fun and creative ways to keep little hands busy outside

These mud kitchen ideas are guaranteed to give your kids hours of outdoor fun. Exploring the great outdoors has to be one of life’s delights and, as a child, a garden is a great place to start. Whether your outside space is big or small, a backyard or large garden, rural or urban it can become a treasure trove of finds and help children to connect with nature and learn life-long skills. 

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It doesn’t require tons of expensive equipment or unsightly toys either, in fact the simpler the offering, the more imaginative the play becomes. A few basic containers for mixing, a hidden pathway through bushes and some good old, hands on fun with mud, leaves and soil can keep little ones occupied for hours on end and provide some great memory making moments as well. Discover our favourite ideas below, then head over to our garden ideas for kids for more ways to keep them entertained outdoors. 

1. Create a garden play station

Give the little people in your life a real sense of freedom with their own dedicated spot outside. Whether it’s a smart wooden kitchen under the trees, a small table and a group of log stools or a simple play bench, it will quickly become an alfresco play space where they can get busy, experiment and create. Choose a safe spot away from the house, but within earshot, and provide basics such as a bucket, spade, wooden spoon and plastic jug to get them started.

2. Grow sensory herbs

Appeal to your child’s senses by letting them create a herb garden. Varieties such as rosemary, chives, parsley, sage and mint are all pretty robust plants and are great for enticing children to get hands on. Tactile to touch and with varying leaf colours and shapes, they also release a range of contrasting scents when pinched or cut, stimulating a sense of smell and helping to develop fine motor skills.

3. Get the paints out

Make the most of being outside, don the overalls and get the paintbrushes out. The perfect chance to let little ones get creative with colour. Look for items they can upcycle and make their own. Surplus or reclaimed furniture, wooden fruit crates or tin cans can all be smartened up with a splodge or two of paint plus they can be useful after for storage, collecting or planting. Go for water-based paints – so much easier to clean up – you can always protect masterpieces with clear waterproof varnish afterwards. 

4. Make a water wall

Water play is great for learning and generally making a mess. If you don’t want to invest in a standalone water table, a simple water wall can keep little ones occupied for hours. Have fun constructing one from a small fence panel, shelving unit, trellis or picket fence – just make sure it stands up securely. Cut out the sides of several plastic bottles, remove the lids and attach to the support using a nail. Position so each bottle can pivot and the water flow down into the one below. Just be sure to collect the water in a bowl or bucket at the bottom, so it can be reused or use it to water some plants. Plastic funnels, toy water wheels, lengths of guttering also create fun effects and cost very little too. 

5. Just add water

An outdoor kitchen with hob, shelving, and cupboard space offers no end of play possibilities but add in some water and it all comes alive. Many outdoor kids’ kitchens come with a water reservoir and tap – but you can incorporate your own too. Go for a simple hand operated lever pump or try a double push action caravan sink hand pump and tap from Amazon. Set it up to suck up water from a barrel or large plastic water canister and pump in into a washing up bowl or metal bucket. Great fun and ideal for developing reasoning and team working skills too. 

6. Provide plenty of collecting tins

Essential for everything from collecting, mixing, mushing to music making, robust tins provide endless opportunities and will last for eons. Choose easy-clean and rust-proof containers in a range of different shapes and sizes.  Hang them on hooks along the side of workbench, table or even low-hanging branch or stack the similar shapes to store.  

Gallery: Rescue burnt pans and other brilliant kitchen cleaning hacks (Lovefood)

7. Concoct some potions

Ever make your mum some rose water perfume (aka petals and water) when you were little? Or maybe you were more a mud, grit and leaf chemist? Whatever the preference there’s something irresistible about a row of labelled and colourful bottles, complete with mysterious concoctions inside. Ok it could be as simple as a collection of clean lidded jam jars, but we find these unbreakable Potion bottles irresistible. 

8. Customise your own mud kitchen

Upcycle an old kitchen bench or table or have fun painting up a plain, ready-made outdoor hob. Make it a family project and get everyone involved adding ready-made log slice, hob rings; cupboard doors with latch style fixings or simple wooden knobs. Fix a section of trellis along the back to create an upstand and use metal ‘S’ hooks to hang utensils, plastic jugs and colanders. 

