally includes a flat surface to act as a counter, a large container to act as a sink, and some real, play, or invented (sticks! rocks!) tools to act as utensils. Then just add dirt (a variety of textures are ideal for growing sensory skills, but just one is fine, too!) and water to start the fun! 

Mud Kitchen at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato

Why Play in the Mud

Mud, slime, paint, oobleck, Play-doh, food, sand (regular or kinetic), water, foam: if it’s messy and kids want to play in it, it’s beneficial for development. “Messy play” is a Head Start recognized educational activity which promotes foundational cognitive principles and integrated learning experiences

Messy play should be casual, open-ended, and based in exploration. The materials being used should be touched, squished, smashed, and smeared. The focus will be on the properties of the materials. Other motor skills at work can be pouring, sorting, scooping, pinching, and using tools. 

Nature ingredients in the Mud Kitchen at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato

Even though messy play should be casual, it should also be defined in space and time. Having a distinct and special place and time for the mess to occur enforces boundaries (and keeps your carpets and furniture clean!). A mud kitchen is the perfect place to engage kids in these benefits:

1. Learning from physical senses

As mentioned above, the best part of messy play is using our senses to learn new things about the world. Learning with their physical senses allows kids to understand cognitive principles more quickly. By engaging their bodies, they are making connections in their brains that show immediate benefit to both fine and gross motor skills, as well as long-term benefits. Early motor skills are related to later achievement in language and math! 

2. Improving problem-solving

Experimenting with textures, materials, and tools allows kids the freedom to make mistakes. They will measure and weigh and count as they simulate cooking and serving. A new tool might have kids exploring all the ways to use it. Even cleaning up has a positive effect on trial and error in problem-solving. 

3. Organizing

A new play area, from creative or messy or structured, is a fun opportunity for kids to make the space their own. Choosing their containers and tools and where and how to store them is an important life skill. Further, they use organizing skills while they are playing. Kids will sort their materials by size or texture, choose what order to try which tools or materials, and many other organizing activities.

4. Comparing

A well-equipped mud kitchen will have different sizes of tools and containers, different textures and colors of materials, and different ways to engage with the activity. Kids are naturally inclined to notice the differences and similarities of the things they are engaged with. Open-endedness remains a focus, but this is a good place for a nearby adult to ask questions. 

5. Exploring cause and effect

What happens when I squish this through my fingers? What if I add more water? Will this sand add a different texture? Does it feel different if I rub it on my face? For every action, there is a consequence; exploring those causes and effects is very exciting for young minds (old ones, too, if we’re being honest). 

6. Socializing

Pretend play uses creativity and imagination, skills that increase many times over when more friends come to play. When several kids participate together, they are learning to compromise, to share, to work in teams, and more. Kids’ ability to role-play and cooperate is fostered by the presence of exciting materials to interact with. 

7. Developing curiosity and persistence

The more kids explore, the more they achieve. The what-ifs and then-whats abound, especially with friends and mess. Stacking and building with containers of muck leads kids to wonder how tall their muck can go! And when will it fall? And what will happen when it falls? Curiosity and persistence are foundational skills which develop autonomy and provide safe ways for kids to fail. 

8. Honing spatial and visual awareness

Messy play keeps kids aware of what is happening around them. They are using the sensory processing parts of their brains in a way that further engages their bodies in the environment around them. 

9. And much more! 

Depending on how kids and families choose to engage in messy play, the benefits can be endless. You get to control how creative and extensive your messes get. The sky’s the limit! Or the ground, in this case. 

It also happens to be really fun! If you are not able to plan a visit to see us any time soon, then you might want to consider putting your own mud kitchen in your backyard this summer. 

Messy Play in the Mud Kitchen at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato

Tips for your at-home Mud Kitchen

Building a mud kitchen is easy! It doesn’t take up too much space and when put in a good location, can be a breeze to clean up. 

  • As mentioned above, the minimum elements your kitchen needs are a flat surface, a large container, a variety of tools, dirt, and water. 
  • Put your mud kitchen near a garden hose if possible, for easy access to the integral element and for easy clean-up. 
  • Rocks, colored chalk, and other mix-ins will enhance the sensory experience and encourage further discovery. 
  • Shelves and real pots, pans, bowls, utensils, etc. give the kids the opportunity to make their messy play as realistic as possible, sparking new creativity in what they do with their kitchens (make and serve “meals,” open a pretend restaurant, etc.). 
  • Consider an old cabinet or a simple box to serve as an oven. 
  • Be mindful of where your children are getting the mud, sand, rocks, etc. they are using. Make sure their samples are free from pet droppings. (All outdoor materials contain bacteria and bugs, however, so a reminder to wash up with soap when finished is critical.) 
  • Don’t censor your kids’ sensory exploration. Let them use their feet, their elbows, whatever they can safely experience! 
  • Invest in play clothes, aprons, maybe even boots for the kids to keep their everyday clothes tidy. 
  • Consider limiting the amount of water and dirt/mud/sand the kids have access to. This will keep the mess to the defined area, as well as keep the project sustainable and creative. 
  • Have surfaces, materials, and tools that can be used year-round! In Minnesota, the mud kitchen can be made into a snow kitchen when the season is right. 

Other Messy Play Opportunities at the Museum

Coughlan Quarry at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato

If the crowd is big when you visit the museum, consider all the other messy play opportunities we offer other than just the mud kitchen, and consider your own versions of these, too: the water play area, gardens, the Kato Engineering Explorer’s Lab Paint Wall, the sand pit in the Coughlan Quarry, art exploration in Cecil’s Imagineering Loft. What others can you think of? 

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