As a child, there was nothing I loved more than mud pie play.
I would spend days covered head to toe in mud, mixing and squishing and decorating.
As a parent, I encourage my children to do the same as often as they can. There is something wonderful about the freedom that mud pie making gives you to create and experiment.
You can’t go wrong with a mud pie; there’s no such thing as adding too much of an ingredient, not setting the oven to the right temperature or hours of hard work ending in a soggy bottom (well ok I can’t make promises on that one).
What follows are my top tips for taking mud pie play to the next level.
It will be messy, it will get everywhere, but it will be a wonderful outdoor activity so embrace the glorious mud and have fun together!
1 – You don’t need a mud kitchen
Mud kitchens are great, but they’re also expensive and not everyone has the space to dedicate a permanent corner to one. The key is to create an invitation to play, to make your child feel free to get involved and to use their imagination. Even the most elaborate mud kitchen won’t get a child to play if they don’t feel free to enjoy it in a messy carefree way.
It’s just as easy to create this by bringing a selection of child-safe bowls and cutlery, a toy tea set, or even some plastic pots from the recycling into the garden and encouraging them to get mixing.
Don’t want to use the cutlery outside? No problem – sticks work just as well to mix and you can have fun testing out the difference it makes using small sticks and big sticks.
And the best thing about mud as an ingredient? It’s non-toxic, easy to clean, doesn’t stain plastic and everything can be chucked in the dishwasher and come out sparkling clean and ready for dinner.
2 – Know your flowers
Mud isn’t toxic, but some common garden flowers can be so a quick scout around the garden first to check what should be avoided is always sensible.
It’s unlikely that you would consume enough of any mud creation to cause poisoning, though plants such as Foxgloves and Crocuses can cause serious illness if you do.
The important ones to look out for are those that cause skin and eye irritation. Euphorbia has milky white sap which is particularly potent, but even daffodils, tulips and hyacinth can be risky, especially if they’re crushed up and allowed to steep in water.
To be avoided at all costs is Giant Hogweed which, when rubbed on the skin that is exposed to sunlight, will cause serious burns.
More commonly found in hedgerows than gardens, it’s giant size can make it appealing so always keep an eye out.
Berries and fungi can also be risky and it’s best to explain that you should never pick or eat berries without an adult. We always try to keep any edible plants to a clearly marked area of the garden to distinguish them.
3 – Ice, ice, baby!
Adding ice to mud pie play is an easy way to change things up and great for hot summer days. Flowers frozen into ice cubes look beautiful and add an unusual twist to mud play. They work just as well in flower petal cocktails made in the mud kitchen as they do in the real kitchen, and children love a cocktail shaker! They can also be added them to a big saucepan of “soup” using a ladle to swirl them around, crushed in a pestle and mortar, or simply whacked with sticks and hammers.
In winter you can fill containers with water and foraged leaves and petal to make ice shapes and pictures. To do this simply fill random plastic pots from your recycling with water and leave outside when a hard frost is forecast. In the morning you can break your shapes free and have fun melting, crushing and chipping away at them.
Freezing small toys in the ice gives the added element of needing to ‘save’ the toy.
You don’t always need ice to be perfectly clear for it to have great play value, but if you do want it to be perfect, use water that has been boiled and left to cool. Food dye and non-toxic water-based paints can also be added to the water before it cools or used to paint on the ice afterwards.
4 – Add a little science
Plenty of scientific principles can be demonstrated whilst mud pie making but mixing in a few safe household ingredients can make it even more fun.
Our favourite chemical reaction is Sodium Bicarbonate and acid. Bicarbonate of Soda can be found in baking aisles and you can use any type of vinegar or lemon/lime juice for the acid. The result of mixing the two is an explosion of frothy bubbles as the acid reacts with the sodium bicarbonate to form Carbonic Acid which then breaks down into Carbon Dioxide and Water.
The possibilities for fun with this are endless. Do the experiment in a container with a narrow top like a bottle and you’ll have an instant volcano effect, with bubbles pouring out like lava. Red food colouring mixed into the vinegar will give an even more realistic ‘lava’.
Scatter the bicarbonate of soda on a flat surface and you can drip acid on it to write messages or make shapes.
Mix the bicarbonate of soda with cornflour and a little water and you can ‘fossilise’ plastic dinosaurs or bones by leaving the mixture to set in small containers. The dinosaurs can then be excavated by dripping or squirting acid creating a bubbly reveal!
It is worth noting that if you love this reaction as much as we do it can be more cost-effective to buy bicarbonate of soda online in larger quantities than in the supermarket.
I mentioned using cornflour but this common ingredient can also be used to demonstrate the principle of Non-Newtonian Fluids.
A Non-Newtonian Fluid is a liquid that doesn’t follow Newton’s Law of Viscosity, meaning its viscosity changes dependent on stress. Put simply this means that when you first mix the water with the cornflower you will get a liquid, but the more you do to it the harder it gets.
Stir it and the mixture will quickly become thicker and harder to stir, poke it gently and your finger will go straight through, hit it with a hammer and the surface will magically harden instantly!
The great thing is, if you leave it for a minute the mixture will return to its runny liquid state. Children (and adults) can then spend hours trying to figure out this strange concoction.
Add in plastic animals to make a quicksand small world, try putting it in a sieve or strainer, spread it thin or make a big bowl of it and see how it reacts, dip your hand in it and watch as you make a fist and it hardens and relax your hand to watch the liquid relax too.
Both of these create non-toxic products that can easily be washed away with water and won’t damage the garden. In small quantities, they won’t cause harm if they end up in mouths but they will taste really disgusting.
5 – Make a mud supermarket
This is a great way to make sure that children don’t end up with anything unsuitable in their mud pie play. It also adds another level to the game, and plenty more opportunities for learning.
Set up a little area with the pots and pans, different sorts of mud (you’ll be surprised at how the shades and textures can vary from different areas of the garden and you can add water and sand to make more variations), flowers and leaves, ice cubes, bottles of water mixed with food colouring, and any other bits you think might appeal like small painted stones.
It doesn’t need to be more than the things laid out on the lawn, then just add some prices and start selling!
By creating a shop rather than having everything available straight away children need to use decision making, planning and maths skills, as well as learning compromise and developing creativity as items ‘sell-out’.
Prices and purchasing methods can be matched to your child’s ages and abilities. For younger children items can be priced from 1-10 stones (or counters, petals, sticks – whatever you have to hand in the garden), whereas older children will enjoy using real coins and increasingly complex amounts, taking turns to be the shopkeeper and find change for their customers.