Mud Helps Kids Learn: Here’s How to Do it in a Tiny DC Backyard


a mud kitchen offers so many opportunities for creative play

Let’s get dirty, really dirty! It turns out, mud-play is great for kids! In 2007, researchers at the University of Bristol found evidence in favor of mud. The bacteria in dirt, they discovered, is good for both your immune system and your mental health. Yes, dirt has actual anti-depressant qualities! That satisfying, squishy handful of mud is also a great sensory experience for developing brains. Add in a few tools, like spoons and bowls, and you’re hitting on all kinds of fine and gross motor as well as problem-solving skills with mud-play.

OK, so your kids should play in the dirt. Now there are two barriers left: A) getting over the dirt and B) finding the space.

Let it go and let the mud in

Let’s be honest, living in a city, the dirt can be hard to deal with. In the era of Instagram and overworked parents, it’s hard to handle muddy footprints on your floor, or worse, hand prints on your walls! As parents, sometimes we have to take Elsa’s advice and “let it go.” For me, it helps if I can choose when to do that. For example, we reserve mud-play for after school or on a Saturday when I know I have the time to give the kids a bath. Since I know when to expect it, I don’t feel I need to restrain their play.

Find space for mud-play

Now, about that space. If you live in DC, every square inch has a price – even single-family homes in DC have some of the smallest yards in the country with an average size of .06 acres. So, how do you get all that dirty play without wilderness? Here are a few ideas:

mud-play in a mud kitchen offers kids fine-motor skills

For the Tiny Yard

If you live in a house and have any yard at all, no matter how small, you probably have space for a mud kitchen. This is the route we took with our small DC backyard. The whole thing only takes up a few square feet. Right next to the “kitchen” we dug a hole and dumped in a bag of play sand. Finally, we bought some metal kitchen tools at the thrift store for the kids to “cook” with. Such a simple space has led to hours of play.

If you don’t know where to get started, Mandy Sheffer, a Hyattsville mom of two, helps families set up play spaces like this. According to Mandy, you don’t need much, just a patch of dirt and some kind of workspace. This could be a stump or an old kids table (we made ours with an old palette and a piece of plywood) and some utensils – a shovel or spoon, a bowl or muffin tin.  You can set out a bucket of water, and your kids will figure out exactly what to do. A successful mud kitchen may mean giving up a small section of your (already tiny) yard to dirt – and that’s OK.

For Apartments With Outdoor Space

If you live in an apartment building that has any open space, you could propose putting a mud kitchen play area to your building association. Pairing a mud kitchen with a sandbox expands the creative ways kids can explore different textures. If you can find a space close to a rain barrel, spigot, or hose you’ll foster that muddy exploration!

No Outdoor Space, No Problem

If your residence doesn’t have any yard space, you can plan visits to nearby parks to intentionally let your kids get muddy. Check out this great list of places where you can get outside with your kids around Washington DC. Rock Creek Park has a lot of areas where kids can get dirty and even stomp through streams (be cautious though, as streams and the creek may not be safe for kids due to sewage runoff). The Audubon Nature Society in Maryland hosts a family-friendly “Weekend Walk In The Woods” the first Saturday of each month. Get more ideas for exploring nature with your kids and preparing to get dirty on a hike.

Have you built a mud kitchen in your backyard? Have you worked with your building association the build an outdoor play area? Or do you have a favorite place to let your kids get dirty? Share your experiences and ideas with us in the comments!

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Katherine lived on four different continents before settling in Washington, D.C., to raise her family. She works at a global think tank during the day and raises twin boys the rest of the time. When she isn't working on a spreadsheet for work, she loves walking in the forest with her family, which invariably involves stomping in puddles and climbing on logs. Though she is less of a world traveler these days, she continues to seek out adventures, from exploring D.C.'s museums and playgrounds to taking road trips to national parks. When it's time to unwind, she can be found snuggling with her husband on the couch. Likes: adventures, sleeping past 7 a.m., being surrounded by forests, the sound of her boys laughing, and locally made ice cream. Dislikes: whining, the patriarchy, and people who judge parents.