9. Splash out on the right clothing

It’s definitely true – ‘there’s no such thing as the wrong weather just the wrong clothing’ – and when it comes to enjoying messy time outdoors children need to be well equipped. Especially during the colder months. Robust wellies are essential, make them extra cosy with fleece liners. Keep them to hand, by the back door with a handy wellie rack and if they do get wet inside, stuff them with dry newspaper and place somewhere warm. The paper will soak up the moisture – just keep replacing it until the job’s done. Waterproof trousers or an all-in-one for very little ones – are perfect for keeping out wind and rain. Look for designs with a fleecy lining for extra warmth and those that machine washable too. Just avoid bio-detergents and fabric conditioner as these can affect the waterproof qualities. 

10. Get growing for spring

Keep little hands busy and involved by getting them planting bulbs. Depending on their age and the amount of adult supervision available, projects could include planting a painted terracotta pot with daffodils or narcissi bulbs, creating a bulb lasagne or even a growing a work of art. Entice the children to get involved by letting them choose from the wide range of spring bulbs available. Encourage them to paint a container, construct a simple wooden raised bed – knocking out the base of a wooden fruit crate and sinking it into the ground works well – or even designing a planting template from a flattened cardboard box. Then it’s simply a matter of watching and waiting for the magical moment when the first shoot appears. Just keep an eye to make sure no bulbs get nibbled and that gardening gloves are worn when handling hyacinths.

11. Play with tactile treasures

Encourage children to put their lovingly collected goodies to good use by creating tree folk faces. Mushing and moulding modelling clay or sticky mud into facial features is a fun way to fill your garden with friendly faces, it works just as well on tree stumps, rocks and brick walls too. Once the face is in place, create hair, crowns and beards with by pushing leaves, petals and flowers. Ok they may not last forever – unless you take a pic of course – but part of the charm is to see how they weather and change over time. You can also create new characters to suit the seasons. 

12. Get down to eye level

It’s easy to forget as adults, but the outside world takes on a whole new angle when viewed at a child’s height. Take yourself down to their level and seek out new pathways, spaces below shrubs and trees. Groups of tree stumps and logs can become magical places to explore, each with a charm of their own. A sheltered spot under an evergreen shrub or umbrella-shaped tree can make a secret, protected spot ideal for wet weather play. Add in a couple of log seats, a clutch of pea sticks or pile of fresh autumn leaves and watch the magic take hold.

13. Encourage barefoot exploring 

Remember the delight of shunning shoes and running around barefoot, well it’s more than just another chance to get messy, it actually helps to increase children’s spatial awareness and strengthens the muscles in the feet, ankles right up to their hips and lower back. Of course we do need to make sure that the area is free from sharp stones, thorns and other potential hazards, but by creating a small hillock, adding smooth boulders and lush, grassy areas we can capitalise on this delightful sensation and provide tons of fun too. 

14. Make treats for the birds

Concocting feasts for our feathered friends is a great way to encourage enthusiastic chefs, without the fear of culinary mishaps. Encourage children to think about how to attract garden birds, what different birds like to eat and creative ways of feeding them. To create fat balls, mix up grated vegetable fat or suet with sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, crushed peanuts and nigella seeds and mould them into spheres with your hands, or press the same seed-laden mix into pine cones before hanging them in the trees. Not sure where to start? Then try a handy kit that comes with all the ingredients that you’ll need. 

15. Add a row of stepping stones

Whether you use a line of real log slices, imitation concrete slabs or smooth, giant paddlestones, a garden path idea where children can hop or jump from place to place is definitely a fun and simple pleasure. Not just a walkway though – these spots can double up as chalkboards, canvases for natural collages, mini battlefields and dinosaur hunting grounds. Cover them with gravel or mini bark chippings and enjoy clearing them away with toy diggers and bulldozers or lay on a few textured leaves and grasses and make textured rubbings using paper and wax crayons.

More ideas for kids: 

  • How to make a bug hotel 
  • The best trampolines for kids of all ages 
  • Climbing frames for gardens big and small 

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