"It's a beautiful pie party today!" a bundled-up three-year-old declared one sunny January morning on the Beginning School playground.
Beginning schoolers have been throwing plenty of beautiful pie parties lately thanks to their playground's latest addition: a mud kitchen. They may fill their "pies" with pine cones and sand instead of pecans and sugar, but it is indeed beautiful to see how the kitchen stirs the students to use their imaginations, collaborate, and dig into nature.
Professional development introduced Beginning School Lead Enrichment Teacher Alesa Davis to mud kitchens—she first heard of the concept through conferences held by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
"We most often see more engaged and interactive play in the outside space when children are using their own imaginations," Ms. Davis said. "We, as teachers, are always thinking of ways to enhance and encourage that kind of play." For Ms. Davis, a mud kitchen sounded like a great way to achieve that ever-present goal.
So after years of marinating on the idea, last summer, the 11-year Rowland Hall veteran decided to finally make it a reality. Initially deterred by a limited and pricey selection of prefabricated options, she and her husband, John, opted to take it on as a DIY project.
Ms. Davis bought a reasonably priced potting bench online and began scouring hardware and secondhand stores for the necessary tools and accoutrements. Thanks to the treasure trove that is Deseret Industries (affectionately known to thrifty Utahns as "the DI"), she found a faucet for $3 and a brand-name toy wooden stovetop for $1. Together, the Davises trimmed the potting bench down to toddler height, and relocated the burners and knobs from the thrifted stovetop to the new bench. Then, they slathered on several coats of wood preserver, and appended the final touch—hooks under the shelving for pots and pans. "Another trip to the DI, and we had enough pots and pans, dishes and plates, and spoons to start up any imaginary restaurant," Ms. Davis said. To round out the nature motif, teachers added log stools, and an outdoor wooden bench purchased for the playground last school year.
Beginning School Principal Carol Blackwell applauded Ms. Davis's dedication. "She is a very resourceful teacher, and she constructed the mud kitchen for the benefit of all," Ms. Blackwell said. "Rather than put the mud kitchen on a wish list for someone else to implement, she took the initiative."
Since playground space is at a premium, it took some brainstorming to determine where the mud kitchen would live. Faculty and staff eventually settled on a corner dirt patch previously occupied by a tree. "It turned out to be the ideal place," Ms. Davis said. "Boxed in by two brick walls, it became a cozy little kitchen nook."
Others agree. 2PreK and 3PreK Lead Teacher Gail Rose and Assistant Teacher Mary Swaminathan said the kitchen transformed an underutilized area into a hub. "Deliveries of fresh food and visits from customers are regular activities," Ms. Rose said, explaining it's a destination for students riding scooters and toting wheelbarrows. Accordingly, the kitchen helps students build physical and social skills: "The stumps and crates are used for both sitting and heavy muscle work as the children prove their strength and make room for friends at the table."
Ms. Davis said she couldn't have predicted all the creative-play premises students have cooked up. "From a pie shop and an ice cream parlor to a poisonous-potion kitchen, they've giggled with delight over their own ideas blooming to life," she said.
Plus, a mud kitchen isn't a bad fit for a school community and metro area rife with outdoor enthusiasts. Encouraging youngsters to play outside and dig in the dirt, author Linda Åkeson McGurk posits in a new buzzed-about parenting book, ignites an appreciation for nature that can ultimately bolster one's health, resilience, and confidence.
Indeed, students now scamper around our playground with their pots and pans, collecting various earthly treasures: leaves, grass, sand, bark, water from our rain gutters, and snow from the ground. Then, they work together to concoct recipes and stage scenes inspired by food establishments. "We've been thrilled to watch their interactions, especially across age levels," Ms. Davis said. "Children that don't typically socialize as much have found their voices in the mud kitchen."
As the seasons change, so do the students' pie ingredients, and teachers rotate kitchen tools as needed over the course of a year. But in general, the kitchen runs itself.
"When children are so engaged that they don't need us or even notice us on the playground, we know we've been successful," Ms. Davis said. "That was the goal, and it was accomplished. Here's to many more hours of childhood happiness."